In Harar, a medieval walled city in eastern Ethiopia, 500km (311mi) away from the capital Addis Ababa, humans and hyenas have developed an unusual co-dependent relationship that’s been centuries in the making.
In a dark field on the outskirts of Harar, Abbas Yusuf squats on his haunches, a bucket of meat scraps by his side. The weak headlights of a tuk-tuk cast a pale, bluish halo over him; from the surrounding gloom, fifteen sets of golden eyes glimmer with excitement. Holding out a chunk of meat in his hand, the young man lets out a series of eerie whistles until a huge spotted hyena skulks out of the darkness. The animal snaps the flesh away greedily with bone-crushing jaws before retreating a few steps. Yusuf hurls a few scraps into the waiting crowd circling around him.
Destinations Unlocked:Let our travel expert Stefano help you find your perfect Culture trip
Looking for an expert's perspective?Uncover my top 3 recommended places from each continent on the map.
1. GuatemalaAn express adventure for those with limited time off. Prepare yourself incredible experiences. You will hike a volcano, visit mayan temples and witness a ceremony and take in beautiful colonial Antigua.
2. BelizeA quick trip not too far away for those seeking a relaxing mini break. You will have plenty of free time to relax but also some awesome activities to experience the rainforest and the caribbean sea.
3. MexicoAn exciting mini trip exploring the lesser known colonial towns of central Mexico. This is hte perfect trip for someone with limited time off and still wants to turn on explorer mode and do something different.
1. EcuadorA remarkable 8 days adventure through the Andes and the Amazon rainforest. The best choice for adventure seekers wishing to visit the 2 most iconic areas of South America, in only 1 week and no flights.
2. PeruAn alternative itinerary to classic Peru, from Cusco to Arequipa. This itinerary is great combination of highlights Cusco and Machu Picchu with the lesser known Arequipa and Colca Canyon.
1. ItalyThe ultimate Italian experience from the vibrant streets of Naples to the breathtaking sceneries of the Amalfi Coast followed by Matera and down to Puglia with its golden beaches, intense flavours and fascinating destinations.
2. ScotlandEmbark on this great adventure starting from London all the way to Scotland with a true Scottish experience made of breathtaking sceneries, whisky tasting and ..lots of fun! Ideal for train lovers and explorers.
3. PortugalA wonderful train journey around Portugal, from the romantic city of Porto to the Douro Valley, to the beautiful Aveiro all the way to Lisbon and Sintra. The perfect trip to train, culinary and culture lovers.
1. South KoreaDiscover incredible temples, mountains and modern cities on this 10 day adventure. This trip is perfect for those seeking immersion in the cuisine, culture and natural wonders of South Korea.
2. ThailandFrom Bankgok to Angkor Wat to Ho Chi Minh City and everything in between - adventure through the heart of South-East Asia. Taste the delights, see history brought to life and unwind on a Mekong River cruise.
3. Sri LankaA fantastic adventure that showcases Sri Lanka's fantastic landscapes, wildlife and flavours. With 3 epic rail journeys, 3 UNESCO heritage sites and time to relax, this trip has loads to offer at a great price
1. MoroccoAn epic journey across Morocco: from Casablanca to Marrakech, through the blue city of Chefchaouen to the wonders of the desert and deep to the High Atlas Mountains - this trip has it all! Ideal for true explorers!
2. EgyptFrom Cairo to Aswan, this trip brings the land of the pharaohs to life. You'll visit the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings and Luxor Temple and cruise down the Nile in style. This is the perfect way to explore Egypt.
While the clan of hyenas fight over the offcuts, Yusuf wraps a fresh chunk around a short stick, placing it between his clenched teeth, and begins to feed them face to face. The large female returns to feed; the others wait patiently, whooping and cackling. Yusuf shows no signs of fear, his face an expressionless mask, as Africa’s second-largest predator bites just inches from his nose.
Among the locals of Harar, Yusuf is known simply as the “hyena man”– a title he inherited from his father, Yusuf Saleh who began feeding hyenas in the 1960s to protect his livestock. Over time, Saleh became familiar with the wild animals, naming them and even luring some into his home to feed. Today, from a small hill behind his home, littered with animal bones, picked clean and forgotten, Yusuf continues the tradition, which has become popular with tourists and Ethiopians from all over the country.
