Whenever jinn comes, the hyena he is saying oowhoop, and there it goes”. ~ Harari resident

Living in Concord: Hyenas as symbionts

Apart from the research on hyenas in belief systems, the majority of studies focussing on conflict between humans and hyenas often do not “bring in the animal” i.e.hyenas have been researched as ‘pest’ or ‘threat’, but not as research informants in their own right. When looking at hyena living in concord with humans the animals are “brought in” far more as we look at the nature of the interaction between human and hyena itself.

Hyenas living alongside humans is a rarer occurrence in Ethiopia than where there is conflict and the main example of symbiosis occurs in one specific locale: the city of Harar in eastern Ethiopia. Here, hyenas provide the Harari with a mode of subsistence, whilst at the same time providing the hyenas with food and shelter. By passing through the main gate into the city we move into a society where studies of human-hyena interactions, especially those of Marcus Baynes-Rock, are far more unusual.

The people of Harar live in a city surrounded by walls. However, these walls have ‘Hyena Holes’ in them (known in the local language as warab nudul) – holes that admit hyena from the surrounding landscape into the city. There is debate as to whether these holes were originally included as drainage holes; however, they are now seen by both outsiders and the people of Harar as conduits for hyena entry. This atypical acceptance of hyenas into the lives of the Harari was recently documented by the BBC’s Planet Earth II series. Hyenas form part of the Harari peoples’ belief systems, as they do in other parts of Ethiopia, but the beliefs here see them as beings of positivity.

Among the bone eaters:

Hyenas from two separate clans enter the city at night as they have done for years. Although there is a myth that this relationship has occurred for generations, interviews have shown that it has been known for around sixty years. A man known as Aw Dudzo began feeding skin to hyenas outside the walls and a tradition of hyena feeding, outside and then inside the city, evolved. Unlike elsewhere, residents of Harar are unafraid of the presence of hyenas. Cubs from hyena clans, and children from the human city, grow up in societies that coexist and so an acceptance of each other is passed down generations of both species. Attacks on humans in Harar are not documented (although they are in nearby Kombolcha City) which suggests a convincing symbiosis.

Although residents live in synergy with hyenas, with shopkeepers and butchers throwing food for them, it is the fifteen or so ‘hyena men’ that take this a step further. The lives of ‘hyena men’ and hyenas are more interconnected; hyenas are invited into their homes, sometimes amongst their families, to be hand fed, petted and to have physical contact encouraged. As documented by BBC’s Planet Earth II, the hyena men display their ultimate trust in the hyenas by feeding them from their mouth. This is often done by men placing chunks of meat on the end of a stick and placing the other end of the stick in their mouth. However, some individuals have begun to feed bones and meat directly from their mouths to the hyenas.

Symbiosis vs commensalism:

I want to explain why I use the word symbiosis instead of what some may call commensalism. Commensalism is a relationship between two species (termed commensals) where one species benefits and the other is unaffected. It could be argued the human-hyena relationship in Harar is one of commensalism; the hyenas are receiving food but for years humans have gained nothing towards their subsistence. An example of true commensalism in human-hyena interactions is seen during times of famine. In these difficult times, livestock and humans can perish, including those traveling on roads between rural villages; hyenas then scavenge on bodies of humans and livestock. As the bodies are away from living quarters this does not provide a benefit in reducing disease spread, nor are hyena affecting the humans directly. In this case the hyenas are benefitting from humans and their livestock, but humans are unaffected commensals in the relationship.

I would argue that humans and hyenas in Harar are not commensals but symbionts. Both the human and non-human animals receive a benefit.True, only recently have the Harari exploited tourist interest in ‘hyena feeding’ as a mode of subsistence, but I would argue that, even before this, humans have gained spiritual benefits. There are not just physical elements of human-hyena interactions– meat from hand to mouth, the crunching of a bone, bright eyes in the darkness – there are also Harari’s belief systems that centre around hyenas… ‘jinn’.

