An Overview of The Savage African Rivalry: Lions vs. Hyenas

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 2nd October 2023

Did you know that in 1999, the Ethiopian lion and hyena populations engaged in a territorial war that lasted two weeks? In the end, six lions and 35 hyenas were killed. 

The lions won the long-lasting dispute. But do they always have the upper hand?

Spotted hyenas and lions have long been competitors. After all, they’re both apex predators, and their dietary preferences overlap to a significant extent. 

Although the lion is considered the dominant predator, hyenas are often bold enough to confront them.

The deadliest confrontations occur when one or the other species tries to steal the kill of the competitor. 

How exactly does this happen, and how do hyenas and lions deal with it? Keep reading to find out!

You’ll be surprised at how many jaw-dropping facts we’ve gathered about the brutal and terrible fights between lions and hyenas!

Gage Beasley's In-Demand Plush Toys
Gage Beasley’s In-Demand Plush Toys

Territorial Disputes

Lioness chases spotted Hyena on the sub-Saharan Africa landscape | jacobeukman via iStock

Of the three extant hyena species, the spotted hyena is the one that interacts more with lions, as their distribution and ecological niche largely overlap.

Spotted hyenas are native to sub-Saharan Africa and have quite a widespread range, being more common in protected areas. 

The highest spotted hyena numbers were registered in Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Botswana, and Namibia. In West Africa, they have a patchy distribution.

Spotted hyenas live in savannahs, open or dense dry woodlands, semi-deserts, and mountainous forests.

Like spotted hyenas, lions are native to sub-Saharan Africa and prefer living in savannahs and grassy plains. 

Sereti National Park in Tanzania
Serengeti National Park in Tanzania | guenterguni via iStock

Sometimes they’re seen in open woodlands. The largest lion populations are found in Tanzania.

Considering how much their range overlaps, it’s no wonder lions and spotted hyenas often stand up against one another. 

Therefore, they must be marking their territories somehow to protect their groups, right? This would let other animals, including other lions, know that they’re trespassing.

Lions mark their territories by roaring and urine-spraying their surroundings. 

Their territories range from 20 sq km (7.72 sq mi) to more than 500 sq km (193 sq mi). Imagine how much effort goes into defending them!

Hyena Territory
Hyena Territory | Ondrej Prosicky via iStock

Hyenas mark their territories by producing a strong, smelling secretion released by the anal glands. 

It is white and creamy and typically left on grass stalks. Additionally, the so-called latrines (places where the members of the same clan poop) also serve as territory markings. 

Their territories are usually slightly larger than those of lions, ranging from 40 sq km (15.4 sq mi) to 1,000 sq km (386 sq mi). 

Lions and hyenas are known to occasionally confront each other over territorial disputes. 

However, here’s something you probably did not expect to hear: they most often confront their peers for territory rather than each other!

spotted hyena
Spotted hyena in the Maasai Mara, Kenya | AndyDiamond via iStock

Scientists once observed a hyena that was chasing down an animal that was running toward the territory of other hyenas. 

The hunting hyena stopped dead right before crossing the border and even showed signs of fear.

Therefore, we can assume that they won’t just willingly go to a lion’s pride’s territory just for the fun of it if it doesn’t even dare cross other hyena clans’ boundaries. 

On the other hand, if the lions are nomadic, hyenas may attempt to trespass.

Most commonly, confrontations related to territories occur when food is scarce and survival mode kicks in. During that time, lions and hyenas will ignore the boundaries of other animals.

Hyena waiting for their share of the lion's kill
Hyena waiting for their share of the lion’s kill | Staincliffe via iStock

Despite this, a study has shown that hyenas and lions show aggressiveness toward each other even when food is not involved. 

To cope with this, hyenas survive lion aggression by engaging in what scientists label as mobbing behavior or, simply put, bullying.

Hyenas were spotted showing signs of mobbing behavior when lions approached their territories (possibly to steal their cubs); they didn’t wait for them to actually cross the boundaries!

This may also serve as a tactic to simply warn their cubs and other group members that they’re in danger and that they should seek cover.

