If you want to feed wild hyenas then come to Harar in Ethiopia.
My first reaction when offered to feed wild hyenas in the city of Harar, in Eastern Ethiopia, was one of slight disbelief. The last time I saw hyenas, they were tearing an animal to pieces out on safari, so I was understandably a little curious about the practice of feeding wild hyenas with a stick of meat in my mouth.
It turns out the tradition of feeding wild hyenas dates back decades, when they used to leave food offerings in the hills, so the hyenas wouldn’t eat the livestock in times of drought. Someone had the bright idea of luring the hyenas to the old city of Harar, and then feeding them meat as a tourist display.
The hyenas became so used to being fed near the city, that they started to roam the city streets at night, looking for scraps of meat thrown away. It is somewhat a freaky feeling wandering the maze of streets in the old city, and then bumping into a hyena walking down opposite. So with a slight sense of trepidation, I wandered too the place the hyena men had gathered, around seven at night.
Time to feed the hyenas!
They call themselves hyena men. Brave guys who call out to the hyenas every night, and then feed them with scraps of meat. There are two spots where they feed them, the old and new. I was in the new spot, and was the first to arrive. Waiting in the dark the first set of eyes shone in my direction, and then several more. Hmmm, I thought, what the hell did you get yourself into this time Jonny? Soon the hyena man was surrounded by several off them.
The hyenas had become so used too humans, because of being fed every night, that as long as they are distracted by pieces of meat, they will not attack you. Having said all that they are still wild, and have no problem tearing other animals to pieces up in the hills! The fact they have the second strongest bite of any land animal (the crocodile is number one), one can be somewhat ‘apprehensive’, I guess is the word, especially as I was the first there, I did not get to see anyone else try it before me.
Gathering myself, I handed my camera over to someone, possibly for a memorial photo at my possible funeral. I leant down and the hyena man put some meat above my head, and soon enough one jumped on my back and snatched it away. It was very creepy having a hyena jump on your back! They are not only strong, but huge as well.
Right, says the hyena man, time to put a stick in your mouth, and feed meat from the end of it. You got to be shitting me, was my naturally calm and rational response. But before I knew it I had a stick with a piece of meat on the end, and the second strongest jaws of any land animal snapping it off from 10cm in front of my face.
I was now actually beginning to thoroughly enjoy the experience. First concerns fading, I was left alone with several hyenas around me, and a basket full of meat. The hyenas came from all sides and took it in turns taking meat from the basket. They better be bloody right about not eating people as long as they have meat, was a mantra going around my brain! I even started giving them names, fido being the most prominent one that came to mind.
After about twenty minutes alone, more tourists showed up. These we’re domestic Ethiopian tourists, and they understandably we’re very nervous as well. Devious thoughts to make it sound really bad escaped my mind, and I was soon having fun watching them go through the same experience I had. Some took it better than others.
It was hilarious watching the show, new people coming and having the fear on their faces not knowing what to expect. The piece-de-resistance was when a young girl put everyone to shame, and happily took the basket of meat and started feeding the hyenas with a big grin on her face. You wouldn’t get this show at Disneyland I thought!
After 45 minutes it was time to leave, and I wandered back in the dark with a big smile on my face. I love seeing wildlife, so being up close with one of Africa’s most dangerous predators was incredible. I will never forget it snapping that meat from right in front of my face.
I can highly recommend this guidebook to Ethiopia, it’s one of the best guides I have ever used –