The widely misunderstood striped hyena of Turkey

The striped hyena is one of the four living hyena species in the world and is the most widely distributed of all of them. Its range covers much of Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus extending into Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. In Turkey, the species reaches its north-westernmost distribution, and as we are fascinated by this elusive and often misunderstood species, we were determined to learn more about it. 

We spent four days with İsmet Ceyhun Yildirim, hyena expert and coordinator of the Anatolian hyena project. For the first time on our journey, he joined us by bike, and we had a clear goal: venturing into various known hyena habitats with the aim to find them. A task big enough to take weeks, months or even years for wildlife photographers or hyena enthusiasts. But, we were accompanied by possibly Turkey’s best expert on striped hyenas. And although spotting wildlife is not like a menu item in a restaurant, where you can order yourself a striped hyena up close, Ismet was pretty confident that we will reach our goal.

Striped hyena presence in Turkey

On our first day on the bikes together, we visit an open oak woodland. Hyena inhabit safe places on rocky slopes which are hard to reach for humans. As we climb higher up to search for hyena tracks, we discuss the history of the hyena in Turkey. Once upon a time, striped hyenas were distributed in the South Marmara, Aegean, Mediterranean and Southeastern Anatolia regions. However, their numbers dramatically declined, and until a few decades ago, the species was thought to have gone extinct in Turkey. Today, the number of individuals in Turkey is limited. In fact, there is so little known about its exact past and present occurrence that the current estimation of about 200 individuals is based only on localised reports and studies. 

The striped hyena is an elusive animal that is hard to spot. It is a solitary species and despite its size, there are few records of hyenas in travelers´notes throughout the 19th and 20th century. Local people are naturally more familiar with the occurrence of hyenas, and the species has many names in different languages, such as yalli or yalli wolf (yal means mane in Old Turkish), aftor (Kurdish) and daba (Arabic). Nevertheless, most locals are not able to identify them, and they often think they are  “unique stray dogs” or “wild dogs”. 

The species prefers arid or semi-arid landscapes, large, open, karstic limestone areas with many caves, and is presumably extirpated from many parts of Turkey due to poaching and habitat loss. Ismet tells us that similarly to the cave we are approaching today, the last intact habitats of the striped hyenas occur in human-dominated landscapes where livestock grazing is still practised, as they adapted to collecting livestock carcasses. However, their diet is more diverse than that: watermelon, grapes, capers, dates and sea buckthorn are also some of their favourite foods. Being a scavenger, locals also tend to see them around waste deposits. Overlooking a village, we make our way up to our first hyena lair, which is a cave formerly and hopefully currently inhabited by hyenas. Unfortunately, we don’t find signs that the cave has been occupied recently – porcupine spikes are the only signs of inhabitants we spot. So, our journey continues. 

This is how a common striped hyena habitat looks like. Although currently not in use, even abandoned caves can be inhabited again by new individuals, therefore the protection of these caves is a very important step for the local hyena population. 

Poached and losing habitat

We spend the evening and night in a small village with Musa Karahan and his family. Ismet met Musa during his research interviewing locals about the hyena. The people in Musa´s village keep livestock and farm – mostly pistachios. Their families have been living there for three generations, and Musa knows every wild animal around. In the morning, he takes us to another hyena lair. This time, the signs speak for themselves – the cave is clearly active. We see many remnants of old bones and bovine skin, and there is an odour of dead goats coming out of the cave. We can even identify the sunbathing spots of the hyena(s) occupying this cave. However, although being on the right track, we again do not see a hyena. 

Musa is passionate about wildlife. He tells us about a deep well that was dug by the local municipality to create a water source for grazing livestock and wildlife, and explains that this is beneficial for hyenas as well. Nevertheless, Musa´s attitude was not always shared by local communities. Ismet explains that the species holds an important place in Anatolian folklore and legends. Due to their habit of scavenging, striped hyenas often got associated with the dead. They were mentioned as looters of graves and kidnappers of children, and many believed that they were the “horses of witches”. The striped hyena has connections to traditional medicine as well. As they were believed to hold magical powers, their body parts were sometimes sought for healing and for boosting potency, and their skin and brains are still worth a lot of money on the black market.

Meanwhile, ever emerging development plans are shrinking its habitat, road kills are increasingly common, and the lack of protected habitats are pushing the species to the brink of extinction.

Picture 1: Instead of a hyena, we come across a Vipera lebetina, Turkey´s most venomous snake. Picture 2: With members of the Karahan family, our generous hosts for the night.

The Anatolian hyena project

Ismet has been studying striped hyenas for over a decade. In October 2019, together with his colleagues, he launched the Anatolian hyena project funded by The Rufford Foundation. The aim of the project was to establish the basis of a long-term monitoring programme and with the involvement of local people, create an effective conservation plan. During this project, Ismet identified several priority habitats through interviews with more than 300 locals such as Musa, signs, camera trap surveys, cave explorations and sightings. 

These two striped hyena cubs around their rocky lair were recorded for the very first time in the country by Ismet in 2019.

He believes that the only way to protect this vulnerable species is through the involvement of locals. The main purpose of the project therefore was to engage local people and train them in hyena tracking, while also bringing together a wider network of conservation organisations and public authorities to protect the core habitats of the striped hyena. 

The project achieved a big success with its citizen science approach. Many locals, students and alumni participated in hyena tracking trainings, which not only equipped them with the skills to read the signs of hyena presence, but what’s equally as important, it created a personal connection to this wild animal. Participating in the conservation of the striped hyena showed many people that regardless of their professional background, they can and should take an active role in conservation efforts.

An important role in the cycle of life

With every day and hours of conversations, our understanding and fascination for the striped hyenas deepens.  We acknowledge their role in the cycle of life. In the times when every day we lose more and more of the planet’s biodiversity and disrupt intact ecological systems, we should cherish the benefit striped hyenas provide. 

“Striped hyenas clean the environment. They eat the flesh and filth that is left behind. This accelerates decay and destroys bacteria that could filter into the soil and water. Just think: without expert scavengers there would be much more bacteria and viruses to deal with. We might not see them, but despite the negative view, every hyena species has an invaluable ecological function in its habitat.”

İsmet Ceyhun Yildirim, coordinator of the Anatolian hyena project

To get to the last possible hyena area, we must get off our bikes and take a boat through a steep canyon of the Euphrates river. We are mesmerised by the scenery, but have accepted that we won’t see hyenas in real life. Trapped in our thoughts, we realise that the boat anchors down and we have arrived at our destination. We follow Ismet along a steep path up, until we reach a huge cave system. Having received some training in the previous days, we can see that the cave is inhabited. “They are inside” says Ismet, and following his suggestion, we sit down and wait in silence. We know that by this time they could easily smell and hear us. So, do we stand a chance?

Just about ten minutes later, our jaws drop: a young, about 3-4 year old hyena comes out from the cave, looking curious in our direction. We are sitting not more than 10 metres away from him. Maybe it’s his inexperience with humans that leads him to come so close, but he decides to stay for longer, using all his senses to observe us. Meanwhile, we hear a slight growling from another cave entrance. His sibling – a much shier but equally curious individual appears. 

It is hard to describe our emotions as we hold eye contact with these two hyenas. We’re not sure how much time we spent there. Maybe an hour, maybe more. A rare experience with an elusive species dependent on our protection. If it is to survive, we cannot dismantle its habitat further. Instead, we must understand it and protect its home, which is fragile and in danger. In the end, it is not only nature’s wild inhabitants that are dependent on us. We are interconnected.

What an end to the day!

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