Harar, Ethiopia and the great famine of the 1890’s. The landscape painted a dusty yellow, crops no more than dry seeds, farm animals faint figures of skin and bone and hyenas attacking what was left of villager’s livestock.
In efforts to wade off Harar’s hungry hyenas, residents began leaving porridge out for them to feed. Once the famine ended, residents of Harar continued this tradition as an annual feeding event, using the result to foretell the destiny of the year ahead.
If the hyena were to eat more than half the offering, the following year would be at ease, however if the hyena refused to eat or ate the entire serve, famine and disease would be predicted.
The modern day feeding of Harar’s hyenas began in the 1950’s. Known by most as the ‘Hyena Man’, Yusef and his family began feeding scraps of meat to the Hyenas for good luck. When tourists began showing interest, they started charging a fee, creating a spectacle of the event.
Existing blog posts describe the Hyena Man alike the dog-whisperer, possessing dimensions of communication and powers over a wild species. Writings allude that the Hyena Man has the ability to call out to creeping shadows by name, summoning the animals to eat shreds of meat that hang from a small stick which he holds between his teeth.
While the feeding methods are daring, impressive and true to the writings, the call to the Hyenas as I witnessed, was something much less.
As the sun begins to disappear behind the hills of Harar, Hyenas can be seen scavenging through the dumpsite. The Hyena Man’s son Abbas, a young, less-photogenic modern man, sits on the fringe of the dumpsite, throwing scraps of meat to entice hungry hyenas. The animals seem content foraging through the dumpsite, but as tourists begin to arrive, Yusef takes over the head seat while Abbas walks through the dumpsite forcibly herding the hyenas by flashlight towards the tourist crowd.
As dusk quickly turns to night, car headlights illuminate the scene, casting dramatic shadows of the ravenous animals. At first the animals approach the Hyena Man with caution, however once the feeding has begun, the hyena are more reminiscent to a pack of tame dogs. Most hyenas gracefully feed from the stick, gently grasping strips of meat before stepping back to consume. A few hyenas are a little more aggressive in their feeding manner, hungrily snatching meat from the stick. Then there are those who break all rules, ignore the tiny strips of meat on a stick and go for gold. They bury their heads deep into the basket of meat and gorge on the offerings while the Hyena Man repeatedly smacks them over the shoulders to get them out. I doubt this would be attempted on a wild hyena.
There are a few tricks that are put on throughout show time, Hyenas are trained to jump on the backs of tourists while they feed and every tourist present has the opportunity to feed the hyenas themselves in whichever manner they prefer - if they dare.
After fifteen minutes or so, the Hyena Man packs up his basket of meat and waits for the next carload of tourists while an agent collects money from the spectators making the whole experience feel like SeaWorld.