Lion and hyena – a celebrated rivalry

The lion and the spotted hyena, two entirely separate species occupy the same or overlapping territory on the African continent. The scientific word for this is that these two species are sympatric. They are both large animals and are in competition with each other. This creates a certain amount of fascination as to how they get along and who wins in a fight. The hyena is smart, has a strong neck and bite and powerful forelimbs. The attributes of the lion are well-known.

Competition between lions and hyenas is well documented
Competition between lions and hyenas is well documented. Photo in the public domain.
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I talk about their individual skills when comparing them to the tiger on this page: Lion vs Tiger. Although, perhaps a better page on the lion versus tiger can be seen by clicking this link.

Size counts and the lion is considerably bigger than the hyena:

Lion150–250 kg (330–550 lb) for males and 120–182 kg (264–400 lb) for females1
Hyena40.5—55.0 kg (89—121 lb), while females weigh 44.5—63.9 kg (98—141 lb)2 – Serengeti National Park – sizes vary slightly from area to area
Lion attacking a hyena
Lion attacking a hyena. Photographer unknown.

RELATED: Neanderthals were attacked by big cats and hyenas and eaten

In a general sense, all things being equal the lion dominates the hyena. Indeed, in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa (e.g. Ngorongoro crater) the lion depends substantially on hyena kills and responds to the calls of hyenas feeding3 pushing the hyena off kills. The hyenas wait until the lions have finished4. But unusually the opposite can take place – hyena forcing lion off a kill. Lions feeding can see off most scavengers.

25 hyenas feeding at a kill2 male lions steel the kill
21 hyenas feeding at a kill (an eland)3 young male lions and 4 lionesses appropriate the kill from them. When only one male lion remained the hyenas took back their kill.
Non feeding situation18 hyenas chase 2 lionesses up a tree

Usually, however, lions ignore hyenas while hyenas react to the presence of lions. It is said that the hyena fears the male lion but not the lioness. This indicates the general status between the two. Under certain circumstances the lion will attack a hyena and kill it5. Hyena deaths by lion attack can be high as is the case in Etosha National Park (71% of hyena deaths). Hyenas deal with this by forming groups or mobs to defend their territory against lions6(see table above).

RELATED: Do lions steal from hyenas?

There are a number of videos on the Internet of lions fighting with hyenas and a mob of hyenas attacking a lion or lions. Two are below. They generally support the argument that the individual lion dominates the individual hyena but when groups form the dynamics eventually shift. Groups of wild dogs, a relatively small animal, can entrap and kill the tiger for instance.

The video below highlights the hostility between these two species of predator. There is continual competition between them.

RELATED: Hyena has a cat’s tongue (picture)

Spotten hyena has a cat's tongue with backward facing spines
Spotten hyena has a cat’s tongue with backward facing spines

Update 2022. I feel and need to add to this page and will do so briefly. People ask, “Who would win a hyena or a lion?” The answer is the lion because it is larger, stronger and faster. But that is on an individual one-to-one basis. Lions can be frightened of hyenas because hyenas hunt in large packs which provides them with an advantage over a solitary lion or a couple of lions.

It is inevitable that these two species will end up fighting because they consume the same prey animals. They are competitors. Although lions being much larger than hyenas kill larger animals. The bad blood between lions and hyenas is a celebrated rivalry in nature.

You will see many videos and stories on the Internet about this rivalry. It is said that the rivalry dates back to Germany about 37,000 years ago as assessed from fossils analysed by palaeontologist Brian Switek.

My research indicates that the bite of a lion is between 650 PSI-1000 PSI while hyenas have one of the strongest bites in the animal kingdom at over 1100 PSI. This obviously gives them an advantage. Out of interest and in comparison, the strongest bite in the animal kingdom is that of the Nile crocodile estimated to be between 4000 psi-5000 psi.

As for scavenging, apparently studies have found that the lion steals more kills from spotted hyenas than vice versa. A study which took place in the Serengeti in the 1970s found that when spotted hyenas and lions share a kill, hyenas were responsible for that kill more than half the time.

The National Geographic tells us that hyenas are Africa’s most successful predator. Therefore, there are more successful at predation than lions. This is probably due to the fact that they hunting groups. But then again lions also hunting groups.

One scientist, Wilson, believes that hyenas appear to be smarter than lions. They live in “primate-like groups, and appear to have primate-like cognitive skills”.

It seems that there are two creatures which kill hyenas: the lion and humans.

From Lion and Hyena to Wild Cat Species

Lion and Hyena — notes

1 Nowak, Ronald M. (1999). Walker’s Mammals of the World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.


3 Interactions between Hyenas and other Carnivorous Animals from Hans Kruuk’s The Spotted Hyena: A Study of Predation and Social Behaviour

4 Interactions with hyenas, jackals and vultures from The Serengeti lion: a study of predator-prey relations by George B. Schaller, University of Chicago Press, 1976 – Lion and Hyena

5 Dereck and Beverley Joubert. (1992). Eternal Enemies: Lions and Hyenas

6 Interactions with hyenas, jackals and vultures from The Serengeti lion: a study of predator-prey relations by George B. Schaller, University of Chicago Press, 1976 – Lion and Hyena.

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