Hyena in Harar

No laughing matter: Feeding wild hyenas in Harar

What do you do when you own a travel website called Say Yes To New Adventures and someone asks you if you feel like hand-feeding scraps of meat to wild hyenas? That was a rhetorical question 🙂 In this travel story I will share my experience of getting caught up in a face-off with the hyenas of Harar and I will provide the brave souls among you who wish to try this yourselves with practical information about how to make it happen.

In the old eastern Ethiopian city of Harar, hyenas are part of the package. At nightfall the carnivorous scavengers leave their countryside dens and enter the streets through small holes in the city’s 13th century walls. They roam Harar’s winding alleys and go through the city’s garbage in search of food. They have been doing this for centuries. Hyenas and Harar go way back: written accounts record hyenas making nightly visits to the city for 500 years. Likewise, humans have been feeding them for a long time. An ancient local belief states that hyenas are keepers of evil spirits and that they can predict the future. On the first day of every new year people would set out a bowl of porridge and wait for a hyena to show up. If the beast would eat the porridge it meant a year full of good luck. If the hyena decided not to have porridge for breakfast it would mean a year full of failed harvests, wars, disease and other general disaster. To appease the animals the porridge was mixed with bits of meat, and at some point people began to feed the hyenas meat on a daily basis, and this is still being done today by special ‘hyena men’. They are persons who know the animals very well and go out to the designated feeding spots every night. I imagine the idea behind this method is that it is better to feed the animals than to have them snatch livestock and little kids, as they did some years ago when they attacked and killed two small children in Harar.

During the day the squares and alleys of Harar are bright and busy with people, and it is hard to imagine that come nightfall dangerous predators are ruling the streets. But as soon as the sun sets that quickly becomes a plausible reality. The streets quiet down as people retreat to their homes, and there is little light to help you guide your way around the maze-like backstreets and passageways. We were lucky to have a full moon to accompany us to the hyena feeding spot because the town was suffering a power black-out. It was pretty dark. In the central square we met with our bajaj driver and our new friend Hailu who had guided us around town earlier during the day. We hopped in the back of the three-wheeler and soon left the town’s northern gate while avoiding potholes, and from time to time painfully not avoiding potholes. The yellow headlights illuminated the remains of the day’s market, with the last merchants packing up their wares. After a few minutes we left the main road and rattled through some backstreets before we came to a halt in an open space at the edge of the town. “We have arrived.” I see a small unpaved and dusty square surrounded by single-story homes. The hyena man is there with his basket full of bloody red meat. A bench has been plaed at one of the walls and a bunch of cats patiently sit waiting because they know what’s coming.

The hyena feeding site, with some cats patiently waiting around for the meat party to start

We sit down on the bench and wait. The hyena man is idly hanging around. From time to time Harari people walk by, completely unfazed by the fact that hyenas are expected to make their appearance here at any moment. A woman pulls a small child along by the hand, a man shoos his cow along by whipping its behind with a small stick. I look around the area to try to spot an hyena, but my eyes can’t discern much in the dark. Did I see something move? No, it was nothing… Then, the hyena man starts calling the beasts. He calls at the top of his lungs, a high-pitched yell that sounds strangely eerie. He is calling their names to let them know that the meat is ready for them.

I had been feeling pretty cool all day about the notion that I’d be seeing wild hyenas up close that evening – in the bright sunlight it didn’t even seem like a realistic idea. It was more like a proposition but not something that was actually going to happen. But now, hearing the hyena man making his ghostly calls, I started to feel some chills for the first time. The absurdity of the situation became more apparent, but at the same time I started to feel really excited. The chills increased when we heard dogs barking in the distance. “Do you hear the dogs?” asked Hailu. “It means that the hyenas are coming.” The sound of furious dogs increased and seemed to move up the hill, coming closer and closer to where we were waiting. I imagined the hyenas stealthily passing the walled courtyards of the houses down the hill, behind which dogs were frenzied by the smell of hyenas passing their territories. The cats in our field started to get agitated and trotted up and down while meowing repeatedly. Still, no hyena showed itself. The hyena man kept making his calls. I started to feel worried. Would we miss out? Would the hyenas decide that tonight was not a good night for them to show themselves? To some that would be a relief, but for me it would mean serious disappointment.

