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ETHIOPIA / Part III: Hyena Slobber

Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta)

(Etosha National Park, Namibia)

The Spotted Hyena.

Misunderstood and maligned. Criticized and reviled.

An apex predator that many see only as a filthy scavenger.

My chosen spirit animal.

Yup. I always go for the underdog.


It was raining heavily in Lalibela when I left for Harar, so I crossed my fingers for better weather, but angry clouds were already gathering as I landed at the airport in Dire Dawa and it was pouring by the time my driver got an hour down the road. “It’s been raining every night,” he said, shaking his head, “and I hear that the hyenas haven’t come in three nights.” My eyes watered and I felt my heart breaking. I only had three nights in Harar (including this one), so that was very bad news.

"Well, there's two hyena feeding sites, right?" I asked, thinking that perhaps if one was a bust, then there'd be a chance at the other.

"Not anymore," he answered. "The other one is gone. You can only go to the one closest to the dump." It was half past six and already dark. The rain and heavy truck traffic was making my journey to Harar feel like a creeping crawl.

When planning exotic vacations, most people lean towards places like Hawaii, Mexico, or Bali. So when I told friends that I was heading to Ethiopia, I was met with scowls and puzzled looks. Unfortunately, a lot of folks still equate Ethiopia with the two-year famine (1983-1985) that claimed over 400,000 lives, but what they don’t know is that this amazing country now boasts one of the fastest growing economies in Africa. It’s also one of the most beautiful, with a crazy range of ecosystems that include soaring mountains, verdant valleys, and blistering deserts. Add to that a plethora of birds, wildlife and human cultures seemingly trapped in time and you’ve got yourself an exotic smorgasbord. But I have to say, it wasn’t feeling very exotic, staring out of that SUV window at a line of semi-trucks that went on for miles. We didn't arrive at the hotel until quarter to eight. One evening lost, two to go.

Spotted Hyena yawning (Etosha National Park, Namibia)

So why the fascination with Hyenas, you might ask? Well first, let me share with you some very interesting and little-known facts...

The spotted hyena is the largest known member of the Hyaenidae, and is further physically distinguished from other species by its vaguely bear-like build, its rounded ears, its less prominent mane, its spotted pelt, its more dual purposed dentition, its fewer nipples and the presence of a pseudo-penis in the female. It is the only mammalian species to lack an external vaginal opening.

The spotted hyena is the most social of the Carnivora in that it has the largest group sizes and most complex social behaviors. Its social organisation is unlike that of any other carnivore, bearing closer resemblance to that of ceropithecine primates (baboons and macaques) with respect to group-size, hierarchical structure, and frequency of social interaction among both kin and unrelated group-mates. However, the social system of the spotted hyena is openly competitive rather than cooperative, with access to kills, mating opportunities and the time of dispersal for males depending on the ability to dominate other clan-members. Females provide only for their own cubs rather than assist each other, and males display no paternal care. Spotted hyena society is matriarchal; females are larger than males, and dominate them. In one clan study in the Masai Mara, it was concluded that there has been only two female clan leaders in the past 20 years, as their hierarchical structure is hereditary and passed down, like royalty, from mother to daughter. Hail to the QUEEN!

The spotted hyena is a highly successful animal, being the most common large carnivore in Africa. Its success is due in part to its adaptability and opportunism; it is primarily a hunter but may also scavenge, with the capacity to eat and digest skin, bone and other animal waste. In functional terms, the spotted hyena makes the most efficient use of animal matter of all African carnivores. The spotted hyena displays greater plasticity in its hunting and foraging behavior than other African carnivores; it hunts alone, in small parties of 2–5 individuals or in large groups. During a hunt, spotted hyenas often run through ungulate herds in order to select an individual to attack. Once selected, their prey is chased over a long distance, often several kilometers, at speeds of up to 60 km/h.

So to neatly sum it up...

HYENAS ARE COOL AND GIRLS RULE!!! I mean, come on? How can you NOT admire a species that is dominated by the ladies, for a change?

And now, one last and amazing fact to share... Hyenas are NOT of the canine family. They belong to the feliform category and are phylogenetically closer to felines and viverrids (Mongoose family), though they evolved resembling canines, in that they are non-arboreal and cursorial hunters that catch prey with their teeth rather than with their claws.


