Harar hyena feeding
A unique chance to get up close and personal with wild (but semi-habituated) spotted hyenas in the ancient town of Harar in north-eastern Ethiopia
, a place which has long had a very special relationship with this otherwise mostly vilified and misunderstood species. It’s dark only insofar as the reputation of hyenas is so negative, which is only partially justified (they are
dangerous in other contexts and outside Harar). Learning about these animals through the Harar case is a good opportunity to rectify some misconceptions about hyenas. And taking part in the feeding after dusk outside the Old Town gates is one of the greatest wildlife encounters I’ve ever had anywhere.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info: Hyenas really have a PR problem. They’re amongst the most vilified creatures on the planet and in many places they are still even classed as “vermin”. This extremely negative reputation can partly be explained in evolutionary terms, as partly “in our genes”, since early hominids got into conflict with hyenas, competing in a similar ecological niche.
It didn’t help that hyenas would have dug up shallow graves and eaten the bones of deceased humans (hyenas do indeed eat and digest bones – hence their droppings are a characteristic chalky white!). What’s worse, hyenas can also attack humans, and being the opportunists they are, grab the chance of snatching an unattended child and devour it. This still occasionally happens today. Attacks on humans by hyenas usually target the face first, so people surviving a hyena attack can end up disfigured for life. The fact that hyenas go for the face must be a special adaptation too – as when hunting ungulates they usually go for the hind legs.
Anyway, all those negative angles aside, let’s first clarify a few widespread misconceptions about hyenas:
First, spotted hyenas (the main subspecies) are not solely scavengers (although striped and brown hyenas, who are also loners, are). In fact they obtain about 80% of their food through hunting, at which they are very adept thanks to their highly intelligent social co-operation. They do scavenge and eat carrion too, but that’s just supplementing their diet.
Second, hyenas are not closely related to dogs. In fact they are more closely related to cats, and even closer to mongooses (despite the size difference – but think of the closest relative of the elephant, the small rodent-like dassie, and you realize that size doesn’t have to be a good gauge of relatedness). The fact that hyenas came to resemble dogs in their reliance on smell and hearing, and the fact that their mouths are quite dog-like, is the result of what’s called ‘convergent evolution’ (adaptation to open-territory predation). But take a second look and the differences to dogs become apparent: the sloped back, the whiskers, the muscular neck, their vocalizations, their gait, etc., all very different. By the way, the muscular neck is no coincidence: hyenas have the most powerful jaws of any mammal, in relation to their size. Forces of 4500 newtons have been measured in their bite (that’s the equivalent of almost half a tonne!). And they are the second largest predator in Africa, after lions, but ahead of leopards.
Third, hyenas are not stupid, cowardly, evil, or any such things based on anthropomorphized moral value judgements. They are in fact a highly intelligent, extremely social kind of species, and certainly brave enough to take on even lions. Their co-operating intelligence is judged to be at least on a par with chimpanzees. And their social structure is characterized by a very complex hierarchical set-up, with an alpha female at the top (i.e. they are matriarchal). They form clans of between 15 and 80 individuals and are highly territorial – clan wars over territorial violations or disputes are quite common. They use caves or cracks in the ground as dens, where they give birth to their cubs, and usually emerge at dusk to go hunting and foraging, so they are nocturnal to quite a degree, though not exclusively. Hyenas have a wide range of vocalizations, some quite human-like (which led to the expression “laughing hyena”). The most characteristic sound is that whooping call they make – and that’s also a kind of fingerprint, as all individuals have their own characteristic whoop.
Fourth, hyenas are not hermaphrodites; that’s a misconception that comes from the adult female hyenas’ enlarged genitalia which looks like a pseudo-penis (which they actually have to retract when mating with a male).
All these misconceptions have also given rise to all sorts of mythological associations – with witches, evil spirits and what not. And as the spread of humans in modern days kept further diminishing hyenas’ habitat they got into further conflict with humans, e.g. as hyenas would attack livestock too. Yet they instinctively try to keep their distance from humans, having obviously understood that humans are the biggest danger to them, so they appear skittish on encounters with humans and rather flee than risk confrontation. This may have contributed to their reputation as “cowardly”.
Hence hyenas are generally vilified almost everywhere. And for many people this negativity is so ingrained that it comes as an automatic reflex for them to loathe hyenas without thinking.
Now comes the great big exception: Harar, the ancient town in north-eastern Ethiopia where the relationship between humans and hyenas is very different indeed, characterized by respect and even reverence, as well as practical co-operation, so much so that hyenas are deeply woven into the local culture, mythologies, belief systems and also everyday life.