Gage Beasley's Hyena Stuffed Plush Toy
Gage Beasley’s Hyena Stuffed Plush Toy

Competition for Prey

Two female lions tearing dead zebra and hyena
Two female lions tearing dead zebra and hyena on the background | narvikk via iStock

Studies show that the dietary overlap of lions and hyenas is approximately 68.8%.

While the striped hyena is primarily a scavenger (which probably would have resulted in slightly fewer confrontations if the two lived in the same area), the spotted hyena is also an active predator, like the lion. This explains the high dietary overlap percentage.

Years of observing lions and hyenas in the wild have shown that the two prefer hunting ungulates. 

Lions are thought to hunt prey weighing 190–550 kilograms (419–1,212 pounds), although a perfect kill would weigh 350 kilograms (772 pounds). 

Blue wildebeest also known as a gnu in a open area in the Kruger National Park in South Africa | carstenbrandt via iStock

As such, they hunt gemsboks, wildebeests, giraffes, buffalos, and zebras.

In contrast, hyenas hunt prey weighing only 10–250 kilograms (22–551 pounds), so they usually opt for Thompson’s gazelles, springhares, African crested porcupines, rodents, wildebeests, and others. 

Hyenas only hunt and kill large mammals like buffaloes or giraffes if they’re young or injured.

If lions and hyenas do confront each other for prey, the latter are at a higher risk of being killed, as lions are much larger and heavier than hyenas and often end up stealing their prey.

Did you know that in Etosha National Park, lions are responsible for almost all hyena deaths? 

Occasionally, hyenas will try to bully lions off their prey. Yet most of the time, they’ll just step aside and wait for them to feed and leave.

Gage Beasley's Lion Cub Stuffed Plush Toy
Gage Beasley’s Lion Cub Stuffed Plush Toy

Scavenging and Stealing Kills

A lion laying down taking the time to steal the kill | KvdB50 via iStock

Lions are aggressive creatures, and they often bully other animals to give up on their kill. 

They’re known to rely on other animals, like hyenas, to hunt prey. 

This doesn’t mean they’re bad hunters – they are, in fact, highly skilled! Their species is considered an apex and keystone predator, after all! 

Nevertheless, why not steal another predator’s kill if the opportunity shows itself? In the end, they’re just ensuring their survival, nothing more.

Besides this, lions aren’t famous for their stamina, which is why they rely on an ambushing technique to kill prey. 

lion running
A young male lion running with a purposefull gaze ahead | bucky_za via iStock

Lions can run only at 48-59 km/h (30–37 mph) and only for short periods.

Hyenas, on the other hand, are better runners, and although their maximum speed isn’t considerably more impressive, they can keep running for much longer, thus increasing their odds of killing what they’ve set their eyes on. 

Therefore, why would a lion step away from stealing a hyena’s kill? Maybe the hyena caught something a lion cannot always chase down!

Now you’re probably wondering if hyenas are bold enough to steal lion kills, right? 

spotted hyena running
Spotted hyena running across a lake shoreline | KenCanning via iStock

Considering that they’re twice as small as their competitors, would hyenas actually attempt to intimidate them? 

What if we told you that 63% of the food intake of hyenas living in Botswana’s Chobe National Park comes from stealing lion kills?

Therefore, as you’ve already noticed, carrion makes up a large part of both predators’ diets, although they aren’t primarily scavengers. 

Stealing kills from each other is a survival mode strategy that enhances the rivalry between these two predators.

Kill Site Dominance

hyena pack
A pack of hyenas | Dennis Stogsdill via iStock

Hyenas don’t usually defend their kills. Most of the time, they’ll just leave the place altogether or remain hidden at distances of 30–100 meters (98.4–328 feet), waiting for the lions to leave the spot. 

If the hyena group is larger, its members may try to chase the lions away or even feed alongside them! 

Scientists have shown this typically occurs at night, when hyenas are more courageous.

