Shortly after sunrise on a grey August morning, a pack of wild dogs is on the hunt in South Africa’s Sabi Sand Game Reserve. One dog splits off from the pack and takes down an impala. It leaves its prize unattended to call the rest of pack back to the kill site. It’s time to eat.

But as the wild dog leaves the scene, its face splattered with blood, a hyena slinks out of the brush and digs in to the dog’s meal. Soon the wild dog reappears with its pack. They chase the hyena off and begin their family-style feast. It’s not long before the lone hyena returns, this time with backup: at least five more hyenas.

This wild game is a struggle for survival. Who will get to eat? Hyenas and wild dogs are top predators competing in an unforgiving landscape. It’s a classic battle that plays out over and over again in the African bush where these animals compete for the same food resources. (Watch wild dogs try to steal a cheetah's meal.)

Similar But Different

Roddy Watson, a visitor on safari at a private game lodge called Londolozi, caught the rare moment on video. To watch it is to witness a “primeval interaction”,” says Markus Hofmeyr, chief conservation officer and veterinarian at Great Plains Conservation Foundation in Botswana. “It’s the whole wild ecosystem in full play.”

Both apex predators on the African landscape, wild dogs and hyenas are alike and different in surprising ways. Spotted coats give the two species a similar appearance, but a spotted hyena can outweigh an African wild dog by a hundred pounds. What’s more, hyenas are more closely related to cats than to canines.

The two species also have different reputations. Wild dogs are endangered, while hyenas have been vilified by popular culture as thieves. Both are efficient hunters, but while wild dogs are known to be very successful hunters and rarely scavenge, hyenas are dedicated scavengers and can get by without hunting if they have to. According to Hofmeyr, hyenas often use their size and numbers to drive off other predators—including lions, leopards, and cheetahs—from whatever they’ve killed, while wild dogs generally don’t. (See the weird way wild dogs use sneezes to communicate.)

“When it comes to hyenas and wild dogs,” says veteran game ranger and zoologist James Tyrell, “it is hard to predict which species will come out on top. It’s almost like watching a tense sporting match.”

A Game of Survival

In many areas where hyenas and wild dogs have been reintroduced, he says they seem to coexist well, as long as there’s enough to eat. A dwindling supply of prey might force both species to adapt to a larger landscape, perhaps expanding into human territory outside of protected parks. In this case, hyenas, because they’re primarily nocturnal, have the advantage of hunting under cover. But, like wild dogs, they are often persecuted aggressively for killing livestock. (Busting myths about hyenas: Are they really hermaphrodites?)

Wild Dogs vs. Hyena A hungry hyena goes it alone in search of a meal, but picks the wrong pack to pester.

“It’s that evolutionary niche hyenas have slipped into that they can both steal the prey and kill their own, which makes them so successful,” Hofmeyr says.

Hyenas’ strength is another advantage. Unlike wild dogs, a hyena can break out of a snare. In groups, hyenas have been known to kill lions. But it’s not just their brawn that has contributed to hyenas’ success as a species. They’ve also got brains.

“Hyenas, certainly underrated and vilified, are incredibly intelligent and adaptable, affectionate and devoted parents and work as a clan to protect each other,” Hofmeyr says. They are highly complex and social animals, not mere thieves. (See what really happened in an apparent conflict between hyenas and a lion.)

In the wild, a kill is fair game. In the video, one hyena makes an attempt to snag a piece, but the dogs rebuff their rival with toothy strikes and agitated clucking and chirping vocalizations. Still, the hyenas persist. More arrive. With a chorus of high-pitched whines and cackles, the clan approaches, forming an “intimidating wedge,” Tyrell says. The hyenas rush in, drive off the wild dog pack from their hard-won kill and claim victory. They immediately remove the quarry from the noisy scene.

As for watching these remarkable predators fight to survive in the wild, Hofmeyr says, “it’s an absolute privilege.”