Harar is an old Muslim town, in fact, as Hararis are quick to emphasize, it’s the fourth “holiest” town in Islam, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem
. When the Oromo people moved north-east into Harari territory, the town eventually became something like an enclave, and a wall was erected around it – which still stands today, making it one of the few medieval towns with an intact wall surrounding it in its entirety (although the new town outside the old wall has grown significantly since). The fact that a number of holes were cut into the wall that are big enough to let hyenas in is evidence of the special relationship with hyenas that must already have existed during the early years of Harar. And they have been entering the town at night since time immemorial. Butchers leave bones and other left-overs out for the hyenas to clear away, which they dutifully do, thus helping in keeping the town clean. The Old Town is also neutral territory from the point of view of the different hyena clans, these days mainly two, who won’t have clan wars inside the Old Town, only outside its walls, occasionally.
I won’t go into the details of how deeply woven hyenas are into the local mythology, but concentrate on a more recent phenomenon that developed in Harar with regard to hyenas: the nightly feedings that have become a tourist attraction. While some local guides will claim that this too is a centuries-old tradition, there is in fact no evidence of this having occurred before sometime in the 1950s. Today there are two hyena feeding spots outside the Old Town walls, one in the north, often dubbed the “Christian” hyena feeding site (due to the faith of the hyena man there, not any religiosity on the part of the hyenas, of course), while the other one just outside the south-east of the Old Town wall is called the “Muslim” feeding site.
At this point I should disclose that I gleaned most of what I know about hyenas and the special case of Harar from one extraordinary book: “Among the Bone Eaters – Encounters with Hyenas in Harar” by Marcus Baynes-Rock (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015). This is the result of a unique anthropological-cum-zoological study over a long period of time, during which the author not only observed hyenas at the nightly feeding, as well as following them on their forays into Harar’s Old Town, but even developed a very personal relationship with some individual hyenas that you might be tempted to even call friendship. It certainly led to an acceptance of the human on the part of the hyena that allowed playing together and on one occasion nearly an invitation into the hyena den (which the author thoughtfully declined, as it could have endangered any cubs inside and would not have been so welcome by the other clan members). This is all the more remarkable as hyenas are naturally very, very wary of humans indeed and would rather keep their distance. You can tell that even at the feeding, how skittish and nervous they are when getting close to humans. But as Baynes-Rock’s study showed, that natural fear can be overcome and a bond on mutual terms was formed, temporarily at least, with a couple of particular individuals.
It should also be pointed out here that these hyenas are indeed wild and come to the feeding spot entirely on their own volition – it’s a tradition that formed on both the humans’ and the hyenas’ side. At least that’s the case at the so-called “Muslim” feeding site, which the author of the study preferred to refer to as the Sofi site (after a shrine of that name at the feeding site) and the clan he named after this too: the Sofi clan. The other feeding site and clan he named after the Aboker shrine there. He also noted that the feeding of the Aboker hyenas was less natural and more orchestrated by the humans involved and also featured elements of showing-off bravado like sitting on the hyena. Moreover they’re generally more “managed” by the humans and hence more “reliable” at turning up. However, this is precisely one of the key reasons why the author concentrated on the Sofi clan instead. But since they are free to turn up – or not, as the case may be (e.g. if they’d found enough food before the feeding and thus wouldn’t need any extra scraps) – they’re somewhat less reliable as a tourist attraction. Hence many local guides steer foreign visitors towards the Aboker site by default. I’m glad, though, that the feeding I witnessed was at the Sofi site, not only because it’s the less manipulated of the two places but also because it’s the very clan that featured in Rock-Bayne’s amazing book.
What there is to see:
Harar was in fact the first stop on my trip to Ethiopia
at the end of December 2019. We had a local guide and driver who transferred us from the airport at Dire Dawa, dropped us off at a hotel, and later picked us up again to go to one of the two hyena feeding sites outside the walls of old Harar.
There are two sites, one often called the “Christian” one, the other the “Muslim” one (see above). The former is the more popular, and the interaction with hyenas can apparently get a little dubious and is also shorter, so I had been advised in advance that I should give preference to the “Muslim” site instead; hence I was glad that this was indeed the place that our guide took us to, just outside the south-east of the Old Town wall at the Sofi shrine.
