A night with Harar's hyenas
“Sit down”, he said. “And turn your back to the hyenas”.
“Here hold some raw meat on a stick in your hand”.
“I promise they won’t hurt you”.
Ever found yourself in this situation? Me neither. Until now.
Welcome to Harar, where man and hyena have forged a friendly relationship. And where the locals expect you will, too.
On this particular trip, night has fallen in Harar, and as we tumble down dirt paths in our rickshaw, I strain my eyes to try and spot the hyenas that I know are surrounding me. I’ve been told there are hundreds living on the outskirts of this historic town, and that when dark falls they make their way closer and closer to the town centre, in search of food.
I ask my guide if hyenas actively hunt, rather than just scavenge. “Yes, this type of hyena, the spotted hyena does”, he says. “But our Harar hyenas are different”. I hope so, I think to myself as I become more and more aware of the hyena’s keen sense of sight in the dark and my limited night vision.
We continue down the dirt path as I hopelessly scan the dark fields.
Suddenly we stop.
The rickshaw driver turns his lights a little brighter to highlight a clearing in the path. In the centre sits a young man, opening up a wicker basket.
And then I see them. The hyenas. They sulk into the rickshaw’s headlights, sidling up to the man with the basket. He opens it to reveal huge amounts of fresh raw meat. The hyenas patiently wait. Not one of them pushing ahead of its turn.
“The hyenas are his friends”, my guide tells me. “And soon, when you feed them, they can be yours too”.
Do I want to be ‘friends’ with a hyena? '
We’ll see, I think to myself.
The man who evidently is their friend, continues his feed. A disciplined process; slowly placing one piece of raw meat on a stick and feeding it to one hyena. Then the same with a second. Third, forth, fifth.
They continue, each patiently waiting its turn.
I start to feel more comfortable, though very aware of my surroundings and making sure I keep a close eye on each and every one of the wild animals standing in front of me.
I start to take some photos. I relax, albeit only slightly.
This practice has taken place for centuries in Harar, and the young man in front of me has learnt it from his father. It’s a nightly activity, and the hyenas do indeed appear to have learnt that humans are their friends in this remote part of Ethiopia.
I’m told, that after the nightly feeding practice, the hyenas also roam freely through the city’s streets, cleaning up the days waste -the people of Harar have even built special gates to allow the hyenas to enter the walled city. Confirmation of this came later that night as I lay in my guesthouse trying to get some rest, captivated yet somehow not scared, by the howling of the hyenas - seemingly right outside my (flimsy) door.
So revered are the hyenas, that once a year the locals deviate from the nightly raw meat menu and instead offer a dish of porridge, usually mixed with goat meat and butter. If the hyenas don’t like the dish, the city is said to have bad luck for the entire next year.
“And does this come true”? I ask.
“Well, they’re hyenas” jokes my guide, “they’ll eat anything”. He’s never seen them turn down the porridge.
Back to the present moment and I’m being beckoned to sit on the step, to place my back to the hyenas and to feed them meat from a stick.
I wish I could end this tale with a show of bravado. But no. I couldn't do it. Though I count myself pretty brave, simply standing just metres from these hungry animals, if I'm honest.
- By Katie Silcox