What happens when a hyena tries to steal a lion’s kill? To be successful, hyenas perform the stealing in large groups and usually target lions that hunt alone, in pairs, or in groups without a male.

lioness protects food
Angry lioness protecting her pray from hungry hyena | skynesher via iStock

When feeding, lions protect themselves. Some specialists observed a group of lions while feeding on a killed animal and noticed that while the female was eating, the male was patrolling and marking the territory. 

In the meantime, a group of nine hyenas approached the area, targeting the kill. 

At the time, the lioness was alone and had to defend its kill. Just when the hyenas were about to win, the male turned up and scared the nine hyenas away with no difficulty.

In short, when comparing the reactions of hyenas and lions while others attempt to steal their kill, we can conclude that hyenas usually react passively, while lions tend to fight back.

spotted hyena sneaking
Spotted Laughing Hyena on the hunt and sneaking | wilpunt via iStock

On the other hand, some wildlife enthusiasts spotted a single hyena trying to steal the kill of a lion – that’s quite a bold move! 

Although the lion fought back and even attacked the hyena, the smaller predator did not give up and tried to stand up for itself. 

Unfortunately, however, such confrontations usually end up with the hyena dead.

Specialists argue that spotted hyenas can take down lionesses if there are four hyenas for one lioness. 

Otherwise, they don’t stand a chance. And even so, the study showed that most kill takeovers occurred only after the lionesses had eaten.

Nighttime Showdowns

lion hunt at night
A lion hunting at night | AOosthuizen via iStock

Both lions and hyenas are primarily nocturnal hunters. Nonetheless, they may occasionally hunt at dawn or dusk. 

Why so? Because that’s when prey is more passive, and catching it consumes less energy.

Additionally, they avoid overheating, which increases the possibility of successful hunting. 

However, this also means that they have more energy to spare for competitive fights.

Hyenas are actually known to be bolder at night. 

During the day, they typically leave the spot if lions take ownership of their kills, whereas they may stand up for themselves during the night. 

At least that’s what studies say. In reality, the nature of their relationship is highly unpredictable.

hyenas scavenging at night
A pack of hyenas scavenging at night | pjmalsbury via iStock

It’s well known that lions rely on ambushing prey, whereas hyenas usually chase it down. 

Hence, lions are excellent at remaining concealed at night. Did you know they have a much higher food intake during moonless nights? 

That’s because the darkness allows them to stalk and ambush prey easily. Why not do so with hyenas to steal their kill or simply attack them to show dominance?

Some wildlife enthusiasts saw how a lion fiercely attacked three hyenas at night while they delighted in a zebra meal. 

The lion was probably patiently waiting in the darkness for the hyenas to do the hard work, and then it scared them away and enjoyed the meal itself. 

Unfortunately, during such attacks, lions often end up killing hyenas.

Specialists suggest that lions tend to attack hyena cubs primarily at night because intruding on their territories is much easier in the darkness.

The Role of Group Size

A video showing how three lionesses tried to steal the kill from a group of hyenas proves that the larger the group, the better the chances are to survive and have a decent meal.

When the lionesses approached the kill, the hyenas did not back down. 

They knew that the larger predators were outnumbered. So they basically grouped themselves and chased the lionesses away one by one until they reclaimed their kill.

Hyena clans consist of up to 80 individuals. They engage in regular patrols and calls to protect their territories, enhancing their chances of survival in case of a fight. 

hyena pack
A hyena pack scavenging food | robru via iStock

As such, lions have no chance of winning in a confrontation on their territories unless the circumstances are in their favor. 

Lion prides usually consist of approximately 20-30 individuals, although smaller prides aren’t uncommon. 

Considering that four hyenas can take down one lioness, there’s no use for them to confront lions on their territories unless they’re doing the deed in groups of more than 100 individuals.

Occasionally, males may switch from being residents to nomads or vice versa. If they lead a nomadic lifestyle, they’re at a higher risk of being attacked by large groups of hyenas. 

The Impact on Ecosystem Dynamics

lion and hyena
Angry male lion with two hyenas in the wild | skynesher via iStock

Since lions and hyenas are the most important predators in their habitats, they play a significant role in maintaining the required ecosystem structure.

