Ethiopia’s eastern city of Harar, 500km southeast of Addis Ababa, is famous for its hyena men. Residents of this ancient walled city have always treated the spotted African Hyena as a fortune magnet to the community, leaving food for them and determining their luck by the number of bowls eaten.
Today, that fortune comes in the form of tours as visitors flock to see and take part in the nightly feeding of hyenas, a ritual going back four centuries.
I recently took the 50km bus ride to Harar to see the hyena spectacle. It’s simple. A local hyena man sits out in the dark with a basket of chunks of meat, and waits patiently for the hyenas to emerge from the dark gingerly, to the feeding spot.
The ritual was stopped for a while when the hyenas attacked domestic animals when they enter the village to scavenge for food and were considered ‘cleaners.’ To stop the attacks, one farmer started feeding them and changed the relationship matrix.
Today, it is an organised ritual with conservation significance for animals are seen as key to cleaning the wild environment, and whose survival is, therefore, vital.
One by one, in the darkness, a man in a blue t-shirt sitting by a big basket of meat whistles, clicks, and yells in an open field, near a huge domed gate of an ancient wall. These are sounds hyenas can understand. The animals are used to feeding this way. But the presence of tourists makes them suspicious of humans.
They confidently feed from the hand of the hyena man but scatter when anyone of us tries to feed them. It took 30 minutes of weighing up each other’s intentions, for the hyenas to gain confidence to get near us.
Today, the ancient walled city is inside the Harari National Regional State, one of the 10 federal regions of Ethiopia.
With its 82 ancient mosques, 438 Islamic shrines and countless beloved hyenas all crammed into 48 hectares, Harar is one of the holiest ancient Islamic cities in the world, and is known as the City of Saints.