But the wait was rewarded when finally a single hyena emerged from the shadows. Chills ran down my spine. The animal was large, and from its movements I could sense its cunning intelligence. She seemed rather timid; the hyena man threw pieces of meat at her but she was weary to move forward into the bright spot created by headlights of our bajaj to grab them.

The cats were quicker and more fearless: they snatched most of the pieces away from her. The presence of the cats was pretty soothing: if these small mofos could be so unfazed by the presence of a huge beast that could crush their spine with a single bite, then so could I. I felt my body relax and started to study the animal. What I find interesting about hyenas is that they are not only portrayed as evil and vicious creatures (doesn’t get much worse than being chosen to represent the wicked sidekicks of one of the worst villains in Disney history) but that they even look evil and vicious. Their hunched backsides seem to indicate a furtive inclination, their patchy fur stands upright at the spine like a badly executed mohawk and their bald faces continuously seem to display a sneaky grin. Their devious laughter sounds like they have just perfected their plot to cruelly assasinate you. But, taking the time to observe this hyena, I had to admit to myself that it was actually pretty cute. Its round ears and big black nose gave it a teddybear-like quality, and the fact that it seemed so shy around us eased my raging heartrate. I would almost feel inclined to pet it.

After the hyena had eaten a few pieces of meat she disappeared back into the shadows. Not knowing where it went and not being able to see much due to the darkness felt a little bit uneasy. The hyena man resumed his sinister calls into the night. “There are more on their way” – and indeed, the choir of city dogs swelled again until numerous pairs of green eyes flashed up from the darkness announcing the arrival of a group of several hyenas on the scene. One stood upright against a garbage bin, trying to find something edible there, and the others came forward to be fed by the hyena man. He threw pieces of meat randomly on the sandy ground, and the hyenas fought among each other while the cats ran off with the smaller pieces (some of them even bitch-slapping the hyenas on their noses when they tried to take meat way from them – mean kitties!)

Kitty bitchslaps the hyena

“She is coming!” the hyena man announched omniously. He was referring to the alpha female of the group. How in the world he knew that she was about to make her appearance I don’t know, but he was right: at last she had answered to his calls of her name. An incredibly large hyena emerged from the darkness. We had heard about her: she is the leader of the pack. One thing that is really cool about spotted hyenas is that they form matriarchal packs where all the male hyenas are subserviant to even the smallest female. Females are larger than males and the alpha female is typically huge. This particular alpha female that has now made her entrance is the most approachable of the group because she is the most courageous. You can hand-feed her and even pet her. And that’s what we did.

I was up first. The hyena man was kneeling in the middle of the group of hyenas and patted the spot on the floor next to him to indicate that I should join him. I sat down with my back to some of the animals, which did not feel super comfortable because they were just a few metres removed from me. The alpha female was already approaching; she has seen this show before and knows exactly what is coming.

I’m making this look like a lot of fun, right?

The hyena man held a thin stick and pierced a piece of meat on its end, then handed it to me. I held it out in front of me and within seconds the powerful jaws of the alpha female closed around the meat. Before I knew it, the hyena man had dressed the stick with a new piece of meat and held it within centimetres of my ear. In a haze I saw the hyena approach, its breath heavy and stinky in my face. There was no time to hope or pray that it wouldn’t mistake my face for the meat: I heard the jaws shut with immense force before the beast released a hot stream of breath from its nostrils and backed off. The hyena man gestured with the stick to ask if my next trick should be feeding the gluttonous animal from my mouth by holding the meatless end of the stick between my teeth. I considered this option and quickly reclined. I like saying yes to new adventures, but there is a limit (somewhere, and I now found it).

My boyfriend was braver: after I got up and cleared the stage for him he went through the same motions and then mouth-fed the hyena, locking eyes with the lovely lady while she is within inches of biting his face off.

One thing I had been wondering before getting here was: what happens when we run out of meat? Will the pack turn vicous and prey on the hyena man and brutally disembowel him (and us) when he stops feeding them? In fact, nothing extraordinary happened. The hyenas dissolved into the night to scavenge the dark streets of Harar, and we were left in that dusty open space with the smell of hyena breath still in our noses, the adrenaline that comes with crazy travel adventures pumping through our blood, and the hyena’s laughter lingering in the air of the night.