I was underwhelmed by my chosen hotel in Harar. Online, it had looked pretty decent. In real-time, well...not so much. I wearily unpacked a few things in the dingy room and then headed downstairs for a bite to eat in the hotel restaurant. There were several groups of locals sipping beers and enjoying big green bundles of the notorious Khat (pronounced "chat").

People who are unfamiliar with Ethiopian culture have probably never heard of this past-time of chewing these bitter green leaves. For centuries, the "flower of paradise" has been used legally in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as a stimulant and social tonic. In Ethiopia, it verges on obsession. You can't go anywhere without seeing men, women and even children stuffing this herb into their cheeks. All day, all night. There are entire markets dedicated solely to this addictive plant and they rake in millions every year in sales. I sat down at a table and ordered a beer and a plate of Bozena Shiro (A dish of powdered chickpeas cooked with beef cubes, onion, vegetable oil and powdered red pepper) with spongy injera bread. It was only moments before someone stepped over and dumped a pile of Khat in front of me. "Enjoy!" a handsome young man said with a smile as he skipped out the front door and into the rain. I sipped my beer and stared at the reddish green leaves.

"Oh, what the hell," I said, stripping a small branch and stuffing the verdant foliage into my mouth. It was only then that I realized that I had no idea what I was supposed to do from there, as the nasty bitterness enveloped me. Was I supposed to swallow this shit? Chew it and spit it out? I couldn't remember seeing anyone spitting on this trip so far, not like I'd seen in India with all the betel nut chewing. Not like all the cowboys in Texas with their American chew. What the hell was I supposed to do? I didn't wait to find out. I discreetly ejected the green mulch into my cloth napkin and hid it in my lap. What an idiot. Thankfully, my food arrived. Between the delicious grub and the beer, I finally managed to get that awful taste out of my mouth. And then I headed off to bed. That's when the paranoia began. I hardly got an ounce of sleep that night, because every noise, every thump in that hotel startled me. I'd obviously gotten enough of the khat juice in my system to feel the effects of it. What an idiot. I got up the next morning, grumpy as hell and spoiling for a fight. My first opponent was an obnoxious guy from Djibouti, whom I'd briefly met and avoided the night before.

"No, I didn't want to have a beer with you last night and I certainly don't want to have a beer with you now at 7:30 in the morning!" I yelled at this jerk, as I barreled past him on the stairs. He followed me into the restaurant anyway and sat down right behind me. I searched for a utensil to plunge into his eye, should he continue this ridiculous pursuit. The hotel owner came to my rescue, which made me happy. Until he told me that I owed him US$100 for the airport transfer from Dira Dawa. "WTF?" I gasped. "You didn't say anything about the transfer costing that much in your letter!"

"What, lady? You think it should be free?" he exclaimed, throwing his arms up.

"Of course not," I snipped back at him. "But it's a huge inconvenience, seeing as how there's no internet and I can't use any of the ATMs! I don't have that much cash on me!" Town-wide, the internet was shut down due to political unrest in the region, and this really was a quandary. I still had to find a guide to take me to see the hyenas tonight and tomorrow, and there was no telling how much that was going to cost, because I certainly wasn't going to go there alone.

"My name is Lishan Ketema, and I am the most experienced guide in Harar," a man said to me desperately as I stormed out of the hotel in search of a bank. "I can take you to see all the sites in Harar old town, as well as..."

"I only came to see the hyenas!" I barked over my shoulder, realizing that I was acting like a real bitch. I had hit a wall in this travel game. Fatigued and tired, I was at my wit's end.

"Please, madame. I can take you to meet the Hyena man. I assure you, he is a very good friend of mine..."

Oh, he had me at Hyena.

"How much?" I said as I wheeled around to face him. We bartered for about ten minutes, until we struck an agreement that we both were happy with. He was going to take me in his good SUV (for the benefit of the strong headlights, because it was notoriously dark at the feeding site, unless there were other vehicles), and in case there was heavy rain. Expensive, but better than a three-wheeled, open-sided tuk-tuk. We shook hands to seal the deal.

