As the fourth holiest city of Islam, Harar is an enigmatic place that’s off the beaten path in eastern Ethiopia (near the Somalian border).
Inhabited for the past 7,000 years, Harar still thrives on ancient traditions – locals live in rustic Adare homes that are fortified by a medieval stone wall. It’s also where locals still hand feed clans of wild hyenas.
During a famine in the 19th Century, Sufi Muslims began feeding wild hyenas as a way to lower the incidence of children being eaten at night. And due to its success, its become a nightly phenomena just outside the city walls.
Luckily, tourists are now allowed to participate in this time-honored tradition. And just as you’d imagine, feeding these man eating beasts is an unforgettable, visceral experience.
In Harar, there are two Hyena feeding sites: the (touristic) Christian site and the (authentic) Islamic site. The Christian site begins feeding at 6:30pm, while the Islamic site begins at 7:30pm.
Because of the different feeding times, we opted to maximize our visit and see both sites. So we independently organized for a driver to pick us up at 6:15pm, take us to both, and then drop us back off near our traditional Adare guesthouse – for a total of 700 birr.
When we arrived at the Christian site around 6:25pm, there were already 11 other tourists there – we were the last to arrive and the only ones without a guide.
Within moments of our arrival, several hyenas emerged from the darkness.
We were in awe… our jaws dangling on the floor. Seeing wild hyenas juxtaposed in an urban context was surreal – a moment that deserved, no, needed to be captured.
Unfortunately, as I started snapping photos of these hangry beasts, I felt someone grab my camera while another person tried to unzip my pants pocket. With some quick and aggressive movements, I was able to thwart this half-assed pickpocketing attempt.
To my surprise, it was the Hyena Man that grabbed my camera (as a diversion), so his lady friend could go for the kill and steal my wallet!
However, my reaction was unexpected, so the ‘lady friend’ immediately took off running while the Hyena Man stood in confusion… until he yelled: “Come with me! You come with me now!” He then reached for my camera again, so I snatched his wrist and twisted it forcefully as I pushed him away.
What happened next, I’m not proud of… but yeah, a small altercation ensued. I’ll spare you the boring details, as the Hyena Man went on to perform and I stayed – albeit, against his will and my better judgment.
The Hyena Man started off the show by warming up the beasts with some camel sushi appetizers. Soon after, a few tourists were allowed to feed them in a very slow and highly controlled manner.
In all honesty, the feeding seemed contrived – there were only 5 hyenas and all of them were unusually well-behaved for wild animals. They pranced around more like neutered show dogs rather than vicious man eating beasts.
Less than 10 minutes in, the anti-climactic show was over and the Hyena Man quickly proceeded to collect his fee from us. Prior to the show, we were told that the fee would be 200 birr per person.
I know what you’re thinking… he tried to rob me! Why pay? Based on principle – the fact that I stayed and watched the show, I was still going to do the right thing by paying the fee. But, as I tried to give him the 200 birr, he laughed and then yelled: “1,000 birr!”
Fed up, I pushed the 200 birr into his puffed up chest, let it drop on the floor and then spit on the money. After a tense moment of silence, the surrounding Ethiopians bursted into laughter and started to make fun of him, until he briskly walked away…
Once we got back to the car, our driver told us that this particular Hyena Man has a reputation for bullying independent tourists and scaring them into giving him more money. Additionally, he promised us that the Islamic site would be much better… we tried our best to remain cautiously optimistic.
Hands down… our driver was right, the Islamic site was significantly better – there were more than 20 hyenas running around. And this Hyena Man was actually concerned with feeding them, rather than putting on a glorified ‘dog and pony’ show for tourists.
Since only three other tourists were present, we all got the chance to closely interact with the hyenas – some even got mounted! But unlike the Christian site, the hyenas weren’t slow and controlled – they were actually behaving like hangry wild animals. So the Hyena Man didn’t let anyone feed them on their own, for safety reasons – at least not yet..
Even though my initial experience with the hyenas was exhilarating, I wasn’t 100% satisfied yet. I came all the way to Harar to feed hyenas with my mouth, and I damn sure wasn’t leaving until I did.
So I walked back up to the Hyena Man, pointed at the stick in his mouth and then pointed back at myself. The Hyena man nodded in agreement and then pulled out the saliva-laden stick from his mouth. As he handed it to me, I felt that it would be disrespectful to clean it off, so I immediately gripped the stick with my teeth. It was nastier than licking a gas station toilet, but what the hell, when in Harar…
When I kneeled down, he proceeded to put some bloody camel meat on the stick. Mmm mmm delicious…
The Hyena Man then dangled some more raw meat near my shoulder and called for a hyena to come over. Soon after, a hyena swooped in and savagely devoured the meat within seconds. Its jaws were so close to my face that I could feel its whiskers pressing against my skin!
The hyenas are wild animals, so yeah, it definitely is – we’d be lying if we said it was completely safe. However, most of the hyenas are habituated to humans and have likely been fed camel sushi for years.
Even so, you should have deep respect for the hyenas as they have exceptionally powerful jaws – their bite force is measured at 1,100 pounds per square inch (psi). For reference, a lion’s bite force is only 650 psi! Long story short – they ain’t no puppy dog.
Given that hyenas are primarily scavengers, it seems unlikely that one would attack you… unless provoked. Although, there is a possibility that one may accidently bite or scratch you when trying to feed them.
Remember, these hyenas aren’t trained, this isn’t the zoo – anything could happen. Maybe you leave without a face, who knows…
#1: Avoid the overly-touristic and grandiose Christian site. Save your time and money by just going to the authentic Islamic site instead (get there early).
#2: Book a guide and driver via your accommodation – don’t go the independent route as we did. For the best experience, go with a guide that can translate for you and make sure you get to the Islamic on time – the feeding time changes nightly.
#3: While some resources suggest that you can walk to the site, that’s completely idiotic and unsafe (unless you enjoy being robbed). Plus, you’ll most likely need the lights from your driver’s vehicle for added visibility when feeding the hyenas.
#4: Don’t book anything in advance, this ain’t the Zoo – just arrange for a driver and guide when you show up, as it’ll be cheaper that way (negotiate the price, hard).
#5: When going to the feeding site, it’s a good idea to bring a headlamp and a basic first aid kit (in case of an incident with a hyena).