Hand-feeding Wild Hyenas in Harar

Hand-feeding wild hyenas is not an unusual practice in Harar, Africa, as it appears in Episode 6 of Planet Earth Season 2. In the documentary, Attenborough describes a peaceful relationship between humans and spotted hyenas. The hyenas chomp down on the bones left in the meat market by butchers with their powerful bone-crushing jaw bones [3]. In return, the hyenas provide an important service to the local citizens: they eat bad spirits that haunt the street.

The relationship between hyenas and humans in Harar has been established since the tenth century. In the beginning, hyenas, one of the most vicious carnivores, targeted humans and livestock as their prey. This changed as human technology grew more advanced, and urban cities developed. The vast majority of hyenas nowadays are considered as “the garbage cleaners,” helping citizens clean up garbage, and carcasses of animals that died of disease [4]. The mutualistic relationship between hyenas and humans is further reinforced by the animistic belief system in Harar [2].

Culture, religion, and evolution influence each other. Among the Hararis, hyena listeners have the ability to understand, and communicate with the hyenas. They are able to make predictions about people’s deaths based on messages from the hyenas. The religious leaders in the community also send hyena listeners to negotiate a truce with the hyenas to limit their activities at night, offering them food in return [4]. The people believe that hyenas have changed their foraging times as a result of such negotiations, causing a significant reduction in hyena attacks on humans.

by Christy Sun and Aditi Majoe

Planet Earth II, Episode 6 “Cities”, starting at 34:38


  1. Gade, DW. 2006. Hyenas and humans in the Horn of Africa. Geographical Review 96(4): 609-632.
  2. Baynes-Rock, M. 2015. Ethiopian buda as hyenas: where the social is more than human. Folklore 126(3): 266-282.
  3. Monchot H, Mashkour M. 2010. Hyenas around the city. Journal of Taphonomy 8(1): 17-32.
  4. Baynes-Rock, M. 2013. Local tolerance of hyena attacks in East Hararge Region, Ethiopia. Anthrozoös 26(3): 421-433.

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