Why do people grimace at the sight of them? With their patchy fur and odd proportions, maybe they flout our shallow standards for beauty in animals. "Our obsession with looks doesn't take into account how well their bodies and brains are adapted to an ecosystem," says Anup Shah, who, with his brother, Manoj, photographed hyenas in Kenya, their homeland, and Tanzania. Among Africans, hyenas arouse humor and horror—the former because the genitals of the females inexplicably mimic those of males, giving rise to the myth that hyenas are hermaphrodites, and the latter because of a link with death. The Masai leave corpses in the bush for hyenas to dispose of. Indeed, hyenas eat almost anything, which makes them valuable. "They are very important to the health of the ecosystem," says Marion East of the Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin. "As scavengers, they clean up a huge amount of dead matter. As hunters, they probably help maintain the genetic health of the great herds."
Cheetahs are usually too smart to tangle with hyenas. But someone forgot to tell these cubs, and a rare showdown ensues on the savanna. Soon after bringing down a gazelle, a mother cheetah and her three nearly grown cubs get an unwelcome dinner guest—a lone female hyena. The cats know hyenas will steal any food they can, so they often time their hunts to coincide with hyenas' midday naps, from about 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sometimes the strategy fails. With the wisdom of age, the mother cat immediately gives way to the more aggressive hyena. Her brash youngsters, however, mount a challenge. One cub makes a frontal charge before ﬂitting away. The second buzzes the slower hyena. "They must have been really hungry," says Michigan State's Kay Holekamp. "I've never seen a cheetah go after a hyena. It's a dangerous thing to do." Though the confrontation may have been unusual, the outcome was not. The hyena eats its fill in peace, while a young cheetah can only glare and hope for some leftovers.
Returning home with fast food—a chunk of speedy Thomson's gazelle—this young hyena has no intention of sharing. It could lose its lunch entirely, however, if a dominant hyena challenges it. That's why animals that rank low in a clan's hierarchy learn to eat fast and eat alone. This gazelle head isn't a prime cut, but the spotted hyena is adapted perhaps better than any other predator to making do with rougher fare. Vise-grip jaws and specialized teeth help slice through thick skin and stubborn tendons with ease. Hyenas will even crunch up bone, digesting the organic content and excreting calcium.
A growl and bared fangs signal that this voracious predator is fed up with the vultures vying for a wildebeest carcass it wants to devour single-handedly—an impossibility even for the hungriest hyena. Unsure of when they will next feed, hyenas will gorge themselves whenever they can. Although they often snap at vultures in the process, they rarely harm the rival scavengers. The relationship between the species is mutually beneficial: The birds often eat at hyena kills, and the sight of vultures alerts the hyenas to nearby dead meat. This hyena, disturbed by the swarm of scavengers, finally tore off a hunk of wildebeest meat and went looking for a more peaceful spot.