Importance of Spotted Hyena in Malawi and how to safely coexist with them


By Brennan PetersonWood

Malawi is home to many iconic African carnivores including Spotted hyena, lions, leopards and jackals who not only live in National Parks and protected areas but also village farm land and even in towns and cities.

Wildlife viewing and safaris are a big tourist attraction and bring substantial income to Malawi through National Park fees, hospitality and the many jobs created by the tourism industry.

Lilongwe is a unique city as it is one of the only cities in the world that supports a population of free roaming Spotted Hyena. As such it should be considered as a point of national pride that Malawi holds such unique wildlife attractions.

However, living among large carnivores does not come without risks.  Knowing how to safely live in coexistence with hyenas is therefore very important for one’s personal safety as well as the safety of one’s livestock and just as importantly the safety of hyenas and other wildlife.

Why Should People Care to Protect Hyenas?

Hyena in Malawi (Image from Brennan PetersonWood)

Hyenas provide many ecosystem services in addition to being a sought after tourist attraction and income generator for Malawi. Contrary to what is often said about them only being scavengers, spotted hyenas are very effective hunters. They are opportunistic feeders and will scavenge the kills of other predators or eat dead animals or human food waste if given the chance. By eating dead animals they reduce the spread of disease that rotting animals and other waste would otherwise produce. Hyenas living in towns and cities will also eat stray dogs, reducing the risk of the spread of rabies and the threat of packs of stray dogs attacking people.

How to Avoid Being Attacked by a Hyena

By nature hyenas are very shy animals and will avoid human contact. They are highly intelligent animals and also very curious. Because of human population pressures on their habitats, hyenas have been forced into towns and cities looking for food and new territories.

People living in rural areas are also likely to encounter hyenas, particularly if they keep livestock or live near a national park or forested area. The vast majority of encounters with hyenas are peaceful and end without harm to either the hyena or person. If hyenas are left alone and not chased into a corner or space where they cannot escape, they will avoid human interactions. If they are cornered or chased they will feel threatened and potentially attack the person. Below are some easy steps to take to avoid confrontation with hyenas.

1) Do not run away from a hyena, this will trigger its natural chasing instinct

2) Stand tall, wave your arms in the air, clap and yell to make yourself seem large and scary

3) Slowly back away from the hyena until you are in a safe place. If needed climb a tree or large object until it leaves

4) If you are carrying a bag with food or other items the hyena will often be curious to know what is inside, throw the bag at the hyena to scare it and let it smell what is inside to satisfy its curiosity

5) Carry a torch or even your mobile phone light at night and walk with a friend or group of people

6) Do not walk alone at night without a torch and especially not drunk. Intoxicated people who fall asleep on the ground outside are usually the victims of hyena attacks

7) If attacked, fight back and hit it on the head and face with your hands or other objects

8) Secure livestock in strong enclosures at night and evenings and do not let livestock wonder through bush or fields unattended if hyenas are suspected in the area.

If these measures are followed the chance of being attacked is greatly reduced. If you are bitten seek medical help immediately to clean the wounds and prevent infection. A rabies injection is also necessary in case the animal is rabid.

Where to Seek Advice and Report Hyena Sightings or Attacks

Carnivore Research Malawi (CRM) is an applied research group based in Lilongwe who study hyena and also work to educate and build capacity of Malawians around hyena and other carnivore species. Working in partnership with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), CRM works to conserve carnivores and their habitat in Malawi. CRM operates a Helpline which can be reached at either 0880171580 or 0990251320. You can also flash call the number and CRM’s Outreach and Education Officer will call you back.

If you or someone you know has seen hyena, been attacked or had livestock attacked, or simply wants to learn about hyena behaviour and how to safely live with them, please call the Helpline numbers. CRM can also be found on Facebook and Instagram or online at for info, advice and updates on our research.