The fading call of the striped hyena

There are fears that the species may become extinct in Sigur and Moyar unless urgent measures are taken to conserve the population

Updated - May 13, 2022 11:23 am IST

Published - May 12, 2022 10:26 pm IST

A camera trap image of a striped hyena in the Sigur plateau in the Nilgiris, captured during a project by the Salim Ali Center for Ornithology and Natural History.

A camera trap image of a striped hyena in the Sigur plateau in the Nilgiris, captured during a project by the Salim Ali Center for Ornithology and Natural History. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

South India’s last significant population of striped hyenas (Hyaena hyaena) live in the Sigur plateau. After years of a steady decline, there are fears that the species may become locally extinct unless urgent measures are taken to conserve the population.

A survey of the species is yet to be conducted in the Sigur plateau and the Moyar valley by the Forest Department. However, experts working in the landscape and Forest Department officials believe there are no more than 30-35 striped hyenas left, encompassing parts of the Mudumalai, Bandipur and Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserves.

According to Priya Davidar, a conservation biologist who lives in Mudumalai, the last time she spotted a hyena was in 2012. “We used to see them very often till the late 1980s. Then they gradually became harder to spot, and now, we don’t even hear their distinctive calls,” said Ms. Davidar. She noticed the decline from the 1990s. “I believe poisoning of carcasses in retaliation by herders targeting tigers could have played a significant role in the decline,” she said.

“Multiple factors have led to the decline in the striped hyena population,” said Ashish Kumar, Senior Project Fellow at the Salim Ali Center for Ornithology and Natural History (SACON). Acknowledging that the region is home to the last major breeding population of hyenas in southern India, he believed their population is continuing to decline.

“We have studied the attitudes of people in the landscape towards hyenas. Due to high economic stress in the region, there has been at often times an antagonistic attitude towards predators from people inhabiting the region. Hyenas are primarily scavengers, but there exists confusion among people as to whether they are predators, and this could have resulted in conflicts with humans, which has impacted the species,” said Mr. Kumar, who has been studying hyenas in the Sigur plateau and the Moyar Valley.

T. Ramesh, Senior Scientist at SACON, said invasive weed management could potentially help the species. “Hyenas are open landscape scavengers, so limiting the spread of invasive plants could help them find food,” he said. A combination of factors, including a lack of food availability due to the reduction in the number of cattle in the Sigur, as well as increased competition and potential spread of disease from feral dogs could also have played a role in the decline over the last few decades. “I have been studying the species since 2005, and by comparing distribution ranges, we can infer that the distribution range of the species itself in the region is declining,” he added.

Translocating hyenas to other suitable habitats could also help the species stave off the risk of being wiped out from the region. “There are parts near the Sathyamangalam Tiger Reserve, Dharmapuri and Hosur that are suitable for hyenas. There is a need to study and ascertain suitable regions so that translocation of a sub-population of the species may be considered,” said Mr. Ashish Kumar.

When contacted, Supriya Sahu, Additional Chief Secretary, Environment, Climate Change and Forests, said that though there had been discussions about the need for striped hyena conservation in the State, there were as yet no concrete plans to safeguard the species. “That being said, we will definitely work on this, as the government is proactively working on protecting our wildlife and our forests,” said Ms. Sahu.

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