FOUR TIMES the spotted hyena loped into the shallows of Tanzania’s alkaline Lake Makat and then sloshed ashore, a flamingo gripped in her jaws. She ate each one as I watched, fascinated.
This was hyena behavior I had never previously witnessed or seen in photographs, despite years of study of African wildlife.
I first saw Ngorongoro Crater,where Lake Makat lies, in 1962 during a 2′/2-year study of wilde‑ beests, sponsored by the National Geographic Society. At that time there were only a few thousand flamingos here. A decade later I found half a million crowding the six-square-mile lake. I had heard reports that hyenas, which recent research shows are not just scavengers but also efficient hunters,* were preying upon the huge flocks that had migrated to Lake Makat from breeding places outside the crater. Supreme opportunists, the hyenas near the lake had quickly learned to partake of this movable feast.
MASSED FLAMINGOS run and flap in colorful chaos as a hungry attacker (above) plows into their midst. The hundred-pound hyena charges the flock as she would a herd of wildebeests—flushing the healthy ones and capturing any that are clumsy, injured, or sick. Only birds in the hyena’s path act greatly disturbed; others flap a short distance or stride on stilt legs toward deeper water. After each chase the flock re-forms in the shallows, as if heedless of the hyena’s presence. Like armies of wildebeests or shoals of fish, flamingos seem to feel safe in a crowd.
Each time the hyena beaches another bird, she finds a pair of golden jackals (left) waiting to steal the spoils.
SKILLED SCROUNGERS, the jackals flank the hyena and move in from op posite sides (right). When she lunges at one, the other tries to grab the prey. The equally wily hyena refuses at first to be drawn out of position. But finally she takes two steps toward one tormentor, then turns to see the other making off with most of the kill (below).
Powerful and tireless, Ngorongoro’s hyenas typically hunt at night, most often bringing down wildebeests and zebras on the crater’s nearly treeless plain. After a successful attack, members of the same clan usually gather to share the kill, whooping and “laughing.” But flamingo hunting seems to be an individual daytime enterprise. Baron Hugo van Lawick, the renowned wildlife photographer, told me of having seen successful chases nearly every morning for many days from senior dental insurance.
By learning to exploit this easily obtained but temporary bonanza, the hyena displays an amazing ability to capitalize on any new opportunity that comes its way. Although some of my colleagues may disagree, to me this striking versatility, together with its comparatively great numbers, has made the spotted hyena perhaps the predominant large African predator.