Naturally, competition between two species prompts both to adapt various specializations that can eventually help them outperform the other species. 

Obviously, this doesn’t happen within days or weeks, but thousands of years can show the difference.

Our world’s evolutionary history shows it’s not uncommon for a lower-ranked or less specialized predator to adapt so well as to outnumber and outperform the apex predator.

This constant rivalry between lions and hyenas affects the survival of their young. Since they prey on each other’s cubs, this directly affects the survival of their populations.

A study shows that in regions where the African lion numbers dropped due to anthropogenic disturbances, the spotted hyena numbers significantly increased, as the felines preyed less on their cubs.

Survival Strategies

lions on watch
A pride of lions watchs the horizon in Kenya | Tommy_McNeeley via iStock

Lions have learned that they should always hunt in groups to survive any possible hyena attacks. 

Additionally, they now know that groups where males are present are much more intimidating for hyenas. 

That’s why lionesses are often spotted hunting or feeding alongside a male, which patrols the territory. 

Besides this, if they don’t stand a chance against the group of hyenas, they’re fully aware of it and will run away to survive.

Nevertheless, exceptions do occur. We’ve seen a video of a lion being attacked by a large group of hyenas. 

It tried hard to fight them off. The lion eventually caught a hyena and killed it. In the meantime, the rest of the group backed down, as they probably felt defeated when one of their own was killed.

Hyenas have developed two important survival strategies: leaving the spot when lions take ownership of their kills and hunting in groups. 

Hyenas are known to be highly intelligent, and, based on what we’ve seen in videos of hyena-lion confrontations, they have quite complex strategies to chase the lions away. 

Hyenas are also experts at bullying lions away when they’re approaching their territories or trying to steal their kills.

The Unpredictable Nature of Rivalry

Group of hyena walking around two lions and want some prey | StockPlanets via iStock

Needless to say, it is impossible to state the degree to which these two predators hate each other. 

Some specialists argue that they’ll fight one another for no apparent reason, while others confirm that lions completely ignore hyenas unless they want to steal their kill.

The truth is that there are many unpredictable factors behind their confrontations, and the numerous videos spotting these two predators fighting each other to death confirm this.

It has even been suggested that hyenas may sometimes try to feed alongside the lions that have stolen their kill. 

However, we couldn’t find a documented encounter to confirm this had indeed happened.

The degree to which they direct their aggressiveness to one another may be influenced by habitat and climatic conditions.

Food scarcity may increase the cub-stealing rate and the competition for food. 

Drought landscape | Serhiy Stakhnyk via iStock

Drought can also influence the frequency of disputes, especially in terms of territory. 

If a species has settled close to a water source, the other may intrude on the territory to have access to water, which will inevitably lead to confrontations.


As terrifying as it sounds, both lions and spotted hyenas confront each other for the sake of their families’ safety and survival.

Although lions usually have the upper hand in fights, hyenas are now experts at hunting in packs, and they can sometimes strategically chase away or even kill a lion (occasionally even a group of lions, especially if no male is present!).

The most significant and bloodiest encounters occur at kill sites when one species wants to steal food from the other species. 

They may also intrude on each other’s territories if circumstances are favorable and steal each other’s cubs, thus directly affecting their population numbers.

Despite the awe-striking details of their fights, this competition helped these two species develop distinct hunting techniques and adopt unique survival strategies.

However, as the lion population is decreasing and is currently listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, we can expect that the rivalry between them and spotted hyenas will also be affected.


How many hyenas can beat a lion?

Four hyenas can kill a lioness, and ten hyenas can kill a male lion. However, the resolution of such a confrontation highly depends on the circumstances.

Do lions eat hyenas?

Although they regularly kill hyenas, lions do not typically eat them, as they prefer to feed on herbivorous ungulates.

What animal can beat a lion?

Rhinos, elephants, buffalos, and hippos can sometimes kill lions. Crocodiles, giraffes, and leopards may also have a chance against the ferocious felines.


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