Endemic to Africa, south of the Sahara, although formerly with a geographic range across almost all of Africa and Eurasia. Current distribution is more patchy, especially in West Africa, with populations often concentrated in protected areas, of Chad, Central African Republic, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, and some parts of South Africa.
It is reported that the species is extinct in Algeria, where it may have occurred in the Ahaggar and Tassili d’Ajjer, although it is noted that continued presence in the southernmost regions is not impossible.
There are no recent records from Djibouti, Eritrea, Gabon, Gambia and Togo. Since then Künzel et al. (2000) have confirmed that Spotted Hyaenas are still widespread, albeit in small numbers, in Djibouti, (1998) noted the same for Gambia, images of a single Spotted Hyaena inside Ivindo N. P., a rainforest site in Gabon, were recorded in 2003 where the species had not been recorded since around 1950, and Spotted Hyaenas were reported from Eritrea.
There is no confirmed evidence of their occurrence in Egypt, Liberia, or Lesotho.
Present in all habitats including semi-desert, savanna, and open forest, dense dry forest, and montane habitats, such as the Aberdares, Mount Kenya, and the Ethiopian highlands, up to 4100 m altitude.
It is absent from or occurs at very low densities in, extreme desert conditions, high mountains, and tropical rainforests, although they can make deep inroads into forested areas where logging roads provide access.
In prime habitats, densities of Spotted Hyaenas are higher than those of other large carnivores.