The Brown hyena has a scruffy look and differs in appearance from the three other hyena species by its pointed ears and long shaggy coat. It is well known for its weird howl, sounding like a hysterical human laugh. It is an inelegant animal with a large head, muscular shoulders, sloping hindquarters and an untidy, shaggy brown coat. Long hairs on its neck, shoulders, and back are able to be raised when it is agitated. These are aggressive animals, and a possible difference between the genders in appearance is the larger size of the males.
The Brown hyena lives in the southern regions of Africa, namely, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, southern and western Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique. The south part of the Kalahari Desert and the coastal areas of southwest Africa are the location of the largest population in existence today. These animals inhabit semi-desert and desert areas, open woodland savanna and open scrub. They can survive near urban areas but need some sort of cover where they can rest during the day, like bush cover and rocky areas.
Brown hyenas are nocturnal, and during the day adults will sleep under cover of bushes, trees, or rocks to avoid being overheated. Adults hunt on their own, following trails they used previously and have scent-marked. This species lives either nomadically or within a clan. About one third of males are nomads, having left their birth clan, and are searching for a new clan to join in the role of alpha male. The females are sometimes nomadic, but only when there are no cubs to look after. Clans number 5 to 15 individuals which are related to each other, but alpha males have usually come from another clan. These animals defecate in latrine sites throughout their territory, mostly near their den and other important locations such as killing sites and territorial boundaries. Such sites are mostly used for communication between members of a clan, along with scent markings.
Brown hyenas are generalist (carnivores), and, being scavengers, are highly opportunistic feeders. They mainly eat carrion but also catch live animals such as small mammals, birds, fish and insects. They will also eat fruit, vegetables and eggs.
Brown hyenas usually demonstrate one of two complex systems of mating. One is a polygynous, clan-based system, which occurs only when the alpha male is a non-relative from another clan and mates with all females in the clan. The other system involves the clan females primarily mating with one or several nomadic males that come into the clan’s territory, being a polyandrous or polygynandrous (promiscuous) system, with females sometimes mating with up to four different males. They typically mate from May to August, during the dry season in Africa, but timing may also be due to the spontaneous arrival of any nomadic male. Breeding is usually every 12 to 41 months. Gestation lasts about 90 days, with 1 - 4 cubs born in the natal den. When they are 3 months old, they start to eat solid food and are moved by their mother to the communal den, where they are fed either by their mother or another lactating female. At 15 months old the cubs are weaned. They reach maturity between the age of 2 and 3. Males usually leave the den but females remain with the clan.
The Brown hyena is often killed due to misconceptions, myths and an unjustified bad reputation. There is a continuing false belief that these animals threaten domestic livestock, resulting in commercial farmers throughout its range killing harmless individuals. Brown hyenas, in fact, rarely kill livestock, and when they do, such killings are probably the work of a particular individual. Besides such persecution, this species is occasionally used in traditional rituals and medicine. Due to the amount of poisoning, hunting, and trapping, the overall range of brown hyenas is possibly declining, and in the south part of its range it is now rare, and possibly even extinct.
According to the IUCN Red List, the total Brown hyena population size is 5,000 to 8,000 individuals. This includes populations of 2,799 and 5,271 in Botswana; 566-2,440 animals in Namibia and 1,007 (31-2,316) animals in South Africa. Currently this species is classified as Near Threatened (NT), but its numbers today remain stable.
As a scavenger, the Brown hyena has an important role removing the remains of dead animals from its habitat, as these serve as breeding grounds for many diseases and parasites if left to decay. These animals help regulate black-backed jackal and South African fur seal populations through predation. They also change the predation frequencies of leopards and cheetahs by stalking them while they are hunting and then driving them away from their kills. They also disperse seeds from tsama melons, gemsbok melons and hookeri melons at defecation sites.