How to Feed Wild Hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia
As the fourth holiest city of Islam, Harar is an ancient and enigmatic place that’s off-the-beaten-track in eastern Ethiopia (near the Somalian border).
Inhabited for the past 7,000 years, Harar thrives on the preservation of archaic traditions – locals still live in rustic Adare homes that are fortified by medieval stone walls and still mouth feed clans of wild hyenas, every single night.
During a famine in the 19th Century, Harar’s Sufi Muslims began feeding wild hyenas as a way to lower the incidence of children being eaten at night. And due to its success in lowering attacks, feeding wild hyenas became a nightly phenomena just outside of Harar’s city walls.
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 time in Harar and visit both sites. So we independently organized for a driver to pick us up our Adare guesthouse, take us to both sites, and then drop us back off, for a total of 700 birr (~$13).
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.
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 the vicious man-eating beasts we had envisioned in our minds.
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 wild hyenas lurking in the dark. 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 at the Islamic site, 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 actually feel its whiskers pressing against my skin!
The hyenas are wild animals, so yes, feeding them is high risk– 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 by hyena men for years.
Regardless, 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 (try to 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 site on time – the feeding time changes nightly.
#3: While some online resources suggest that you can walk to the site, that’s completely idiotic and unsafe advice (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 – just arrange for a driver and guide when you show up in Harar, as it’ll be cheaper that way (negotiate the price).
#5: When going to the Islamic feeding site, it’s a good idea to bring a long a headlamp and a basic first aid kit (in case of an incident with a hyena).