When we arrived the feeding was already in progress and there were about another ten or so tourists. We joined the ring of onlookers and watched the local hyena man (Yusuf) putting scraps of meat on a stick which he then put between his teeth and proffered it to the hyenas, who’d reluctantly get close and then quickly snatch the morsels from the stick. Occasionally Yusuf would also simply throw a piece of meat over his shoulders for the hyenas lurking in the back to snatch up. There was a small floodlight shining a single beam of light towards the feeding spot where Yusuf was sitting on a small rock, plus the headlights of one of the guides’ vans helped illuminate the gloom. But it was still rather dark all around. We counted something like 14 hyenas coming in and out of the gloom for the feeding. As you can see in the photo gallery below I chose to go for higher ISO rather than using flash, hence my images are a bit grainy, but reflect better what the scene really looked like. (Other tourists were using flash but I felt this might upset the hyenas, so I wouldn’t have done so – the one image below that was clearly taken with flash simply happened to be in sync with another photographer’s flash by coincidence.)
The feeding went through different phases. One big female was initially dominant – possibly the alpha female of the Sofi clan. But gradually others joined, including a few smaller youngsters.
One after the other, tourists were invited to come and sit next to Yusuf on a little rock on the ground and thus get really close to the animals, occasionally Yusuf would also hand a stick with meat to the tourist to hold in the direction of the hyena themselves.
It’s hard to put into words what is feels like to get this close, literally face to face, with such majestic animals. I know, I know ... I sound biased here. Many others would rather be repulsed by a hyena getting so close or at least be a little afraid of the proximity to such potentially dangerous predators with jaws so powerful that they could easily snap through a human arm. But I was already quite aware of the special situation in Harar and this particular clan. So for me it was an extremely uplifting moment to get right into the middle of it. At one point one of the larger hyenas even brushed right past me so that I could get a feel of their fur. My wife later admitted that on her second stint of joining the feeding she even surreptitiously held her hand out to feel one of the hyenas’ sides (though I have the suspicion that nominally you would not be supposed to do something like this). But it felt safe. I also did not pick up any evil smells from the hyenas, by the way (another negative reputation they are associated with – see above
After the feeding of scraps from Yusuf’s bucket was over, he fetched a clump of bones and placed it near where he had been sitting, then retreated and left the hyenas to help themselves to the bones. This is when the observation became even more interesting as you could see the hyenas socialize amongst themselves. This is also when they started to emit some of those characteristic high-pitched vocalizations. While some hyenas picked up bones to chew on and others played around with each other, some simply relaxed, lying down with their heads on their outstretched carpals and just watched the scene, totally at ease.
I could have watched this forever, but after a bit over half an hour it was time to leave, our guide tipped Yusuf and then we were driven off again.
But the whole scene of this close encounter with hyenas carried on playing in my head for a long time afterwards. It was certainly one of the most magical wildlife encounters I’ve had (topped only by the mountain gorillas of Rwanda
). What a wonderful experience. It made me become rather obsessed with hyenas for a long while, and, I admit, even a bit messianic in my zeal to convince people to rethink their negative attitude towards this species. But I stand by that.
in two places outside the Old Town walls of Harar in north-eastern Ethiopia
, one by the Aboker shrine the other by the Sofi shrine.
Google Maps locators:
Sofi clan feeding site (“Muslim”) near outside Erer Gate: [9.3074, 42.1428
Aboker clan feeding site (“Christian”) outside Fallana Gate: [9.3149, 42.1375
Access and costs:
a bit off the usual tourist tracks of Ethiopia
, but established enough for organized tours offering this as part of a larger package, but it can also be done independently; a small fee/tip for the hyena man is customary.
to get to Harar, it’s quickest to first take an internal flight to Dire Dawa (there are a couple of daily flights from Addis Ababa
), the next larger town with an airport, and organize transport from there. The drive takes about an hour and a half to two hours. The least hassle is to prearrange this with one of the many established tour operators. They would also then see to the transfer from your accommodation to the hyena feeding site.
Note that accommodation options are more limited in Harar and there are no upscale hotels; the few that try to market themselves as such are not necessarily up to it, and power cuts or water shortages can occur at those places too.
If you’ve made your own way to Harar, you can just either get a taxi or bajaj (a tuk-tuk-like three-wheeler auto-rickshaw) to one of the sites or walk it to the feeding site(s). You may get pounced upon by self-appointed local “guides” though. Be prepared for that.
Note that the maze of alleyways in the Old Town of Harar is very confusing and disorienting to outsiders, so getting to the relevant gates by yourself on foot may be more of a challenge than would be worth it. That’s why I’d advise going for a prearranged tour.
Cost: this is a little unclear; my guide tipped the hyena man himself as part of our package, so I don’t know how much he gave him; but the Bradt Travel guidebook for Ethiopia says that the equivalent of 2.50 USD (ca. 100 Birr) is customary, twice that if you want to take photographs. Costs for a guide and transport come on top, of course.
Hyena feedings take place at both sites every evening, from just after sunset.
