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.
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.
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.
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.