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The interrelationships between the larger carnivores

8 July 2014


Carnivores have been living in Africa for many millions of years but the living carnivores only for 5 million years. Except the lion, African wild dog, spotted hyaena and brown hyaena none of the carnivores in South Africa is sociable and they cannot attain high densities. While the lion is often seen as the king of the carnivores in Africa, it is not always dominant in the carnivore hierarchy.

www.leopard.tvLions are generally little influenced by other carnivores. Large prides will readily rob African wild dogs, leopards, cheetahs and spotted hyaenas of their prey. However, prides that do not contain a large male are robbed of carcasses by a large pack of spotted hyaenas when they outnumber the lions by 4:1 or more. Even when outnumbering the lions by 2:1, spotted hyaenas can mob and displace a small pride of lions at a carcass in the absence of a large pride male. Therefore prides without a large male form large aggregations.

Because leopards are solitary in habits their densities are never high enough in a natural system to have a significant impact on their prey or other carnivores, although they will rob cheetahs and caracals of their kills. However the other carnivores impact on leopards. Leopards avoid physical conflicts with other leopards by separating themselves in space and time and do not compete with lions because of prey preference and different activity cycles. Lions and spotted hyaenas will rob leopards of their prey but the ability of a leopard to cache prey in a tree prevents its loss although lions climb trees well. Nevertheless, lions will chase leopards whenever they see them and when a lion pride succeeds in cornering a leopard, it will kill but not eat it.

The spotted hyaenas in the Kruger National Park rob leopards of 52 per cent of their larger kills. In the Serengeti, spotted hyaena harassment is one of the reasons why leopards tend to kill smaller prey that are quick to eat. In the Tsumkwe district of Namibia, 12 per cent of all the leopard kills are visited by other larger carnivores, but the leopards only lose 2 per cent of their kills to them. A single or even a pair of spotted hyaenas is generally chased away by a leopard, but more than two spotted hyaenas will usually cause a leopard to abandon its kill if it does not succeed in taking it into a tree in time.

Brown hyaenas often follow hunting leopards in the hope of scavenging some of the prey remains. Leopards and black-backed jackals take particular interest in each other with black-backed jackals following and barking at a leopard in a specific way to warn other jackals of its presence. At times the leopard will turn around and kill the jackal. Leopards also hunt and kill other smaller carnivores such as aardwolves, bat-eared and Cape foxes. A troop of baboons that encounters a leopard will usually mob it immediately and cause it to flee unless it becomes trapped when the large, adult male baboons will kill it. Even a warthog can attack and kill a leopard with its formidable tusks, while injuries to the mouth from porcupine quills will eventually cause a leopard to starve to death.

The cheetah is a mild-mannered large cat that is not overly aggressive. Consequently it loses kills to other carnivores such as lions, leopards and spotted hyaenas, even when these carnivores are alone. Even vultures are able to drive a cheetah effectively off its prey. Most of the other larger carnivores will attack and kill cheetah cubs when they come across them. That is why cheetahs feed rapidly and hunt by day when most of the other larger carnivores are inactive which limits competition for food to some degree. Aggression between two cheetahs is rare but it may occur and cause the death of one of the combatants.

www.leopard.tvThe caracal does not scavenge, except to return to its own fresh kill at times. It is shy, flees readily and consequently does not compete for the prey of other carnivores but may provide scavenging brown hyanes with carcases. The black-backed jackal is believed to control caracal numbers by killing their kittens, while the caracal is a major factor in controlling hyrax (dassie) numbers.

The African wild dog mainly kills smaller ungulates and has a considerable interaction with other large carnivores. Lions rob African wild dogs of much of their kills and these dogs do not frequent areas with a high lion density. Spotted hyaenas are a major threat to wild dogs and rob them of a considerable number of kills, especially when the pack of dogs is small. Consequently, wild dogs also avoid areas with a high density of spotted hyaenas.

www.leopard.tvHowever, in some cases, large wild dog packs attack and chase spotted hyaenas away. When prey becomes scarce, spotted hyaenas threaten the survival of wild dogs severely. However, the lion is often the wild dog’s most severe competitor, robbing packs of food and killing many pups and some adult dogs. In the Kruger National Park, lions are the cause of 39 per cent of all wild dog deaths. Leopards are also known to attack and kill wild dogs. In turn, wild dogs rob fresh kills from leopards, cheetahs, and black-backed jackals. Vultures, tawny eagles and black-backed jackals are often present at wild dog kills but they do not displace the dogs from a kill and may feed alongside them.

The interaction of spotted hyaenas with other large carnivores varies from region to region and according to group sizes. The hyaenas in the Serengeti occasionally kill lions, leopards, cheetahs and caracals, but they compete mainly with the wild dogs by driving small packs away from a kill. In the Kruger National Park, spotted hyaenas mainly compete with the lions, leopards and black-backed jackals but they also force wild dogs to occupy areas that are less prey-abundant. In most regions where they are present with lions, the hyaenas are forced to scavenge more often than to hunt and they start competing with brown hyaenas for food. There is little competition for food between cheetahs and spotted hyaenas because they hunt at different times. Yet, the acute hearing of spotted hyaenas will cause them to react to any cheetah kill that happens within 5 km of them. Black-backed jackals may scavenge from the carcasses of the lambs of some of the smaller antelopes that are killed by spotted hyaenas.

www.leopard.tvBrown hyaenas are dominated by the other larger carnivores and lions will kill but not eat them on occasion. As they are mainly scavengers, brown hyaenas do not really compete with other larger carnivores for food but rely on their kills to get access to food. A brown hyaena usually waits until these carnivores have left the carcass before approaching it, although in the central Kalahari a brown hyaena may occasionally take over the kill of a leopard. It easily appropriates the kill of a single cheetah or a caracal but may then be displaced by wild dogs, spotted hyaenas or lions. There is considerable competition for food between the brown hyaena and the black-backed jackal and the brown hyaena easily takes over the kill of a jackal. It also follows a foraging jackal and will move to the jackal when it senses that it has found something to eat.

While most of the other larger carnivores will attack and kill a brown hyaena, the wild dogs do not do so mostly because there is little contact between them based on the times of activity. However, when a leopard and a brown hyaena meet when moving about they usually ignore each other. Of all the larger carnivores in southern Africa, the brown hyaena largely ranks lowest in the competitive hierarchy.

The larger carnivores consequently form an interrelated food web in any ecosystem. When some of the links are removed by any means it can cause negative, cascading effects throughout the ecosystem which will affect its productivity.


Bothma, J du P & C Walker 1999. Larger carnivores of the African savannas. Pretoria: J. L. Van Schaik.


Article by Prof J du P Bothma


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