It’s mid-morning on an already-hot day in Namibia’s Tsau//Khaeb National Park, and photographer Solvin Zankl is flat on his belly in the sand. For 10 days, he’s been trying unsuccessfully to document an interaction that happens only here. Today, lying upwind from an approaching brown hyena (Parahyaena brunnea), he’s finally about to see some action. Lifting his head almost imperceptibly, he looks toward the coastline, where a thick strip of otherwise beige sand is darkened by thousands of Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus). It’s pupping season, and in a landscape where food is normally hard to come by, the hundreds of defenseless seal pups that now litter the beach are a boon for brown hyenas—the park’s largest carnivores.
Before the hyena can complete its approach, however, another predator makes its move. While a mother seal dozes in the sun, a black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas) darts in and drags a young pup away from the rest of the colony. Hearing the commotion, the hyena lopes over to investigate. While it’s equipped to secure a meal on its own, it’s not above stealing a pup from the smaller jackal. Snatching up its prize, the hyena turns and trots back toward its den, passing within 2 meters of Zankl. “I had wanted to be close to the animal,” says Zankl, “But I was not sure if I wanted to be that close!”
For most of the year, the brown hyenas that live along the coastal fringes of the Namib Desert are primarily scavengers. In addition to the types of carrion found further inland, these hyenas rely heavily on the carcasses of marine animals that wash ashore, supplementing their diet with a few fresher tidbits, including insects, eggs, and fruit. But come December, when hundreds of newborn seal pups arrive on the scene, the region’s hyenas become regular—and highly successful—hunters. Ingrid Wiesel, a scientist who conducted her dissertation research on this specialized behavior and went on to establish the Brown Hyena Research Fund, has documented that when these coastal hyenas hunt newborn seals, they can snag two or three pups in the space of an hour, dispatching their prey with swift bites to the still-soft skulls.
While they have clearly honed their seal-hunting skills, brown hyenas almost never hunt large land mammals. Still, the much-maligned predators are often perceived as a threat to livestock in Namibia. In a 2013 study by scientists at Panthera, more than 72 percent of livestock owners in the country said they thought brown hyenas had killed their animals. Given those sentiments, it’s no surprise that hyenas are regularly shot, poisoned, trapped, and hunted with dogs in predator-eradication programs. The species has been so heavily persecuted in Namibia that it is now locally extinct in some areas and is declining across most of its range. Here in Tsau//Khaeb National Park, however, brown hyenas are still thriving. The stars of a burgeoning tourist industry in the park, these hyenas enjoy an abundance of advantages: vast space to roam, protection from persecution, the absence of larger predators, and—perhaps most importantly—the bounty of the ocean.
Tsau//Khaeb National Park, Namibia
Solvin Zankl has been working as a professional photographer since 1998. He is particularly interested in capturing the behaviors and unique characteristics of his subjects, and is known for his fresh perspectives of small and often overlooked species. You can see more of his work at solvinzankl.com.