Feeding hyenas in Harar - an unforgettable encounter
Ben shares his personal experience of feeding hyenas in Harar.
31 Oct 2022
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There are many reasons to visit the ancient city of Harar, located in the east of Ethiopia. It is the fourth most important city in Islam, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was home to the French poet Rimbaud and it offers a brilliant, immersive experience into Ethiopian culture.
But, there is one more...a weird and wonderful experience that attracts visitors to Harar, and that is the hyena men of Harar. These hyena men feed hyenas just outside of the city walls from a stick held between their teeth or with their bare hands. The practice has been going on for hundreds of years and now attracts tourists to come and see this unique interaction.
In Harar, hyenas have been fed outside of the city walls for centuries and the practice is still going on today. It was even featured in the David Attenborough series Planet Earth II in the cities episode. In fact one of the guides Ben used and recommends has met David Attenborough - see our guide Q&A.
You might well ask why....
Why are there hyena men feeding these animals in just outside the walled city of Harar? A very good question, and one without a straightforward answer.
One theory is that it began at the time of the 19th Century famine in order to stop the hyenas from attacking livestock or humans by feeding them scraps of meat to placify them and that this practice has continued until today. Another theory is that it was started 500 years ago to help sanitize the city by feeding the hyenas refuse.
And yet another folk law says that Muslim saints gathered together with the hyena leaders and formed a treaty to feed the hyena's porridge, in exchange for the protection of the inhabitants. It was believed that hyenas were the keeper of evil spirits and that they can predict the future, so residents would mark the birth of the Prophet Mohammad by leaving out a bowl of porridge made with butter (and some meat) for the hyenas. If the hyena ate all the porridge, it was believed that it would mean a year of good luck, if it did not, it would predict a year of failed harvests, bad weather, wars and other general disasters. There’s a saying in Harar, waraba nasib, which means hyenas’ luck which derives from this belief.
However this strange tradition started, it is still going on today and is an incredible experience to witness.
Ben's personal experience
Ben, our Founder visited Harar in May 2022 with his mother and uncle. During their time in the walled city, they experienced the hyena feeding ritual. Ben shares his personal encounter below.
"Come and experience the amazing Hyena feeding ritual" he Abdul, our guide.
Despite having agreed beforehand with Mum that we’d give ‘experiencing the hyena ritual’ a miss in favour of another delightful plate of Injera, Shiro and Tibs, we relented in the face of his enthusiasm. After all, why have a guide if not to be guided?
Thank goodness we did, as it was as remarkable as it was exhilarating. Having agreed to go, we drove to the edge of the walled city, got out of our van, and within 5 minutes I found myself sitting next to a young Harari man who was whistling a strangely melodic hyena language chortle towards the shadows.
Sure enough, the hunchbacked figure of a giant female hyena appeared out of the dark and sidestepped her way confidently straight at the two of us. By now I had migrated onto Hyena man's lap – at eye level and less than a foot away an open-mouthed Hyena will do that to you – and calling her by name, he hand-fed her a morsel of rotting meat. She moved off and I made a move to do the same, but he beckoned me back down – pulled out a wooden kebab skewer, bade me open my mouth and bite it… next thing I knew there was a lump of meat dangling off it inches from my nose, and a teenage hyena inbound at pace. I survived. Hyena man and the surrounding watchers seemed to enjoy my fear greatly.. and in the way that you sometimes do only after an experience has happened, so eventually did I.
This was my personal experience. Mum didn’t volunteer for the hot seat and hers is probably the more representative experience.. so don’t let mine put you off. It is actually a very interesting thing to witness… a human / wild animal interaction that has its roots long before it became a ‘thing’ that tourists could see.
I definitely recommend all visitors on a Harar Tour do this if they get the opportunity.
Is feeding the hyenas dangerous?
The answer here is probably technically yes, it could in theory be dangerous. Hyenas are wild animals and the second biggest predator in Africa after lions - they have one of the most powerful jaw strengths in the animal kingdom and can chew through bone, and certainly, when they are hunting in a pack they are dangerous.
That said... this is a practice that has been going on for hundreds of years, the hyena men feed these wild beasts every night, they know them (as much as you can know wild animals) and this and scavenging is likely one of the main ways these particular hyenas get fed, and you know the saying 'don't bite the hand that feeds you...'
How do I feed the hyenas? Practical information
Best way to get to Harar is via a short 1 hour flight from Addis – then a 2 hour transfer (which flies by as there is plenty to see on the way).
How long to stay in Harar; 2 nights is good, or if you include visiting Dire Dawa and some of the sights around Harar – then 3 nights may be required.
What time is the hyena feeding? This starts at dusk with hyenas coming out as it gets dark. Normally between 6.30-7.30 is a good time to show up.
Where are the hyenas fed? There are two hyena feeding sites in Harar, both outside the walled city; one is to the north of the town and one to the east
How much does it cost? Two nights in Harar, with flights to/from Addis, all accommodation, transfers and meals + a private guide – expect to pay about £500 / US $ 600 per person. You will also need a small amount of cash to give the hyena man - your guide will advise on the current going rate.
Do I need a guide? We would 100% recommend a guide, what's more, it is important you have a guide from Harar – born and bred. Abdul and Haile would be our recommendations – as Ben about both and he'll be able to tell you which of the two might suit you best. Read out Q&A with them here.
It sounds incredibly simple, but the best thing to do in Harar is to immerse yourself as completely as possible in the local culture of this walled city. Stay in one of the fascinating local guest houses, talk to your guide and ask questions, ride a Bajaj (local tuktuk) and tuck into the local food.
Outside of Harar, there are prehistoric rock sites, beautiful walks and interesting markets.