The Hyenas Of Harar - Eastern Ethiopia

Before heading to Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia to commence hiking and filming Walking With The Mursi  I ventured to the ancient city of Harar near the Somali boarder.  Here's a short piece and video about a unique and exciting travel experience there...

Daylight is fading fast as I stumble lost through the streets of Harar, Ethiopia’s easternmost city.  The historic walled town is a maze of a few hundred tight streets, narrow alleyways and brick paths crammed into one square kilometre.  During the day the crowded streets are lined with spice merchants, tailors, farmers and nomads selling camels but now they are deserted.  

I pull up short at yet another dead end.  I fear I am going to miss the main attraction I’ve hitchhiked two days to witness. 

A strange howl cuts through the now dark skies. I turn and run in its direction. 

Harar has six large gates but I reach one of several shortcut holes that have been chipped out of the walls and crouch to pass through.  

I look up and see the silhouette of a man who arches his back, looks to the sky and lets out the same strange howl.  Moments later from the surrounding desert a pack of hyenas emerge and skulk towards myself and a handful of Ethiopian tourists.  It’s a spine-tingling moment.  I’m struck by their size, far from the usual depiction of scrawny scavengers, they are large and broad, roughly the size of a male German Shepherd. 

The animals pace and dart nervously.  The Hyena Man commands them to settle in a strange dialect, a skill passed down through generations of men in his family.  He reaches into a basket, pulls out a lump of camel meat and throws it to the marauding pack.  Initially they eat in an orderly fashion then descend into growling, shrieking and pouncing as if deciding fighting is a better show for the audience.  

The Hyena Man gestures with the basket, inviting us to feed the pack.  Horrified at the idea, the Ethiopians, perhaps wisely, refuse.  I risk it and grab a slimy strip of meat then quick as a flash it’s snatched from my hand.  Surprised by the speed with which the hyena moved it dawns on me I am now surrounded by them. 

My concern grows as I am beckoned to kneel on a mat.  

I oblige and a two inch stick is skewed into my mouth then meat is draped around it. This time it’s like slow motion as a huge mouth, sporting sharp teeth dripping with saliva, glides up to me.  I fear it will swallow my entire head but its huge tongue slurps the meat from the stick and scurries away.  

I’m beginning to relax when suddenly I’m knocked from behind onto all fours as a large male climbs onto my back.  The Hyena Man, ever the entertainer, is dangling a piece of meat tantalisingly above me.  The hyena’s claws dig into my shoulders and I buckle under its weight as it stretches its neck to snatch the meat then jumps off.  Several more climb over me then I am passed the meat basket to continue feeding.  

The Hyena Man rolls around playing with them, his affection and understanding of the wild beasts is fascinating to witness.  When the basket is empty we hand over cash for the spectacle then hyenas and humans alike disappear into the night.  

It’s believed feeding the hyenas began over a century ago to stop them entering Harar thereby protecting livestock and children from attacks. 

As I drift off to sleep I hear a now familiar howling in the street just outside my guest house.  I am tempted to venture out to feed or even pat the hyenas but I decide not to push my luck.