Hyenas and cities do not mix. Addis Ababa has some experience with this—an estimated 300 to 1000 of the foul pack-hunters and scavengers live in the Ethiopian capital, culling the feral dog and cat population, but also at times victimizing the homeless who live there.
That is what makes the Ethiopian city of Harar, in eastern Ethiopia, such an oddity: in Harar, the hyenas have been fed outside the city walls for centuries. The practice started with Sufi Muslims, who would feed them leftover meat to mark an important Muslim holiday. Even as the practice has evolved into more of a tourist ritual, hyenas still play an important role in the mythology of the town’s beleaguered Sufi community. I wanted to see them for myself.
“I don’t know if the hyenas will be here tonight, but we can try,” my guide Hennok explains as we walk through one of the gates of Harar. Groups of hyenas—a ‘cackle of hyenas’ is the correct terminology—visit the walls of Harar each night to be fed scraps or to scavenge. There have been fewer lately, explains Hennok, because the Turkish government had given out animals to slaughter on the Eid holiday, and local hyenas had been been eating their fill at city dumps. Indeed, the life cycle of Ethiopia’s spotted hyenas is closely connected to human consumption. One study of hyenas found that when Ethiopian Christians fasted for lent, hyenas turned to hunting as less meat scraps were available in garbage dumps.
Hyena feeding in Harar has persevered throughout various occupations. The city at has alternately been coveted by Ottoman sultans, Ethiopian Imperialists, and Italian fascists. Today it retains its importance as a center of geopolitical intrigue of a different kind: the city is a battleground for competing visions of Islam. A new wave of Wahabbi Islam and intolerance again threaten a community that once prided itself on peace and tolerance.
Face to face with Africa’s second-largest predator
Hennok takes me to where a narrow alley opens onto a small field. Here I meet Solomon, a local butcher propped up on a piece of cardboard. He has a basket of meat scraps in one hand and a weak flashlight in the other. In the cool mountain air he pans the small field, and sets of eyes glow back. A cackle of at least 20 hyenas sits up and stares in our direction. The animals slowly begin approaching: the flashlight signals a free meal is to be had. Solomon explains that he uses beef scraps from a Christian butcher shop. The only other hyena feeding site in Harar is run by Yussef, a Muslim who feeds hyenas camel scraps but, Solomon tells me, Christians don’t eat camels, for religious reasons.
Solomon tosses meat to encourage the beasts to draw closer. I join him on the cardboard, snapping photos as he and his friend hold out pieces of raw beef on stick skewers. Hennok assures me that “these hyenas are smart animals”: They would not bite the hand that feeds them. Soon, with some encouragement from Hennok, I have a skewer clenched between my teeth and am face to face with Africa’s second largest predator. After feeding a hyena or two in this manner, I suddenly feel a hyena’s paws on my shoulders. Startled, I move to stand and the animal bolts into the darkness. The Ethiopians laugh at my shock. They had held a skewer of meat over my head and the hyena had used my shoulders like a stool to get it. “This one is a new trick,” explains Solomon with a broad grin.