Do let’s pretend that I’m a hungry hyena, and you’re a bone”. ~ Lewis Carroll

Living in Conflict: Hyenas as parasites

After lions, spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta), are the second largest land predator in Africa. Their reputation precedes them, depicted in various cultures as devilish, unclean and macabre. Spotted hyenas are found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, living in forest, desert and alpine biomes. Despite their abundance throughout Africa, studies of human-hyena relationships have focussed on Ethiopia for various reasons. In Ethiopia a substantial proportion of the human populace depend upon agriculture for survival. Ethiopian modes of subsistence rely heavily on crops and livestock and this presence of dense numbers of livestock brings humans and hyenas into conflict. Due to extensive farming, urbanisation and habitat degradation the availability for natural prey sources for hyena are fragmented and depleted. Perhaps more so than in other regions of Africa, spotted hyena survival relies heavily on predation of livestock and domestic waste disposal.

Impact on livelihood:

Predation of livestock will impact on any farmer; a lost animal has a lost ‘value’ attached, whether the loss of a direct food product for the farmer’s family or the loss of the animals saleable value for the income. However, livestock predation in the context of Ethiopian agriculture may have even more powerful consequences:  Around one-half of the rural Ethiopians live in poverty and, as rural populations increase, the amount of land held by any one person has decreased. Among a group of other comparable countries, Ethiopian agriculture performed worst. It would be fair to suppose, therefore, that livestock losses due to hyenas have an even more significant impact on Ethiopian modes of subsistence.

Perhaps the best way to elucidate hyena impact on Ethiopian livelihoods is to look at economic impact studies. Research in Tigray, Northern Ethiopa, found hyenas were responsible for 11.8% of all livestock losses between 2005 and 2009. This amounts to just over a loss of US$ 27,000 to the district. Other studies measured the loss per household, calculating annual household loss in the Wukro district to be US$6.1 (just under 1% of annual income). Loss due to predation varies across Ethiopia but can certainly be an economical cause for concern. In addition to livestock losses, there is also evidence that hyenas can pose a risk to human life.

Impact on lives:

“A doctor from Jugol Hospital told me that, in the 14 months during which he had been stationed at the hospital, he had treated at least 30 cases of hyena attack. When I was conducting surveys of rural dwellers in the region, 30% of people across eight different villages reported that they knew someone personally who had been attacked by a hyena.” These reports, gathered by Marcus Baynes-Rock who studies hyena in Ethiopia, highlight the risks living in proximity to hyena can pose to human life. In most instances, attacks are on children but there have also been news articles on humans sleeping rough on the streets who have been attacked.

The cause of hyenas transitioning from fringe predators that attack livestock to predators moving further into human living spaces is twofold. Firstly, in response to livestock predation, farmers enclose their livestock in wooden corrals at night, as well as owning watchdogs. This reduces hyena access to prey in rural communities lying outside the denser human populaces. Secondly, Ethiopian villages, town and cities (as anywhere else) create human food waste, perfect for scavenging hyenas. This can be any type of organic matter in human refuse including bones, carrion, garbage, dung and even cooked porridge. This plentiful supply of anthropogenic food allows hyenas to subsist in the heart of human dwellings.

Studies have analysed scat from hyenas who live in proximity with humans in Ethiopia, focussing on undigested hair in faecal matter (one of the few substances that hyenas cannot digest). In 610 scat samples, human hair was found to be more prevalent than that of goat or sheep. However, due to the nature of hyenas concentrating around human waste dumps, human hair may well be a component of human refuse, rather than the more macabre suggestion of widespread human predation. Despite this unreliability of scat samples, anecdotes and interviews are enough to indicate the opportunistic predation of hyenas on humans. This poses major concerns for humans living in proximity to spotted hyena.

Impact on hyena:

In addition, hyena attacks on both livestock and people have an impact on the lives of hyena themselves. An anthropological study on 200 residents of Kembata Tembaro in Ethiopia identified that 79% of residents developed negative attitudes towards hyenas due to conflict. The three main contributors to this negative attitude were: fear for the family, fear for personal safety and fear of livestock loss. These negative perceptions can lead to ‘mitigation techniques’ that are harmful to hyenas, including burning the hyena’s natural habitat, poisoning carcasses for hyenas to eat and, despite regional prohibitions to killing hyena, they are often trapped, shot, poisoned or snared.

This impact on hyenas themselves is an example of negative reciprocity, a term known as the ‘dark side’ of reciprocity, whereby humans maintain moral order in social relationships through responding to negative actions with the same. These corrective actions tend to occur after attacks have been made on livestock or humans. Retaliations on hyenas are carried out by local inhabitants and those who personally knew those affected by hyena attacks. However, in Ethiopian populations with greater authority involvement and support, the government can endorse retaliatory actions. In December 2013 authorities in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa organised a cull of hyenas living near the centre of the city. Licensed hunters killed 10 hyenas after a spate of attacks on city residents.

Belief systems and buda:

In these asymmetric interactions, hyenas act as behavioural parasites. Behavioural parasitism is where the investment of one organism is exploited by another, thus providing the exploiter with an adaptive shortcut. In the light of this disruptive behaviour it is no wonder that there are widespread belief systems upholding negative attitudes towards hyenas. The Bedoin of North Africa believe that transforming into a hyena represented the pagan ‘pull’ of the hyena’s desire to destroy a believer’s commitment to Islam. In Senegal it has been believed that witches ride on hyena to carry out their devilry. In Sudan here is a legend of a half-man half-hyena creature that terrorises people at night, and in Tanzania it I said that if a child is born when a hyena is crying, they will grow up to be thieves. Images in the Aberdeen Bestiary (below) shows the hyena as a vicious man eater.

Image from the Aberdeen Bestiary (1542)

Ethiopia has its own regional folklore depicting the negative aspects of hyena animism. These beliefs centre on entities known as Buda, part of the folklore of the Oromo people who represent the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia. Buda are entities imbued with powers derived from the devil to bring harm upon people that they envy and, importantly, they can transform themselves into hyena. One account of the interplay between buda and hyena in the Amhara states: “because of the power of the evil eye, buda people can change into hyenas and roam the countryside at night. It is convenient for a buda to attack a victim in this form in order to conceal his human identity.”

The hyena expert Baynes-Rock suggests that the Oramo give personhood to hyenas through their intentionality. He came to this conclusion after villagers, who held hyenas in fear and disgust, “stated that hyenas were a benefit to the area and supported an increase in hyena numbers”. Initially confused by this dichotomy, further interviews found that these positive responses were given out of fear that negative responses would be overheard by the local hyenas who would attack them. Although hyenas elicit feelings of fear and disgust, they are not seen as animals without the capacity to think, scheme and plan. Instead the Amhara see hyenas as intentional persons inhabiting a complex social world that includes humans: “With their acute senses, hyenas monitor the worlds of humans, listening for and responding to insults, avenging injuries to their compatriots, and always seeking opportunities to feed, whether on the dead or the living, livestock or human”.

These belief systems perpetuate and intensify negative attitudes towards hyenas, demonstrating the complexity of human-hyena interactions and the conflict that occurs throughout most of Ethiopia. Most, but not all. [Continue: Hyena’s as symbionts].

References on Page 2…

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