The hyenas of Harar: how a city fell in love with its bone-crunching carnivores


The hyenas gather as night settles. The bolder animals come early and lounge around, undisturbed by the loud blare of mosques calling people to prayer. By the time Abbas Yusuf arrives, dozens lurk in the semi-darkness, pacing over shards of splintered bone and broken glass.

Abbas whistles and calls, tossing out a few chunks of meat. Then he beckons over the small group of tourists who have come to watch. They take turns feeding the hyenas from sticks, flinching and giggling as the animals tentatively grab the meat between their jaws and scuttle off.

“No problem, don’t worry,” Abbas says, encouraging a tourist to place the meat-tipped stick in his mouth. “Be like a lion.”

Abbas has a special relationship with the hyenas. When there are no tourists to watch the ‘animal show’, he sometimes feeds them in his house
Abbas has a special relationship with the hyenas. When there are no tourists to watch the ‘animal show’, he sometimes feeds them in his house

Elsewhere in Ethiopia – and many other regions of sub-Saharan Africa – hyenas are feared and denigrated. News programmes often carry stories of them snatching babies, and in the folklore of the Ethiopian highlands, people with the “evil eye” turn into hyenas at night and attack their neighbours. Across Africa, hyenas and people often clash, particularly as human settlements expand. The large carnivores are known to kill people as well as large numbers of livestock, and are often poisoned and killed in retaliatory attacks. Spotted hyenas, in particular, have such a bad reputation that rehabilitating their image has been cited as a species conservation priority by the IUCN.

Here in Harar, a walled city in eastern Ethiopia, however, their presence is not just accepted but encouraged.

“There is a history of living side by side in peace,” says Ahmed Zekaria, a Harari scholar. “The city is structured to accept them.”

Discarded bone fragments near the hyenas’ feeding ground.
Discarded bone fragments near the hyenas’ feeding ground.
A tourist looks on as a hyena takes a piece of meat from Abbas’s hands
A tourist looks on as a hyena takes a piece of meat from Abbas’s hands
Another snatches a morsel attached to a stick held between Abbas’s teeth
Another snatches a morsel attached to a stick held between Abbas’s teeth

While brown and striped hyenas are classed as “near-threatened”, spotted hyenas are not but their numbers are in decline. As human-wildlife conflict increases and habitats shrink, the question of how communities can live in coexistence with large predators becomes increasingly pressing.

In Harar, the animals act as the city’s garbage-disposal system, entering at night through a series of “hyena doors” built into the walls and eating entrails dumped in the streets. Abbas is a longtime human ally, one of the “hyena men” of the city. He learned his trade from his father, Yusuf, who started tossing scraps to hyenas while feeding his dogs decades ago.

A spotted hyena on a road outside Harar. They are often seen around the city at night or in the early morning
A spotted hyena on a road outside Harar. They are often seen around the city at night or in the early morning

Abbas’s connection with the pack runs deep. He has names for all of them, and while most are too skittish to feed directly from his hand, his favourites regularly come to his home.

“I feed them every night, whether there are tourists or not,” he says.

One of his favourites was an elderly female named Chaltu. A few months ago, she wandered into an office building in the town and was clubbed by the guard. When he heard the news, Abbas commandeered an ambulance and brought her to his farm, where he tried to nurse her back to health.

Abbas with his two children: he hopes they will continue the family tradition of feeding the hyenas
Abbas with his two children: he hopes they will continue the family tradition of feeding the hyenas
An injured hyena being cared for by Abbas. The animal wandered into a police station and was severely beaten by officers, losing teeth and an eye
An injured hyena being cared for by Abbas. The animal wandered into a police station and was severely beaten by officers, losing teeth and an eye

Unfortunately his efforts were in vain. “She was so special to me. I felt like I had lost a family member,” says Abbas.

Today, his relationship with the hyenas is the town’s biggest attraction, and he charges tourists a fee to join in at feeding time.

Like much of Harar’s Muslim population, Abbas and his father believe hyenas can protect people from mischievous djinn, or spirits.

“The hyenas eat them,” says Yusuf. “Without the hyenas, there would be a lot of djinn playing tricks.”

Adil Abubaker, who sells traditional woven baskets in his shop, says their power to keep djinn at bay “is the main reason we need hyenas in the town”.

Adil leaves the leftovers from his table in the cobbled alley outside his house. “The djinn cannot come if there are hyenas,” says Adil. “We feed the hyenas and in return, they protect us from evil spirits. It is a give-and-take relationship.”

Two symbols of Harar: its fortified walls pierced with five gates dating back to the 16th century, and its hyenas, painted on a stone. The city became a Unesco world heritage site in 2006
Two symbols of Harar: its fortified walls pierced with five gates dating back to the 16th century, and its hyenas, painted on a stone. The city became a Unesco world heritage site in 2006

In Harari folklore, hyenas also act as mediums that can communicate with the town’s dead saints and transmit messages from the townspeople. This is reflected in the local word for hyena: waraba, or “newsman”.

The origin of these beliefs has been lost. Ahmed, the scholar, speculates that the idea hyenas can eat and spit out djinn could stem from their habit of vomiting undigested bits of bones, hooves and hair.

Anthropologist Marcus Baynes-Rock, author of Among the Bone Eaters: Encounters with Hyenas in Harar, believes the legends formed part of a local pre-Islamic belief system and could have been derived from hyenas’ heightened senses.

“When you observe them, it seems like they are operating in a different world, that they can see things humans can’t see,” says Baynes-Rock, who spent more than a year in Harar studying the relationship between its people and hyenas. “It is easy to extrapolate from that if you live in a world brimming with spirits.”

At nightfall, the hyenas of Harar venture out into the streets in search of food
At nightfall, the hyenas of Harar venture out into the streets in search of food

The relationship was not always peaceful. Centuries ago, there was a famine in the region and hungry hyenas preyed on the infirm and sick, according to legend. After deliberating on a nearby mountain, Harar’s saints struck a pact: the townspeople would feed porridge to the hyenas, who would end the attacks.

This story endures during the annual Islamic celebration of Ashura, when pious people still prepare porridge for hyenas at several shrines outside the town.

Abbas has a special relationship with the hyenas. When there are no tourists to watch the ‘animal show’, he sometimes feeds them in his house
Abbas has a special relationship with the hyenas. When there are no tourists to watch the ‘animal show’, he sometimes feeds them in his house

As part of a broader effort to boost tourism, Ethiopia’s government is keen to capitalise on Abbas’s relationship with the hyenas. Currently, he feeds them on a patch of wasteland once used as a rubbish dump. This will be replaced by a $2.5m (£2m) “eco-park”, complete with shops, cafes and a museum, which officials hope will attract more tourists.

Yet Harar’s development could imperil its unique relationship with its hyenas. For centuries the walled old town stood on a hill, surrounded by rolling countryside. Today it is wrapped in the sprawling embrace of the much larger new town, which has blocked off many of the routes once used by hyenas.

“It doesn’t matter how much you encourage them,” says Baynes-Rock, “if there is no room left, the hyenas will just go away.”

A spotted hyena on the lookout for scraps on a night-time prowl through the streets of Harar’s old town
A spotted hyena on the lookout for scraps on a night-time prowl through the streets of Harar’s old town

This article by Fred Harter was first published by The Guardian on 5 April 2024. Lead Image: In an ancient walled city in eastern Ethiopia, the animals are fed in return for cleaning up the streets and keeping spirits at bay. Photographs by Guillaume Petermann

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