Lions and hyenas have a complicated relationship in the African wilderness. At first glance, you may wonder if powerful lions feast on their crafty neighbors. But the truth isn’t so simple.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Lions occasionally eat hyenas, but they more commonly kill them to eliminate competition over prey and territory rather than for food. Hyenas scavenge lion kills, and lions will try to chase them away.

In this detailed guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the lion-hyena dynamic, including how the two species interact, compete for resources, and sometimes prey on each other.

Lions View Hyenas As Competition, Not Prey

Lions and hyenas have an intensely competitive, often hostile relationship in the wild. As apex predators occupying similar ecological niches, they frequently come into conflict over territory, prey, and other resources.

However, despite their antagonism, lions do not typically hunt or consume hyenas.

Overlapping Niches Lead to Fierce Competition

As dominant carnivores and opportunistic hunters in the African savanna, lions and hyenas rely on many of the same prey species for survival. This overlap forces them to compete directly for food sources.

With both seeking to maximize access to nutritious meals like wildebeest, zebra, and Cape buffalo while minimizing energy expenditure, violent confrontations frequently erupt over contested kills.

Studies performed in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater found that up to 71% of lion kills were stolen by hyenas. In retaliation, lion prides will often target hyena dens to eliminate competition. But ultimately both species coexist in an uneasy equilibrium across much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Scavenging Strategies Differ Greatly Between Species

While lionesses do over 90% of the hunting in prides, male lions typically eat first at kill sites. This forces hyenas to employ various tactics to access leftovers. With powerful jaws that exert one of the greatest bite forces among carnivores, hyenas are able to crack open bones inaccessible to other scavengers.

They also haveAdaptions like higher stomach acidity and tough digestive tracts allow them to derive nutrients from skin, hooves, and connective tissues most creatures cannot.

Such biological tools let spotted hyenas thrive as scrap disposers on others’ leavings. Conversely, lions actively avoid decayed flesh due to higher risk of bacterial infection. This further decreases dietary overlap and the chances lions might target hyenas for food.

No Evidence Lions Hunt Hyenas for Sustenance

While lions sometimes kill hyenas that stray too close to a fresh kill or pride territory, biologists agree they do not consume them afterwards. Some rare incidents of lions feeding on hyena remains have occurred, but all observational evidence points to desperation during famine as motivation rather than preference.

In fact, one 20-year analysis on carnivore interactions in Botswana’s Chobe National Park found no cases of lions killing hyenas for food among 274 interspecific predation events. Other studies have uncovered similar conclusions across protected areas in Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa.

So while lions and hyenas compete intensely as African apex predators, they appear to constitute mutual threats rather than viable food sources for each other. Their relationship seems driven by coexistence rather than consumption, dictated by the complex dynamics of sharing ecosystems, avoiding resource depletion, and minimizing costly conflicts.

Hyenas Scavenge On Lion Kills

Hyenas are well known for being opportunistic scavengers that will readily steal fresh kills from other predators. This is especially true when it comes to lions. Hyenas will aggressively try to take over lion kills, sometimes forcing the lions to abandon their meal.

Here are some key points about hyenas scavenging on lion kills:

Hyenas Use Numbers to Their Advantage

Hyenas often hunt in large clans that can number up to 80 individuals. Even a small group of 10-20 hyenas poses a major threat to lions guarding a fresh kill. The hyenas will harass the lions relentlessly, using their greater numbers to eventually intimidate the lions into retreating.

Hyenas Have Powerful Jaws to Break Apart Carcasses

Hyenas have incredibly strong jaws and teeth that allow them to rip apart carcasses with ease. Their powerful bites can generate pressures of over 1000 psi, allowing them to crush bones and access the nutritious marrow inside.

This gives hyenas an advantage when scavenging kills, as they can rapidly tear meat off bones that lions may struggle with.

Hyenas May Allow Lions Access to Remains

While conflict over carcasses is common, hyenas don’t always drive lions away completely. Often once hyenas have eaten their fill, especially if the kill is a large one, they will relinquish the remains to lions or other predators.

So in a sense, hyenas can enable lions to gain access to nutritional resources they didn’t expend energy hunting themselves.

The Struggle Often Leads to Injury or Death

Battling over carcasses can lead to dangerous, sometimes fatal conflicts between hyenas and lions. Estimates suggest up to 71% of adult lion deaths in the Ngorongoro Crater of Tanzania occur as a result of encounters with hyenas.

Likewise, lions will kill hyenas that persist in trying to steal their kills. Despite the risks, gaining quick access to meat is worth it for these hungry predators.

In the end, this complex relationship enables both lions and hyenas to maximize their access to food resources on the savanna. It’s a high stakes competition, but the payoff of a free meal is hard to resist for these opportunistic carnivores.

When Lions Attack or Eat Hyenas

Lions and hyenas have a complex and often adversarial relationship in the wild. As apex predators competing for the same prey and habitat, violent confrontations are inevitable. However, lions do not routinely seek out and eat hyenas as a regular part of their diet.

