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The Hyena Men of Harar

Spotted Hyenas in the city lights wait patiently for a nightly dinner of scraps fed to them by friendly Harari people (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Night falls over the ancient, medieval city of Harar. Cobbled streets are bustling with the commute of women carrying heavy sacks of produce between the labyrinthine market of the city and dodging children playing football in the alleys after school. As the quiet of the night befalls these colourful streets, a different pedestrian traffic starts moving through Harar, one of the three most important cities of Islam on earth and a world heritage listed city of northern Ethiopia.

Harari women carry their shopping on their heads as they walk home from the ancient spice market in the city (Image by Inger Vandyke)

For it is within the ancient walled city, creatures of the night roam the streets fearlessly and respectfully, searching the narrow alleyways for rubbish. These are Spotted Hyenas and the Harari people have an unparalleled relationship with these animals that has lasted for over seventy years.

By day the traders of Harar’s ancient spice market ply their goods in alleys too tight for vehicular traffic. By night, these alleys are roamed by wild Spotted Hyenas in search of food (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Harari people are predominantly Sufi muslims. Sufism is a mystical form of Islam, a school of practice that emphasises the inward search for God and shuns materialism. It has produced some of the world’s most beloved literature, like the love poems of the 13th century Iranian jurist Rumi and its modern-day adherents cherish both tolerance and pluralism. Across Africa this gentle strain of Islam has manifested into the construction of ornate shrines, spectacular mud mosques and even the establishment of sacred Baobab trees in Senegal. Its believers are largely mystics who are responsible for a tremendous academic and theistic history that spans great swathes of the Sahara, Sahel and Horn of Africa. In Harar, this gentle belief system underpins the relationship between people and the wild hyenas that call this beautiful city home. In an odd juxtaposition between anthropology and zoology, this rare culture of humans and wildlife is like a symbiosis where people respectfully look after hyenas in exchange for the hyenas effectively acting as ‘garbage collectors’ cleaning up scraps of organic waste in the labyrinth of alleyways that define Harar.

Portrait of a beautiful Harari girl (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Established in the 6th century, the walled city of Harar has seen its share of conflicts over the years. The walls were constructed around 500 years ago to protect the city from foreign invasions but resident Hararis have now carved hyena-sized bites out of the ancient stone walls to allow this curious relationship between wildlife and man to continue.

Holes in the city walls of Harar are just big enough for roaming hyenas and playing children (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Seen as fearful wild animals by almost everyone else, each night a young man sits at the bottom of the hill on the edge of town surrounded by a pack of hungry hyenas. If you didn’t know better you’d think that this terrifying situation would be short lived as one of the hyenas devours the human giving it food. Instead, each hyena approaches slowly and gently, taking morsels of meat from the hand of man in much the same way as a pet dog would do. His name is Abbas and he is the youngest generation of Hyena feeders in Harar. In the 1950s his father Yusuf was one of the first to start this tradition after he began feeding the hyenas scraps of meat to lure them away from eating his livestock.

Abbas, the most famous Hyena man of Harar, feeding one of his Hyena friends (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Now, the nightly feeding of Spotted Hyenas in Harar has become a popular tourist attraction that draws people from all over the world who are curious to witness this unique relationship for themselves.

An eager Spotted Hyena waits patiently for his dinner served by Abbas (Image by Inger Vandyke)

When Wild Images heard about this phenomenon we decided without hesitation to include it as an extension to our Ethiopian wildlife photography tour. We visited the famous Hyena Men of Harar as part of our tour in March this year and we weren’t disappointed.

At sunset on our first night we waited for Abbas to arrive. We’d been sitting on the ledge of a nearby mosque that was gradually being swallowed up by the roots of a parasitic fig tree when we first spotted Abbas, who sauntered over to a piece of litter-strewn, vacant land close to his home. He carried a large yellow drum filled with the bones and meat scraps donated by the centuries old Halal butchery in the centre of the city. Abbas took a seat on a large stone.