Everything you need to know about feeding wild hyenas in Harar

Let me share with you some practical info and some of my thought processes about this unusual tourist attraction. Any questions, just drop them in the comments section below this post!

I’m crazy or I like crazy adventures! Where do I sign up?
You don’t have to sign up. You just go! There are two semi-offical hyena feeding sites in Harar that you can freely visit. Both are outside the old city walls; one is to the north of the town and one to the east. You could walk there (ask locals how to get there, or follow the signs) but it’s better to take a bajaj (tuk tuk) or, even better, a taxi, because they will enable you to see the hyenas much better with the vehicle headlights. Also you then don’t have to walk back into town at night with a chance to run into a pack of hyenas on the streets. Bring a torch or headlight because it gets dark, and bring 100 birr per person to give as a tip to the hyena man.

Which hyena feeding site is better, north or east?
Both sites provide equal opportunity to see the hyenas. Of course they are wild animals so there are no guarantees, but their appearance is pretty solid so you should have a good chance of seeing them. Now, there are some slight difference between the two sites. The north site, where we went, is visited by a smaller pack of hyenas (about ten) but has an alpha female that allows to be petted. It also has the funny add-on of stray cats that provide a pretty surreal sight. The east site is closer to the city walls but attracts a larger group of hyenas (+/- 20). It is close to a garbage dump which increases your chances of seeing the animals.

What is the best time to see the Harar hyenas?
The hyenas only show up after dark. Try to be at the feeding site at 18:30. You may need to have some patience before the hyenas arrive. We had to wait until about 19:00 for the first animal to show up. By 20:00 we finished and the hyenas wandered off.

Is the hyena feeding in Harar dangerous?
Well, my honest answer should probably be yes. Hyenas are Africa’s second largest predators, and if a pack turns vicious you don’t stand a chance in hell to survive their powerful jars that can snap your skull like it’s a soft boiled egg. Hyenas are often portrayed as cowardly scavengers, but in reality the spotted hyena is a brutal killing machine that succesfully hunts 95% of its food. However – the hyenas that browse the streets of Harar mostly sustain themselves through scavenging and going through garbage. The fact that they are being actively fed also helps prevent them from feeling the need to make a kill. The sense I got from observing them is that they were timid and apprehensive and very attuned to the hyena man who is somehow able to communicate with them through a series of calls. The fact that there were cute little kitties hanging around the site and not giving a shit about the large predators next to them felt somewhat reassuring. I must say (and I’m not saying this to look cool) that while we were standing there and watching the hyenas eat, I did not experience a sense of fear. The situation seemed very controlled and the animals appeared to be shy and predictable in their behaviour. But this is not a science. Nature and animal behaviour is unforeseeable, so it is impossible to exclude that something could happen. As one Ethiopian told me: a risk assessment of the situation indicates that an hyena attack would have severe consequences, but the probability of it happening is so low that the eventual risk can be rated as low. I would say your chances of perishing in Ethiopia are bigger when you take a public minibus and go for a ride than when you go and feed hyenas.

Is the hyena feeding in Harar ethical?
This is one question I asked myself before making the decision to actually go and do it. I’m a big lover of animals and wildlife and I despise tourist attractions that exploit animals. You will never see me riding an elephant or petting a drugged tiger. Hell, I boycott zoos and even aquariums. So why did I decide that feeding hyenas was OK? For a couple of reasons:
– They are wild animals. They are not being kept in confinement by humans and they are not forced to come to the feeding sites. They come and go as they wish.
– They are being fed anyway. It is not a tourist show; it is something that the hyena men do every night regardless of whether there are travelers watching or not.
– This has been a tradition of decades or even centuries; it is not a recent invention.
– The feeding perpetuates a peaceful relationship between humans and hyenas. If they would not be fed they might start feasting on cattle or even attack humans, which would probably start leading humans to hunt them down and kill them. The current arrangement allows them to live their lives in harmony with the people of Harar.

I do realize that it is not natural to have people hand-feeding hyenas; in fact I would have been content just watching them but I understand that this is a way for the hyena men to make some money. I did not get the impression that it harmed the hyenas in any way, and they still seemed very shy around people. If you do think that there are ethical reasons why travelers should avoid this activity, please do share them in the comment section!

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