Sitting on the wall of a Muslim shrine by the feeding site, Yusuf, 25, recounts how he began this unusual line of work, assisting his father at the age of 15. In what would become an almost nightly ritual, he learned the animals’ behaviour and how to communicate with them through whistles and calls. He explains that his father retired in 2015, leaving Yusuf to take over as Harar’s hyena man.
Harar’s bizarre relationship with spotted hyenas stretches back centuries, its origins hazily entrenched in myth and tradition. Local legend tells of a long, bloody dispute between humans and hyenas, during a harsh famine. Desperate to stop the hungry hyenas raiding the city, a group of elders began to feed the animals a thick, buttery porridge. Over the centuries, the hyena feeding has become entwined with local Islamic beliefs.
“The locals feed this porridge to the hyenas once a year at special shrines around the city. It’s linked to the Islamic festival of Al Ashura. If the animals eat the porridge, there will be no trouble – it’s a very good omen. The practice is believed to date back to the deposition of Emir Usman al Habashi ousted in the 16th century for despotism,” says Naod Tedla, a local guide. The ritual still takes place today during the tenth day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar.
According to legend, the city’s thick perimeter walls were altered to give the animals easy access to Harar, allowing entry through small openings, or “hyena doors”. Some claim the hyenas rid Harar of evil spirits (or jinn), and that they clean away the rotting garbage strewn across its streets. Walk the streets of Harar late enough and encounters are still common, claims Tedla.
Whatever the origins for the feeding, it’s clear that the Harari people have a special relationship with these wild animals. Locals claim there hasn’t been an attack on a human in over 200 years, while nearby villages regularly report clashes with hyenas, some being fatal.
“The people here are not afraid of hyenas. In fact, you can sometimes see that it’s the other way around. It’s better to say that there is a respect between them. The road by the side of the feeding site leads into the countryside – many people use it in the dark,” says Tedla.
Ethiopia’s fabled walled city
While remarkable, this strange relationship with hyenas isn’t the only unusual thing about Harar. A medina-like city of maze-like cobbled streets and pastel-coloured buildings, Harar’s walled old town (Jugal) is an oddity in Ethiopia.
Its five-metre-high wall, erected in the 16th century to repel raids carried out by the fearsome Oromo people, encircles the city, with five gated entrances allowing access from outside. Within the city, some 368 alleys intersect creating a winding warren of markets, mosques, shrines, stalls and houses.
The city itself was founded 500 years before the wall went up, during the 11th century. An early outpost of Islam in East Africa, Harar remains predominantly Muslim, with more than 100 mosques concentrated in its old centre. After Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, some even claim it to be the fourth holiest city of Islam. The city did not become a part of Ethiopia until 1887, serving as its own emirate in the 17th century.
The city became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2006, and has long since drawn people from far and wide. French poet Arthur Rimbaud lived in Harar in the late 17th century, working as a trader and arms dealer. A museum containing the Frenchman’s original photography can be found at a local Indian merchant house.
Feeding hyenas in Harar
Finding Yusuf is not difficult. His house sits on the edge of the eastern feeding ground, not far from the Erer Gate. As darkness falls over Harar (around 7pm), he begins to summon the clan. The feeding of hyenas has become a lucrative business for Yusuf, and a means through which he can support his young family.
For around 150 Ethiopian birr (£3.58), tourists can watch the spectacle, and even join in if they wish. Any guide, usually arranged through a city hotel, can take guests there on request. Most people prefer to go with a tuk-tuk or taxi for their lights – without them, the field is completely dark. This surreal experience has helped boost tourism to Ethiopia’s little-visited east, according to Tedla. “Of course, many tourists come for the hyenas. In fact, many come only for the feeding,” he says.
To see these beasts, feared and reviled throughout Africa, clambering playfully over a man and waiting patiently in the darkness for scraps of meat, like obedient dogs, it’s easy to forget these are wild animals. Watching Yusuf at work is both surreal and unsettling, but his relationship with the hyenas is undeniable – they know not to bite the hand that feeds.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.