What to do when a local fig tree swallows up your mosque? Why build the mosque around it, of course! The Sufis of Harar believe in pluralism and sharing their world with nature in a harmonious way (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Then from the inky depths of the nearby scrub they emerged, at first a little shy and then becoming bolder as time transpired. Our group sat transfixed. We were positioned in the dirt in a semi-circle to allow the hyenas enough space to approach Abbas who began feeding them a dinner of scraps hanging off a small stick that he held. Joining them with remarkable acceptance were a few of the local feral dogs from Harar. Initially we thought this might mean the hyenas would fight the dogs off but oddly, the nightly feast of scraps was shared without incident.

A shy hyena emerges from the murky gloom of Harar’s outskirts (Image by Inger Vandyke)

As the feeding intensified, Abbas began to invite guests over to sit beside him to feed the hyenas themselves. At first I didn’t think anyone in our group would volunteer to do this but it seems I underestimated all of them! Absolutely everyone went up to feed the Hyenas! What a brave bunch! Each of us willingly took turns to sit next to Abbas while gigantic hyenas came up and rested on our shoulders to eat.

Two hyenas at their nightly dinner table in Harar (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Of course I joined in, as did my fiance, Mark Beaman. It was quite something to be so close to an animal I have mostly feared in the wild. I didn’t know what to expect. Were they going to smell like dogs? Do they have fleas? Would they hurt me?

Mark smiles as a Spotted Hyena rests its paunches on his shoulders to enjoy a meal with Abbas (Image by Inger Vandyke)

All of my fears and expectations were unfounded. Instead of anything I mentioned above, I was thrilled to find out that Hyenas smell of the earth in which they live. They have a ‘perfume’ similar to the smell of hot, dusty earth before the rain. Instead of bombastically jumping on our shoulders, they gently raised themselves up on us. There was no fleas, no saliva, no dirt. In fact it was nothing you’d imagine it to be. We ended up enjoying our first evening so much that we went back for a second night to witness this incredible spectacle.

The colourful city of Harar seen from the air. Harar is home to 83 mosques and 102 shrines, all painted in the same hue of green (Image by Inger Vandyke)

On the day between feeds we visited the crucifix shaped courtyard of the Halal butchery in the centre of the city which is home to another curious relationship between Harari people and wild animals. For a small fee one of the boys working in the butchers will come out and feed a resident flock of Yellow-billed and Black Kites by hand.

Feeding the kites by hand. One of the employees of the local halal butchery in Harar throws up meat tidbits to feed the kites in a testimony to the soft relationship that Hararis enjoy with their wild creatures (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Again, we watched in awe as these large birds acrobatically flew down from the roofs of the butchery buildings to grab morsels of meat tossed in the air for them by people.

When fed, the kites of the butchery in Harar perform remarkable aerial acrobatics (Image by Inger Vandyke)

This makes for amazing photos in their own right and also provides amusement for Harari people watching photographers stand around with large lenses in order to get fantastic flight shots of these birds as they dominated the skies in search of food.

A Yellow-billed Kite waits and watches for meat morsels from the butchery in Harar (Image by Inger Vandyke)

A second night at the Hyenas, however, was an opportunity not to be missed. Not only did more hyenas turn up on the second night than the first, we also had a chance to hone our night photography skills to get better shots than the night before and experiment with bokeh, different angles and lighting while meeting more of these wonderful animals and becoming acquainted with them.

Harar’s hyenas are remarkably tolerant of the local feral dogs that often join them for dinner (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Of course, we all fed the hyenas by hand again. When you are there it is very difficult to say no to such a fantastic opportunity and I’m happy to confirm that all of our group made it through two hyena feeding sessions alive and with all of their digits and camera gear intact!

Spending time with Abbas and his hyenas was one of the highlights of my wildlife photography career. It was right up there with other experiences like swimming with Humpback Whales, walking on the ice with polar bears and having a wild penguin fall asleep on your lap.