Belief systems and jinn:

Unlike the Ethiopian belief systems surrounding buda (see previous blog), there are positive beliefs in Harar centred on entities known as jinn. These beliefs further cement the symbiosis that the Harari perceive in their relationship with hyenas. In the Quran, jinn are spirits created by God from the smokeless flame of fire (Ar-rahman 15:5). Throughout Ethiopia these entities have two natures: some are good and others are bad. Good jinn assist people with spiritual enlightenment; bad jinn deceive and possess humans.

The key role hyena’s play is they can devour bad jinn who hide underground and haunt the city. Baynes-Rock interviewed city dwellers, asking why hyenas played an important protective role in Harari lives. Responses included:

“Jinns are contained in the territory of Harar because of the hyenas. Whenever jinn comes, the hyena he is saying oowhoop, and there it goes.

“The hyena will come and eat them [the jinn] or they will escape. If the jinn is under the earth, the hyena comes and yells oowhoop and it will come into his mouth.”

“So whenever he will come to the city and come in the waraba nudul [hyena hole], he will clean up the visibles and the invisibles.”

“Oohwhoop” describes the behaviour of spotted hyenas where they lower their head, place their mouth close to the ground and make a ‘whooping’ call. A video and audio clip of this behaviour is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkCqAMT0AIA

Researchers suggest hyenas do this specifically so that sounds travel further due to increased resonance. Harari conclude that, when hyenas do this, they suck a jinn spirit from the ground. Harari also attach belief to hyenas vomiting (hyenas vomit up ‘gag balls’ of hooves, hair and nails). A resident interviewed by Baynes-Rock said that:

“If a hyena sees a jinni, he will eat him up. After this, you know, he will vomit. There is a place outside of Assumberi where hyena goes to vomit jinn. Inside is the fingernails and hair from the jinni and sometimes even the fingers. With these things you know the hyena has eaten a jinni.”

These beliefs are not completely based upon fantasy; they are rooted in observations and knowledge of hyena behaviour. This is an example of humans using their own experience and religious beliefs to interpret biological processes and to confer human traits (such as the desire to destroy evil jinn) on non-human animals. The hyenas of Harar, therefore, are fulfilling a human ‘need’ in their belief system, i.e. the need to be free from harmful spirits.

It is this belief system which I argue supports the idea of symbiosis, rather than commensalism. The hyena is provided with food and a sheltered place to live. The human is provided with an animal that devours evil spirits, thus conferring heightened feelings of safety and protection. The term symbiosis is also appropriate as hyenas dispose of a plethora of human waste products that would otherwise litter the streets, decreasing the occurrence of vermin and disease. In addition to their functions as devourers of both jinn and refuse, there is one aspect of these atypical interactions that provides a very concrete addition to the Harari mode of subsistence: hyena tourism.

The domestic animal contract:

As with anything exotic, unusual and dangerous, the ‘hyena men’ of Harar have become a tourist attraction. The hyena men take a small fee from tourists, providing them with a modest income. Attracting tourists to the city in the first place will presumably provide income from food, accommodation and additional purchases of local produces. This further supports the theory that both human and hyena exist in a symbiotic relationship. This touristic utilisation of the human-hyena relationship suggests a semi-domestication has occurred.

When Baynes-Rock asked a butcher why he fed hyenas bones from his shop and gave them names he said “I love animals. All animals”. Nonetheless, he favoured hyenas over cats and dogs. Baynes-Rock questions whether ‘loving animals’ is enough to lead to relationships with super-predators. “Why not leave a pile of food at the other side of the common for the hyenas to eat undisturbed?” he asks. Baynes-Rock states that: “It’s not enough just knowing that they’re out there. We want them to come to us and acknowledge our presence in the world as fellow creatures, but we don’t know why. For some reason, we crave these creatures’ validation and acceptance, grounded in their close presence. With regard to animals, the word love is often interchangeable with the word need”. Could it be human desire for acceptance that led other predators in the past (wolves, for example) to move slowly towards domestication? Or is it a desire on behalf of both species?

