When travelling in amongst the enclosures at LIONSROCK Big Cat Sanctuary near Bethlehem in the Eastern Free State, visitors will find a surprise among the more than 70 lions, 23 tigers and three leopards.
There in his enclosure at the top of a hill, you will find a spotted hyena, who at night-time will join the chorus of roaring lions with his distinctive whoop-whoop vocalisation. It is a distinctive sound, as if Phiri waits for the kings of the Free State Highveld to roar away before he has the last laugh!
However, this is not a sound to be casually sniffed at. The level of a typical human conversation is measured at 60 decibels. Any sound above 120 decibels can cause pain or even damage to your ears if you are too close to the sound. With vocalisations sometimes reaching 112 decibels, hyenas are regarded as some of the noisiest animals. Phiri is almost up there with his LIONSROCK neighbours, the lions. A study of the University of South Denmark has shown lions can easily roar away at 117 decibels.
Researchers in the US have found that hyena ‘whoops’ feature a signature unique to each individual. This is their Caller-Id to make sure they can be distinguished from each other.
The repetition of such whoops often improves identification. Another study shows these vocalisation bouts can range from two to 34 whoops at a time and can be heard five kilometres away.
Being heard is what Phiri makes sure of when he whoops away at night - even though he is the only hyena at LIONSROCK Big Cat Sanctuary. As a nocturnal animal, hyenas generally only appear at night, but playful Phiri can often be seen out in the African sun trotting about with an inquisitive look on his pointed face when he stares at you before he would quickly run away and hide.
If you are lucky enough to spot him whizzing past and he gives you that quick Phiri look, you will see the very distinctive small cut in his one ear and his sandy-coloured mohawk fringe just above his eyes.
Of the four species of hyena, spotted hyenas such as Phiri are the largest species. Interestingly, the male spotted hyena is smaller than the female. Spotted hyenas on average weigh between 40 and 86 kilograms and have a short brown and greyish coat with black spots. This species has hair on its neck that slopes forward or stands vertically when the hyena is excited.
Phiri arrived at the Sanctuary in June 2010 from the New Hope Centre of the Princess Alia Foundation, Jordan. The Foundation works on many different fronts to ensure the balance between humans, animals, and the environment to provide a better future for generations to come and regularly partners with FOUR PAWS.
Phiri was confiscated in January 2010 during the rescue of animals from Jordanian zoos. Not much is known about his age or his place of birth, but it is surmised that he was born in Africa and imported to the zoo in Jordan.
For the past twelve years Phiri is loving his species-appropriate life in amongst the grass and bushes of LIONSROCK.
He especially enjoys his sensory enrichment program. The animal caretakers and the volunteers at the Sanctuary also know that he enjoys a small gift of eggs as a treat now and then.
His favourite pastime is participating in enrichment activities designed to keep him busy and stimulate his senses.
These activities will get the muscular animal to trot out from his hiding place amongst the bushes and grass, to inspect a
cardboard box or environmentally friendly brown bag full of the sort of smelly stuff that would stimulate his senses.
All the better if there is hidden in between the normal fare of leaves and grass a bit of animal poop.
Research published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology has shown that developing a keen smell and putting it to good use is crucial to spotted hyenas. The authors of the study examined responses of captive hyenas to various environmental smells like prey, non-prey animal, and plants. The hyenas studied sniffed all odours equally but preferentially licked prey smells and rolled in animal-based odours, something that Phiri also does when his ‘lucky packet’ arrives.
After playtime, Phiri likes nothing better than to laze away for a while in his den amongst the bushes, all the better to be wide awake once the stars come out and his neighbours begin to roar. Then that distinctive whoop comes out, just to let anyone listening know Phiri is living his best life at LIONSROCK.