Abbas Yusuf, a 25-year-old Ethiopian, has become a sensation in Harar, Ethiopia for his unique relationship with hyenas. He feeds meat to Africa’s second-largest predator while crowds of spectators watch on in awe 1. Hyenas are typically aggressive animals who have been known to kill people, but on the outskirts of Harar, Yusuf has nonetheless established a special bond with the animals that allows him to sit in their midst with perfect ease 1. Far from behaving like vicious, depraved scavengers who demolish carcasses in a cackling frenzy – the prevailing view of hyenas in many cultures – they obediently wait their turn for the meat and then politely pluck it from Yusuf’s stick. Often they even clamber over Yusuf, in a playful dog-like manner, to get to the scraps 1.
Yusuf’s father, Yusuf Saleh, began feeding hyenas in the 1960s to protect his livestock. Abbas Yusuf took over the role from his retired father and is building on an even longer tradition in Harar of peaceful co-existence with the hyenas 1. For centuries, people in Harar have been deterring hyenas from attacking humans and livestock by ensuring that they don’t get too hungry. Holes were built in the city’s venerable walls and meat fed through them. Nowadays, the hyenas also have free rein over the scraps that come from the city’s landfill. This strategy works well; while hyenas sometimes attack people in neighboring villages, such occurrences are believed not to have occurred in Harar for over 200 years 1.
Yusuf’s bond with the hyenas is such that he has developed a special dialect to communicate with them and has special names for each animal. Incredibly, the hyenas have on at least one occasion even led Yusuf back to their den, where hyena cubs were living, demonstrating a very trusting relationship 1. Even if somewhat unsettling to watch, there is something very endearing about seeing him feed, interact with and almost domesticate these wild and often feared animals.