For years it was thought non-human animals played no part in social contract theory as, without speech, there can be no contractual relationship. However, some believe that processes of animal domestication are based on a form of social contract; “a pact between man and beast, sought by each for their mutual aid”. Are hyenas and humans in Harar entering into a domestic animal contract? Is there a hypothetical agreement between both species based on trust, which secures rights for both? It would seem so. Humans in Harar do trust the hyenas and uphold a ‘duty’ to feed them and allow them the ‘right’ to survive in their city. Hyenas do seem to trust humans – unlike elsewhere they will show themselves in human presence and not resort to stealth. The hyenas could be seen to uphold their ‘duty’ to rid the city of jinn and to clean up refuse from the streets whilst allowing humans the ‘right’ not to be attacked by them.

It has been stated that there are three universal social obligations: giving, receiving and repaying. It could be argued that the hyenas give humans protection from jinn, humans receive this protection and repay the hyena with food. Or the humans give hyenas food, hyenas receive this food and repay the humans with atypical behaviour towards humans which grants them safety. Of course, the idea of the domestic animal contract is fraught with difficulties, not the least being that non-human animals are not treated as free and equal individuals who understand the nature of the agreement. Using the idea of hypothetical consent to domestication, on the part of the animal, can be a method of justifying their domination. Animals who enter the contract are not only bound by trust but by methods of control.

I believe calling the domestication process a domestication contract is misleading. I feel it is more a mutual relationship emerging from changing and evolving human and non-human behaviours. Behaviours change based on necessity, whereas a contract should be binding no matter what.

Unless, of course, you consider contract breakers…

The contract breakers:

Whether considered a tacit contract or an evolving relationship, the situation in Harar can be broken by either species. Let’s first look at the human contract breakers. Baynes-Rock (2018) describes a video on his blog: “This clip shows a wild hyena suffering from the effects of being poisoned. This particular hyena, a juvenile, is lying in the middle of a busy road in Harar, Ethiopia. Whereas poisoning (and other killing methods) is common elsewhere, in Harar this is rare. Two objects lying next to the poisoned hyena in the picture portray the entangled history of humans and hyenas: a lime and a box of matches. Match smoke is traditionally used to treat epilepsy and lime is used to treat those who have swallowed bleach. It appears that humans intervene to try to redress the balance when the contract is broken.

And what about the hyena contract breakers? There are no reports of hyena attacks in Harar. However, there are some telling interviews that would suggest that the realisation that this symbiosis is precarious: “When the tourists don’t appear, the men still feed the animals. They say if they do not, Harari livestock and children will be in danger. The reason the hyenas don’t eat my cattle, cows and goats is because we take care of them.” It has already been shown that hyenas change their feeding behaviour based on changing human behaviour, such as during fasting periods. As semi-domesticated relationships are based on giving, receiving and repaying but if changing circumstances, such as famine, prevented the gift of food, could we foresee that the repayment of ‘predatory behaviour kept at bay’ would end also? What happens when the food runs out?


The typical view throughout Africa, and especially Ethiopia, is that spotted hyena are hostile animals with both a practical and a spiritual repugnance. Ethiopia’s history has been typified by a relationship of conflict due to the hyena’s behavioural parasitism. The relationship that has evolved in Harar, however, has required humans to perceive hyenas as protectors rather than deviants. This may have been possible because of a pre-existing belief that hyenas devour jinn and because of a lack of a belief in buda-as-hyena (as seen in the previous blog). Or it may have required a change in beliefs over the last 60 years to accommodate hyenas as symbionts.

It seems unrealistic that symbiosis, where hyenas form a part of modes of subsistence rather than disrupting it, could become widespread in Ethiopia. Yet Harar raises interesting questions about which relationship is better long term. Does semi-domestication increase trust and positive perceptions of misjudged predators? Or is it creating a pseudo-contract with fatal consequences if broken in such proximity? For the new generation of humans and hyenas, what does the future hold for those who live among the bone eaters?

References on Page 2…

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