Why Lions Sometimes Attack Hyenas

There are a few reasons why lions may attack hyenas:

  • To defend a fresh kill from hyenas attempting to steal it
  • To protect their cubs from hyenas seen as a threat
  • Occasionally, to assert dominance over hyenas in their shared habitat

Hyenas are known scavengers that will readily steal fresh kills from lion prides if given the opportunity. Therefore, lions must remain vigilant in protecting their food from hyena packs. Fights often ensue, sometimes resulting in the deaths of hyenas.

Why Lions Rarely Eat Hyenas

While lions may kill hyenas in territorial disputes or self defense, they do not typically eat the hyenas afterwards. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Lions are not dependent on hyenas as a food source since they prefer to hunt prey like zebra and wildebeest
  • Hyenas have very strong jaws and teeth, making it potentially dangerous for lions to attempt to eat them
  • Hyenas have powerful biting capacity that can crack open thick bones – lions likely find their flesh unpalatable

Essentially, the risks of attempting to eat a hyena usually outweigh any potential reward for lions. Hyenas also have very strong anal glands that produce a foul smelling secretion when threatened, further deterring lions from eating them.

When Lions Do Eat Hyenas

While rare, some cases of lions eating hyenas have been documented by safari guides and wildlife photographers across Africa. This usually only occurs under the following conditions:

  • If the hyena dies during an altercation with lions, either from wounds or being crushed in the jaws of larger lion pride members
  • If a lion is extremely desperate for food, such as old lions with broken teeth or injuries that prevent effective hunting
  • When hyena cubs are caught wandering from the den by lions

In most lion prides, hyenas are seen solely as competition for food and threats to lion cubs. Killing them is a territorial behavior but consumption is unusual. Only in extreme cases of desperation or opportunity would lions expend the energy to attempt eating a tenacious hyena.

How Hyenas Avoid Becoming Lion Prey

Hyenas have developed clever strategies and adaptations to avoid falling victim to lion attacks. Here are some of the main ways hyenas manage to coexist with lions without becoming their next meal:

Safety in Numbers

Hyenas live in large clans that can number up to 80 individuals. There is safety in numbers when confronting lion prides. Several hyenas can band together and mob lions to drive them away from a fresh kill.

Hyenas also outnumber lions by as much as 3 to 1 in areas where they coexist, giving them an advantage.


Hyenas have learned that discretion is the better part of valor when it comes to lions. They typically avoid areas marked with lion scents and will flee rather than fight if confronted. Hyenas will abandon a kill if lions show up and return when it’s safer.

Early Warning System

Hyenas have excellent senses of smell and hearing. They can detect approaching lions from over a mile away. Their whooping call allows the clan to signal danger to each other. This gives them time to retreat to safer areas.

Quick Getaway

If attacked, hyenas can run at speeds over 37 mph, faster than lions. Their endurance helps them outpace lions during chases. Their supple spine and forelegs let them make quick turns – useful for dodging lions during pursuit.

Powerful Bite

Hyenas have one of the most powerful bites in the animal kingdom, with a bite force of over 1000 psi. This allows them to defend themselves if cornered by lions. They can inflict severe injury with their bone-crushing jaws.

Scavenging Skills

Hyenas are skilled at locating leftover scraps from lion kills. Their strong stomach acid allows them to digest all parts of carcasses, extracting nutrients lions miss. This reduces reliance on hunting and dangerous confrontations with lions.

Other Times Lions and Hyenas Clash

In addition to competing over kills, lions and hyenas also clash over territory. Both species are highly territorial, and disputes can arise when prides and clans come into contact while patrolling the edges of their domains. These chance encounters sometimes escalate into violent confrontations.

Lions generally have the advantage in strength and power, while hyenas have the advantage in numbers. Hyena clans can have up 80 members, allowing them to mob lions during territorial disputes. However, the pride’s resident males are usually strong enough to fend off attacks and defend their territory.

Protecting Cubs

Another cause of conflict is when lions or hyenas perceive the other’s young as a threat. Hyena clans will sometimes target lion cubs to reduce future competition. In response, lion prides will fiercely defend their cubs from hyena attacks.

Mother hyenas are also extremely protective of their cubs. They will attack any encroaching lions that come near the den. In one encounter caught on camera, three lionesses were chased up a tree by an angry hyena mother defending her den!

Competition at Kills

The most common clashes happen at kill sites where both predators are scavenging. While lions do most of the hunting, hyenas use their powerful jaws and teeth to crush and devour bones and other remains.

This resource partitioning generally avoids conflict, but tempers can still flare in the frenzy of feeding. Hyenas will boldly approach lion kill sites and occasionally get attacked if they get too close. With so much food on the line, neither side wants to back down.

Lions Hyenas
Better hunters Better scavengers
Stronger Travel in larger groups

As this comparison shows, lions and hyenas have unique adaptations that put them at odds. Their competitive nature has fueled a long evolutionary arms race between these eternal adversaries of the African savanna.


The relationship between lions and hyenas is complicated, ranging from tense avoidance to outright aggression and violence. While lions do occasionally eat hyenas, they more often kill them to eliminate a competitor.

Understanding the lion-hyena dynamic provides a glimpse into the complex food chains and competitive forces shaping Africa’s incredible wildlife ecosystems.

If this predator rivalry has piqued your interest, learning more about lion and hyena behavior will reveal surprising facts about two of the continent’s most notorious carnivores.

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