North and Northeast Africa, the Middle East, and Asia


Arid steppes, dry rocky brush, and acacia scrubland

No dogs here!

Hyenas are not members of the dog or cat families. Instead, they are so unique that they have a family all their own, Hyaenidae. There are four members of the Hyaenidae family: the striped hyena, the “giggly” spotted hyena, the brown hyena, and the aardwolf (it’s a hyena, not a wolf). These magnificent animals are sometimes called the scourge of the Serengeti, but they play an important role: cleanup crew!

Very distinguished features

Striped hyenas are a bit smaller than spotted and brown hyenas and are the least studied. They have a broad head with dark eyes, a thick muzzle, and large, pointed ears. Their muzzle, ears, and throat are entirely black, but their coat may be golden yellow, brown, or gray with black stripes on the body and legs. A mane of long hair grows along the back. The stealthy hyena camouflages well in tall, dry grass. The most striking feature on the hyena is the legs: the front legs are much longer than the hind legs. This gives hyenas their distinctive walk, making them seem like they're always limping uphill. Yet hyenas are agile and can run, trot, and walk with ease.

Striped hyenas were once found from Great Britain to China.
She’s the boss! Adult females are aggressive toward one another and dominant over males.
Hyenas have been on Earth for 24 million years.
An adult hyena's bite pressure can reach 800 pounds per square inch (50 kilograms per square centimeter), helping it easily crush bones.
The mongoose and the meerkat are the hyena's closest relatives.
In the Middle East, tombstones may have been used originally to keep striped hyenas from digging up graves and feeding on the remains.
A hyena’s heart is twice as large as that of similar-sized mammals.
Hyenas are the only predators with jaws strong enough to rip through elephant hide and crush and digest elephant bone.

In 1923, a striped hyena from the San Diego Zoo was highlighted in a movie about the effects of opium addiction, Human Wreckage —the image of the hyena represented a “wasted spirit.” Although we don’t consider any animal to be “miserable looking,” the movie’s producer paid our fledgling zoo $200 badly needed dollars!

Today, the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park are home to Sudanese striped hyenas. The three brothers and littermates, Puru, Tuli, and Tamu, are trained as animal ambassadors, meeting Zoo and Park guests up close during animal presentations and special tours and programs. Tamu can often be seen in the Zoo’s Camp Critters show!

When fortunate enough to see them, the striped hyenas are an amazing sight to behold, and our ambassadors have a profoundly positive effect on our guests. Although preconceived ideas have guests thinking that hyenas are ugly and vicious. once they see Puru and Tuli at the Safari Park, or Tamu at the Zoo, they change their mind immediately. A trainer heard a child leave one of the Park’s hyena animal encounters saying, "I don't think I will have bad dreams about hyenas anymore."

The striped hyena is not considered very aggressive and usually avoids contact with other animals. Misunderstood and viewed as dangerous or destructive, it is poisoned, trapped, or shot for supposedly preying on livestock or raiding farms. As populations of other large carnivores decline, so does the food they leave behind that striped hyenas scavenge. Some people even mistakenly believe the hyena's body parts can be used as medicine for humans. Once numerous, the striped hyena population is dwindling and has disappeared from some areas altogether. The Barbary hyena Hyaena hyaena barbara, which lives in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, is endangered.

Yet we have much to learn from hyenas. For example, they seem to be immune to certain diseases, such as rabies and anthrax. By studying their immune system, we might find cures for humans.

You can help us bring species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.