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Ethiopia hyenas: Not biting the hand that feeds them

Youseff Mume Saleh's nightly feeding ritual, a tradition in his town of Harar, has become an attraction for tourists.

July 31, 2010|Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Harar, Ethiopia — Here in this medieval city in eastern Ethiopia, the humans and the hyenas are living in peace.

The truce began two centuries ago (or so the story goes) during a time of great famine.

There was drought in the hills where the wildlife roamed, and hungry hyenas had sneaked into Harar and eaten people.

Distressed, the town's Muslim saints convened a meeting on a nearby mountaintop. There, they devised a solution: The people would feed the hyenas porridge if the hyenas would stop their attacks.

The plan worked, and a strange, symbiotic relationship was born.

City leaders went on to create holes in the sand-colored stone walls that surround Harar to give the hyenas nightly access to the town's garbage. And in the 1960s, a farmer started feeding hyenas scraps of meat (goat, donkey, sometimes camel) to keep them away from his livestock.

That farmer was the first hyena man. Today the title belongs to Youseff Mume Saleh.

Lithe and quick, Saleh, who is unsure of when he was born but says he is in his early 50s, has high cheekbones, a pursed mouth and few words. He lives just outside the city walls, near an ancient Muslim shrine built around the trunk of a splendid fig tree. His home sits on an old landfill, the ground sparkling with shards of broken bottles.

Saleh's nightly feeding ritual has become an attraction for tourists, who hire guides to bring them here. He has grown accustomed to the flash of their cameras and the tips they slip him at the end of the night.

Although the money helps —Saleh has two wives and seven children to provide for —he insists that his custom is not motivated by profit. The hyenas have come to rely on him, he says, and he worries what might happen if he stops.

Across Africa, hyenas are reviled as baby snatchers and garbage scavengers, the villains of village folk tales.

But when they slink toward Saleh's house at dusk each night —green eyes gleaming, boxy jaws looking so eager to snap — Saleh calls to them.

"Funyamure," he coos."Tukwondilli."

When a stranger later asks why he has given the animals names, Saleh sighs.

"We are family," he says. "You have to understand."

***

Not far away, in the town of Maalka Raafu, the hyenas and the humans are at war.

After a band of the animals attacked livestock there this year, an angry rancher spiked a goat carcass with poison, killing the eight hyenas that ate from it.

Four days later, according to news reports, the surviving hyenas retaliated. In a rash of attacks, they killed one girl and injured three other children. The people of the town struck back, slaying several hyenas with axes.

Such violence is unheard of in Harar, where the hyena man's children laugh when asked whether they are afraid of the animals.

"The hyena is just like a dog," says 10-year-old Ajebbo.

"No," says her sister, Ardale, 14. "It is like a cat."

Last winter, an odd guest showed up at their home.

He was an Australian paleoanthropologist, and he wanted to know whether he could spend time with Saleh while conducting research for his PhD on the city's unusual social dynamic.

"I heard about this place in East Africa where hyenas walk the streets with impunity," Marcus Baynes-Rock, 42, says. "I had to see."

Since then, Baynes-Rock has grown close to the family. On many afternoons, he and Saleh can be found relaxing in the dark cool of the hyena man's one-room home. They lounge on pillows, talk about hyenas and chew khat, a local plant whose leaves provide a mild stimulant effect. (People in Harar like stimulants: The region's major export is coffee.)

"Their relationship is just like humans," Saleh says of the hyenas. "Some fear the other. Some respect the other. Also, they have leaders."

Baynes-Rock nods. "Some are aggressive and some are passive," he says. "Some are very bright; some are brave."

Over the course of eight months, Baynes-Rock has become a kind of hyena man himself.

Each night, once the hyenas have dined with Saleh, Baynes-Rock grabs his notebook, dons his night-vision goggles and follows the pack as it slinks through the town's narrow alleyways.

"They're fast," he says. And they can be devious. A few months ago, a hyena stole an expensive camera lens.

"Can you imagine the insurance claim?" he asks, laughing. "To their credit, the company paid it."

His obsession with the hyenas —not to mention his white skin, tall frame and fondness for leather motorcycle jackets —has made Baynes-Rock a curiosity in town. As he navigates the streets, striding by coffeehouses, through markets, past churches and mosques, he is frequently followed by groups of barefoot children shouting his name.

This month he married a local woman named Tikist. When they first met at a cafe, she spoke no English, and he had not yet begun learning her native Oromo tongue. He wooed her with photographs of hyenas.

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