Hyenas: feeding a killer in Ethiopia

Putting meat directly into the mouth of a creature with one of the most powerful bites in the animal kingdom? I daresay that it doesn’t sound so tempting, even to the most uninhibited adrenaline junkies. But this mindboggling task happens on a daily basis in the Eastern Ethiopian city of Harar.

It’s actually quite common to see hyenas in Ethiopia. Sometimes, from our city centre apartment, we hear the ‘whooping’ (seriously, Google the sound that hyenas make. It is bizarre) of hyenas that follow the river down from the surrounding mountains at night to hunt. Hyena road kill is also a common feature on the highways. But nobody mingles with the hyenas like the ‘Hyena Men of Harar’.

Hyenas have had a pretty bad rep in popular culture. Take the Lion King, where they’re evil and sneaky scavengers. The Lion King really has a lot to answer for in terms of projecting characteristics onto animals. See, this one looks like an oversized yet friendly koala bear…

This bizarre relationship formed almost 500 years ago when the city’s emir ordered the building of a defensive wall to protect the Islamic centre of East Africa and its inhabitants against the rising Christian power. The wall effectively kept out humans, but it took just days for the hyenas to realize that they could squeeze through the sewerage system, into the city to scavenge. Amazingly, what resulted was a symbiotic relationship that’s remained to this day. This point is key to the survival of the ‘city’ hyenas – instead of hunting humans or livestock, they gorged on the waste that lay outside butchers’ shops. The residents benefitted from the removal of putrid waste and the hyenas left the city before sunrise, well fed and harmless.

About 60 years ago, this relationship developed even further. Just as we become attached to our household pets, one hyena-feeding man took a shining to his furry-faced friends and began feeding them on a nightly basis, even giving them names and coaxing them with meat and a hyena-friendly language. He passed his skills to his nephew, Youssef Mume Saleh, seen in the photos.

One of the sewage shoots. Photo credit: www.vice.com

This has long been a spectacle to the local Hararis, who would gather around each evening to watch the close encounter. As the city began to gain popularity as a tourist destination, somewhat due to the addition of the Walled City of Harar to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the feeding turned into a tourist attraction in its own right.

So after nightfall our guide, Abdul, escorted us to the site to watch this daring act. At first we observed, stunned, trying to understand the movements and characteristics of the hyenas, all the while building the courage to hold the flimsy stick in our own hands. There was a clear dominant female and a hilarious young male who hadn’t really learnt the rules of the game – he spent a lot of the time with his head in the bucket of meat being chastised by Youssef, to no effect.

With the backstory in mind, and the firm knowledge that there had been no attack in a “many years”, I went ahead and sat close to Youssef. As close as possible without being sat on the poor guy’s knee. The hyenas were hovering a few metres away, looking disinterested, but clearly noting every single movement, especially in and around the vicinity of the bucket of meat. Youssef placed a sizeable chunk of meat on the end of the stick and told me to firmly hold the end. After concluding that I wasn’t a significant threat, the large dominant female edged closer and closer, until she was in snatching distance, viciously grabbing the meat. This small act was enough to experience the incredible power of these animals. We repeated this a few times, until I was satisfied with my bravery. Not wanting to push my luck too far, I left and set the stage for the next tourist.

If you are visiting Harar and you want to go and see the hyena feeding, contact Abdul on +251 920 268 163. He's an excellent guide with over 40 years of experience showing people around the labyrinth that is the Walled City of Harar, as well as taking tourists to the hyena feeding just outside the city's gates. He comes highly recommended!

The Walled City of Harar - the 4th holiest city of Islam and a UNESCO World Heritage site


I'm Hannah - a communications consultant and avid traveller, based in Ethiopia. This is a travel blog about Africa, and beyond!

I hope that my travel exploits inspire you to get out there and see the world!

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