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A close encounter of wild kind: The hyena men of Harar

Africa

Africa

A close encounter of wild kind: The hyena men of Harar

Ancient, atmospheric Harar is one of Africa’s oldest cities. It’s also home to the men who feed hyenas. SIMON ALLISON travelled to eastern Ethiopia to watch them in action, getting so close to one of Africa’s most dangerous predators that he could smell the rotting meat on its breath.

It’s dark in Harar. The sun has just set, and I find myself in a three-wheeled bajaj careening our way through the narrow streets of the old city – in and out of tiny lanes, only barely dodging the ancient clay walls in brilliant pink and green and turquoise, and with scant regard for oncoming traffic or the lives of the pedestrians that claim the cobbled roads as their own.

Harar, draped atop a mountain in eastern Ethiopia, is a once-in-a-lifetime attraction in its own right. It is one of the oldest cities in Africa, so old that no one quite remembers how or why or even when it was founded (the best estimate is sometime in the seventh century), and walking through its passageways is like being in a less refined, more Ethiopian version of Fez or Tangiers. Ancient walls still surround the old city, which can only be entered through one of six gates. Barring a few concessions to modern life – electricity, satellite dishes, and occasional running water – it feels as if little has changed.

Shoa Gate

Photo: The Shoa Gate is one of six gates that lead into Harar’s old city. Harar is one of the oldest cities in Africa – so old that no one can remember when it was founded, or why. (Simon Allison)

But today, Harar, for all its medieval charm, is not the destination. It’s the backdrop, to something arguably even more breath-taking: the men who feed hyenas. And, for a small fee, let you feed them too.

Let’s make one thing clear, which my European travelling companions failed to grasp: hyenas are not just strange, ungainly dogs with a bad reputation. They are dangerous. Not just a little bit dangerous, in a might-take-a-nip-at-your-ankle kind of way, but mortally dangerous; fatally dangerous; life-threateningly dangerous.

Hyenas are carnivores and can be very dangerous, so I don’t allow my guests to get out of the vehicle and start feeding hyenas,” said David Tembo, a guide for Marula Lodge in Zambia’s South Luangwa Valley, who was shocked when I told him what happens in Harar. “Nature can be very cruel. A hyena can also try to catch a human being and eat them, and there are records of hyenas, you know, catching people in Africa.” For Tembo, and almost everyone else on the continent who might cross paths with a hyena, there is one simple rule for interacting with them: keep your distance.

The rule doesn’t apply in Harar.

We stop just outside the city. The bajaj leaves its lights on, and we see an old man crouching next to a large grass basket. Behind him, just a few feet away, is one of the animal kingdom’s most ungainly, and most unmistakeable creatures. The thick neck. The bizarre, disproportionate body. The sticky-out ears and bedraggled polka-dot fur. That’s a hyena, and behind it, where the pool of light ends, another seven or eight pairs of eyes glow in our direction.

Reluctantly, and against our better judgment, we’re urged out of the vehicle (not that its flimsy sides would provide much protection), and the show begins. Yusuf, the old man, reaches into his basket. He threads a strip of beef on a stick, and waves it the direction of the animals. One ambles over; with a flick of those all-powerful jaws, the meat disappears. So does the next piece, and the next. With an unexpected flair for the dramatic, Yusuf puts the stick between his teeth. The hyena is not deterred, and its teeth, so strong they can crush bone, clamp together just inches away from Yusuf’s nose.

Then things get personal. Yusuf beckons me with an impatient flick of his wrist. Having come this far already, I obey, and kneel beside him. I am surrounded by hyenas, the closest no more than three feet away. Yusuf hands me the meat stick. I hold it out nervously. Am I scared? Yes. And I only become more so as one of the most powerful predators in the world comes closer, so close that I can see the drool in its mouth and smell its foul, meat-scented breath. It grabs the meat casually and walks away. I imagine I can understand its thought process, which reassures me: why bother with the live human meat when there’s an endless supply of fresh, butchered cow on tap?

Harar has a centuries-long relationship with its hyenas. The myth goes something like this: when the animals started to attack human settlements, taking away babies and domestic animals, the city’s residents started to put large pots of porridge out for them at the beginning of every year – as instructed by the vision of a local elder. If the hyenas ate the porridge, then you’d be safe that year. If the hyenas ignored the porridge, then best lock away the kids.

But the tradition of hand-feeding hyenas is new, dating to the 1950s. There are various stories of how it actually started, but most agree on one thing: it all began with Yusuf’s father, and over the years it has turned into a family business (there’s another family, on the other side of town, that does it too, but they came later). Yusuf is the patriarch now, but his son, 20-year-old Abbas, is being primed to take over.

Abbas

Photo: Abbas is set to follow in his father’s footsteps, and has himself been involved in the feeding process since he was just seven years old. (Simon Allison)

Abbas is a cool dude, smartly-dressed in blue jeans, a tight white button-up shirt and a cap. He looks like he’d prefer to be going clubbing, but insists he’s happy to be working at his father’s side. He started when he was seven. “This is historical, not only business,” he tells me, through a translator. “It goes from generation to generation.”

Abbas doesn’t like any insinuation that his family is in it for the money, or that it’s just a tourist attraction. And he has a point: there are few tourists in Harar now, and there were even fewer during the long decades of Ethiopia’s communist Derg regime. “Even if someone, some persons, do not come here, we are still feeding them. My father gets pleasure from it. Even when I see the hyenas, I get pleasure.”

Reconciliation Passage

Photo: Harar’s Reconciliation Passage is so narrow that if you meet your enemy within its confines, you’ve got no choice but to shake his hand. (Simon Allison)

Abbas tells us the family legend of how it all began. He points to a nearby hill, where his grandfather bought a house. The family still live there. His grandfather acquired a dog, and began to feed it scraps of meat. The hyenas must have smelt the meat, and began to hang around the house, so his grandfather – presumably a little scared – began to feed them to. But after a few weeks, he stopped. Meat is expensive, after all. But the hyenas kept coming, and when they realised there was no food they started digging at the foundations of the house, trying to get in. The grandfather relented, and so began this unusual, symbiotic relationship.

These hyenas are not tame. They still roam the forests and fields around Harar, feasting on dead cows and even hunting the odd goat when necessary. But they are trained, and have become accustomed to walking amongst humans, even through the streets of the old city on occasion. Most importantly, they don’t see humans as prey, and there hasn’t been a single hyena-related death or injury in Harar in half a century. “No, no, never!” says Abbas, breaking into rusty English. “They are only giving happiness. Happy! Yes happy!”

It’s astonishing how quickly I become acclimatised to these magnificent, terrifying beasts. I forget that my interview is being observed by a circle of vicious predators. Within minutes, this bizarre spectacle has already become normal. But as the bajaj takes me away from Harar’s hyena men, I can’t help but wonder how much longer they’ll be able to go about their business as usual. As Ethiopia develops, and tourists come flooding in, will some authority intervene to say that this is no longer safe? Will a conservation society question whether this is somehow damaging to the animals? For how much longer will other travellers be afforded this exhilarating, otherworldly experience? DM

Photo: Yusuf feeds the hyenas every night, as his family has done for more than half a century. (Simon Allison)

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