Time required: at the Sofi site we spent just over half an hour. I was told that visits to the other feeding site tend to be shorter, but I can’t confirm this. Getting to the sites by car/bajaj adds a little to the overall time, so perhaps an hour in total would be a realistic estimate.
Combinations with other dark destinations: The next day after the hyena feeding we were also taken on a walking tour of the Old Town of Harar – and this also included a couple of unexpected dark bits:
For one thing there was another feeding spectacle. This time it was eagles, namely at the main meat market. Here a local guy was holding up pieces of camel meat scraps for eagles to snatch, who are lining up on the roof obviously in expectation of this opportunity. Of course we were then invited to also take part and the guy would place pieces of meat in our outstretched hand … it doesn’t take much more than a second for one of the eagles to dive down and snatch the morsel. You can feel the impact, but their sharp talons do not leave a hint of a scratch, they’re that precise. The local guy even proceeded to put pieces of meat on the cap on my head for eagles to get them from there. Needless to say, this is also quite an established tourist thing and the local guy expected a tip (I think we gave another 100 Birr).
The other dark element was part of the local museum
, where our main guide dropped us off for a guided tour with a local museum guide. While much of the museum’s content wasn’t all that captivating, a few unexpected dark items stood out. For one thing there was a semi-broken bas-relief of a golden fist grabbing a golden gun that I presumed must have been a relic from the Derg days – which was confirmed when I asked (see under Red Terror Museum
and under Ethiopia
in general for the historical context). Inside the main exhibition there were also further relics from those dark days, such as weapons used in the civil war and some communist
icons such as a bust of Lenin
and a coin with a portrait of Stali
n on it! In a side room, there were also paintings relating to the Derg period, such as an image of military dictator Mengistu as well as a depiction of the arrest of a dissident.
The theme of Harar’s special relationship with hyenas also featured in the paintings, and there was even a small carved wooden hyena figurine. Somewhat surprisingly, however, nowhere in Ethiopia did any souvenir stalls sell such carved hyenas, only the usual other animals you get offered all over sub-Saharan Africa. I wonder why even in Harar hyenas were not on offer. I would have bought one like a shot!
Combinations with non-dark destinations: the walking tour of Harar Old Town also included lengthy wanderings through Harar’s maze of little alleyways, through local markets, past various mosques, a visit to a local Catholic school (Harar isn’t all Muslim) and a few more other spots.
Outside one of the main gates we also saw the selling of khat (or ‘chat’ or ‘qat’), the local drug of choice, a type of leaf that you chew on for hours and that’s supposed to produce a mild high, even vague hallucinogenic effects. I’ve never tried it, but I’ve heard from other travellers who did give it a go that it is either “an acquired taste” or downright “foul” and that the intoxicating effect was at best “mild” to non-existent. Maybe you have to chew a lot of good quality khat to get it. The locals certainly do, and by afternoon most men just sit around communally chewing khat and not saying very much. Incidentally, though, for those not bound by Islamic restrictions Harar also has a beer brewery of its own (of the standard modern international lager type you can get virtually anywhere in the world), and this is perfectly tolerated here. Harar is clearly not a very dogmatically religious place.
- Harar 01 - clan of hyenas emerging from the dark
- Harar 02 - with gleaming eye reflections
- Harar 03 - youngster approaching carefully
- Harar 04 - Yusuf feeding hyenas
- Harar 05 - big female snatching a meat morsel
- Harar 06 - feeding with tourist
- Harar 07 - you get really close
- Harar 08 - hyena in black and white
- Harar 09 - hyenas in black and white
- Harar 10 - black and white hyenas with heap of bones
- Harar 11 - hyena grabbing a bone
- Harar 12 - after the feeding
- Harar 13 - hyenas in flash
- Harar 14 - post-feeding socializing
- Harar 15 - content hyenas
- Harar 15b - hyena feeding at the Aboker site - photo courtesy of Howard Sawyer
- Harar 16 - one street fit for vehicles
- Harar 17 - otherwise it is all narrow alleyways
- Harar 18 - busy old street
- Harar 19 - narrow market lane
- Harar 20 - unusually empty crossroad
- Harar 21 - main market square
- Harar 22 - with eagles flying about hoping to snatch some scraps
- Harar 23 - living room
- Harar 24 - living compound
- Harar 25 - Old Town Gate
- Harar 26 - view over the old town
- Harar 27 - museum
- Harar 28 - old cannon outside
- Harar 29 - Derg relic
- Harar 30 - gun displays inside
- Harar 31 - Lenin bust
- Harar 32 - Stalin coin
- Harar 33 - wooden spotted hyena
- Harar 35 - khat market outside the city walls
- Harar 36 - woman selling khat