Me feeding hyenas with Abbas (Image by Wild Images Guest Annari Faurie)

Aside from the fantastic photographic opportunities, going back for a second night allowed us the time to also just put our cameras down, sit and watch. Personally I recognised some of the animals that had visited from the night before including a shy female with a notch out of her ear and another more boisterous youngster who always barged in first to be fed. Apparently Abbas knows them all by name. They come to his calls for food and he knows them well enough to visit them at their dens. I believe they are that comfortable with his presence he has even crawled inside a hyena den when they’ve had cubs – an act which would mean a certain death for anyone else trying to do the same!  Spending time with this self effacing young man is as much a highlight as the hyenas themselves.  He just has a wonderful way with them that is neither exploitative or disrespectful.

Not all hyenas are bold enough to join the pack for dinner (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Prior to visiting Harar, a guest on my own Ethiopian trip to the Omo Valley had suggested I read “Among The Bone Eaters: Encounters with the Hyenas of Harar” by Australian researcher Marcus Baynes-Rock who spent time with a clan of Harar’s hyenas called the “Sofi Clan”. Each day he would follow them into the city from their dens, watching where they went and he even played with them frequently.

He writes:

“The Old Town of Harar in eastern Ethiopia is enclosed by a wall built 500 years ago to protect the town’s inhabitants from hostile neighbours after a religious conflict that destabilised the region. Historically, the gates would be opened every morning to admit outsiders into the town to buy and sell goods and perhaps worship at one of the dozens of mosques in the Muslim city. Only Muslims were allowed to enter. And each night, non-Hararis would be evicted from the town and the gates locked. So it is somewhat surprising that this endogamous, culturally exclusive society incorporated holes into its defensive wall, through which Spotted Hyenas from the surrounding hills could access the town at night.

A typical street scene of Harar with its colourful buildings, cobblestoned alleyways and smiling locals (Image by Inger Vandyke)

Spotted Hyenas could be considered the most hated mammal in Africa. Decried as ugly and awkward, associated with witches and sorcerers and seen as contaminating, Spotted Hyenas are a public relations challenge of the highest order. Yet in Harar, hyenas are not only allowed into the town to clean the streets of food scraps, they are deeply embedded in the traditions and beliefs of the townspeople. Sufism predominates in Harar and at last count there were 121 shrines in and near the town dedicated to the town’s saints. These saints are said to meet on Mt Hakim every Thursday to discuss any pressing issues facing the town and it is the hyenas who pass the information from the saints on to the townspeople via intermediaries who can understand hyena language. Etymologically, the Harari word for hyena, ‘waraba’ comes from ‘werabba’ which translates literally as ‘news man’. Hyenas are also believed to clear the streets of jinn, the unseen entities that are a constant presence for people in the town, and hyenas’ spirits are said to be like angels who fight with bad spirits to defend the souls of spiritually vulnerable people.

Portrait of a Sufi muslim girl in Harar. A liberal form of Islam that is punctuated by spiritual beliefs in Jinns, or little devilish spirits, Hararis believe the hyenas’ are said to be like angels who fight with bad spirits to defend the souls of vulnerable people. (Image by Inger Vandyke)

My current research in Harar is concerned with both sides of the relationship. First is the collection of stories, traditions, songs and proverbs of which there are many and trying to understand how the most hated mammal in Africa can be accommodated in an urban environment; to understand how a society can tolerate the presence of a potentially dangerous species. Second is to understand the hyenas themselves and their participation in the relationship. In other parts of Ethiopia, and even within walking distance of Harar, hyenas are dangerous animals and attacks on people are common. Yet, in the old town of Harar, attacks are unheard of and it is not unusual to see hyenas, in search of food scraps, wandering past perfectly edible people sleeping in the streets. This localised immunity from attack is reassuring for a researcher spending nights alone with the hyenas in Harar’s narrow streets and alleys.”

The crucifix shaped courtyard of Harar’s halal butchery is the centre point of this ancient, World Heritage listed city (Image by Inger Vandyke)

We now list Marcus’ book as essential reading for anyone thinking of joining us on our tour extension to Harar. Why don’t you join us? Email our office to find out the details of our next tour!

A wary hyena approaches a pile of bones at the nightly feeding of hyenas in Harar (Image by Inger Vandyke)


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