I don’t harbor some kind of death wish, although such a desire might explain why I decided to feed a wild hyena from my mouth, placing my face within easy striking distance of one of the fiercest, most dangerous predators on Earth. With its incredibly powerful jaws, a hyena can even crush and digest elephant bones.
I traveled to Harar, Ethiopia, to meet Abbas Yusuf, better known as the “Hyena Man.” Abbas has been feeding the animals for 14 years, a tradition passed down to him by his father, who gave the hyenas pieces of meat to keep them away from his livestock.
Now, it’s become one of the city’s top attractions.
Harar’s unique bond with, and acceptance of, the normally feared creatures stretches back eons. Legend has it that two centuries ago, during a famine, hungry hyenas kept eating citizens, so Muslim saints met with the leaders of the hyenas to offer a deal — bowls of porridge in exchange for stopping the attacks. The truce is commemorated each year with a gift to the hyenas of porridge mixed with butter and goat meat. If the hyenas refuse to eat, bad luck awaits.
But hyenas are welcome in this walled, medieval town 365 days a year. They’re allowed to freely roam the labyrinth of streets after dark to clean up food scraps left behind from the markets and shops. Unlike the rest of Africa, locals revere, rather than revile, hyenas, believing they can also drive off evil spirits.
And for tourists, there’s always the option of a more intimate hyena encounter, a feat that will cost you 100 birr, less than $4. While planning my trip to Ethiopia, I initially had not even heard of Harar, until a friend asked me if I was going to see the hyenas. The thought of breaking bread with the notorious brutes terrified me but — because I like taking unnecessary risks with my life — I knew I had to go.
And so, shortly after nightfall, I found myself just outside Harar’s walls surrounded by a pack of seven spotted hyenas.
The most frightening aspect of the experience was turning my back, something that safari guides say a human should never do with any wild animal. As Abbas wrapped meat around the stick in my mouth, I could feel the beasts hovering around me, waiting impatiently to devour the morsel dangling inches from my face.
Has anyone ever been mauled? I thought. What if a hyena lunges for my neck, instead? Or my stomach or my head?
It was too late to change my mind. I feared what might happen if the hungry hyena didn’t get its snack.
I rotated slowly, gazing at jaws whose power is only surpassed by those of crocodiles. Dread welled up inside me. Please don’t bite off my face, I thought.
I trembled as a hyena snapped, claiming its prize. All I remember is the sight of its fangs. Then, time for a quick inventory check — no pain, no bleeding, all appendages accounted for.
I turn to face Abbas, who wrapped another hyena treat on the stick before I could object.
Are you kidding me?
Once more, I anxiously cozied up to an animal that can take down prey as big as an adult hippo.
I’d had enough.
“How do I get out of here?” I asked the Hyena Man, with visions of the carnivores sinking their razor-sharp teeth into my flesh the moment I cut off their food supply. “Just get up slowly,” Abbas replied. Though he claimed no one has ever been attacked, at that moment, I was not so sure.
Once out of striking range, I relaxed, vowing to never again do something so foolish. Then again, why not.
My fondest memory of exploring Zimbabwe (where I currently live) was a foot safari last year, wandering through the bush in the animals’ natural environment — on their terms, not mine — unaware of what might be lying in wait. It’s a perspective unimaginable from a vehicle; however, even a foot safari can’t provide the opportunity to interact that closely with a wild creature, especially one evoking such trepidation.
Africa is a land of exquisite beauty but also disease, famine, and widespread death. The continent has taught me that life is precious, short, and to be enjoyed, however long it lasts. Sometimes, it’s worth the risk — climbing a mountain, shooting down the rapids, or sharing supper with a hyena.