Harar's Hyena Man
February 24, 2016
Seeing the Hyena Man communicate on some level with unpredictable wild hyenas.
I've heard of some strange things in my travels, but feeding wild hyenas by hand is one of the strangest. We are in Harar, an old eastern Ethiopian city with a long checkered history … so this hyena feeding somehow seems to fit into this unique place.
We have an NTO (National Tourist Office) driver/guide, Sebsebe. The Institute in Addis Ababa thought it wiser to have an NTO escort, as there is ethnic fighting in the area and some resentment towards outsiders, or farengi, which we so obviously are. Sebsebe organized for a local guide, Abdul, to take us around Harar.
On our first evening we visit the Hyena Man before dinner. They drive us outside one of the old gates in the stone walls enclosing the Old Town. Here the Hyena Man feeds the hyenas at night in a dusty open area. He's dressed in tattered clothes, his dark-skinned face blending into the darkness. Next to him is a large sack.
"In that sack are rejected pieces of meat and bones from the butcher," Abdul tells us.
Sebsebe stops the car, leaving the headlights on, allowing us to see quite well. The Hyena Man starts calling a wild, high-pitched chant, and one-by-one the hyenas come, slinking down the hills.
First come two hyenas, their red eyes glowing in the headlights. They circle at a distance, and two more come, then three. The chanting continues until there are about 20 - all the size of a large heavy dog - with strong jaws and characteristic sloping shoulders. They come a bit closer and we can see them, spotted unattractive heads with small ears, salivating at the sight and smell of the meat. They really are one of nature's ugliest animals.
Some make an excited yipping noise while others start "laughing". A hyena's "laugh" is an eerie, primitive sound, and we step a bit closer to the car.
The Hyena Man draws out some scraps of meat, which he flings into the dark. There's a flurry of rushing bodies. He throws some small bones and we hear cracking, gnawing sounds.
Three or four of the creatures come much closer. "They are more familiar with him and he can feed those by hand," Abdul whispers. The Hyena Man loops a piece of meat around the end of a long stick. One hyena runs forward and pulls on the meat. We stand close to the car, taking photograph, impressed in spite of ourselves.
Then he holds out a bone, about 12 inches long, and one of the hyenas grabs it ferociously and runs off. All of the "familiar" ones get a bone in this way. "He doesn't actually hold out his hand now as he lost one of his fingers recently," Abdul informs us. Is this man brave or foolish for feeding these unpredictable beasts, or is he just out to make a living?
This amazing spectacle started years ago after some small children and donkeys were apparently killed and dragged off by hyenas. The people decided to partially feed the hyenas outside the walls so they don't come into town ravenously hungry and ready to attack animals or children. It's a strange "night show", but we're impressed anyway, partly because it tells us more about Harar and Ethiopia.
When the sack is emptied, the hyenas retreat to the darkness just beyond the light and Abdul gives the Hyena Man some Ethiopian birr notes. He bobs his head briefly, picks up the sack, and walks off into the dark.
By: Vivienne Mackie's