Now, the first hyenas that I ever saw in the wild were in Northern Namibia, during my previous year's solo 53 day/4 country camping safari. I was early morning game driving in Etosha National Park, when I came upon these two beauties! They were cautiously guarding a well-eaten carcass of an impala, so I sat and quietly watched for about forty minutes. Curious creatures, they watched me, too. Then one of them picked up the skull and I got this amazing shot!

My second experience with hyenas came later down the road on that same trip. It was in The Kruger. I was having a late morning breakfast at one of the camp restaurants, and a nice group of folks started chatting me up. We talked about our sightings over the past few days, and one couple mentioned seeing a hyena's den. Boy, did I get excited. The couple gladly showed me on the map where they had seen it, so I made my plan for the next morning and went directly there. Oh, what luck! A mama with 4 cubs! So precious! I was in Hyena Heaven!

For about an hour, I enjoyed the cub's rambunctious play and laughed at the annoyed and harried mother as she took disciplining nips at her errant offspring, before sending them back into the safety of their den and leaving to hunt. I saw several more hyenas on that trip, with my grand total coming out to eleven hyenas in 2017. I had no idea, that a year later I would top that number in only two nights! And up close and personal, to boot!

After a tiring day of walking around Harar's old town, I took a short rest and then waited for my guide to show up. Lishan arrived as promised and we departed. It was already getting dark and luckily, there was no rain. He drove right through the middle of old town, navigating the narrow lanes with ease until we passed a large dump. I strained to see if there were any hyenas, but I only saw feral dogs. We continued for a few minutes more, and then he took a left turn on a very dark dirt road beside a large gnarled tree that was wrapped around a little building. "This is it?" I said, seeing absolutely nothing up ahead and feeling more than just a little creeped out. "No worries. No lights means fewer tourists." The headlights of our SUV finally struck on something moving. A man crossing the road way up ahead with a basket in hand. "There he is. My friend, Abbas Yusuf. The hyena man." I was already beyond excited, but when Lishan parked the vehicle and I saw movement in the bushes, my heart nearly burst from my chest.

"There are hyenas all over the place!" I gasped, realizing that we were smack in the middle of a clan. "One...two...three...four...five..." "And there's four more over there," he said, laughing at me. "Come on now. Get out. There are other tourists coming and you'll want to get the best pics."

"Get out?" I whined. "Seriously? It's okay?" "Isn't this why you came?" he asked. So I stepped out of the vehicle, holding on to the faith that surely my chosen spirit animal would not make a meal of me. Lishan left me there and went to talk to Abbas. Two hyenas came around from behind the SUV and walked right past me. They weren't more than five feet away. It was terrifying and exhilarating. I was absolutely awestruck. Lishan then motioned for me to come and sit with Abbas. The clan of wild hyenas milled about in the shadows, waiting patiently for the signal that it was time for food. Abbas greeted me and then handed me a stick, upon which he placed a chunk of meat. He then began calling out hyena names, none of which I can remember. A timid youngster came up first, and snatched the meat from my stick. Other tourists had just arrived, because I could hear their oohs and ahhhs in the shadows just beyond the glare of SUV's headlamps. I was now part of the show. Abbas tried to get me to put the stick in my mouth. I tried it once, but I practically went cross-eyed as a hyena took the meat. Nope. Not for me. One after the other, the hyenas came to be fed. And so damn polite they were. I've never even seen a domesticated dog take meat as gently as these fierce beasts did. I finally gave up my spot to the other tourists and departed, my head spinning. I couldn't wait to come back again the next evening.

On the following night, things went pretty much the same, only this time a very special hyena showed up - one that was habituated into standing up on tourist's shoulders for it's chunk of meat. This hyena jumped up behind me and stayed perched on my back for at least forty-five seconds, and at one point (as it patiently waited for Abbas to rearrange the basket) it actually rested it's head on top of mine! I couldn't stop laughing. What an amazing experience!

Overjoyed at my hyena adventure, I left Harar the next day and headed for the Omo Valley in search of ancient cultures...


If you'd like to know more about Harar's hyenas, you should check out this amazing book... Among the Bone Eaters: Encounters with Hyenas in Harar

by Marcus Baynes-Rock (Author), Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (Foreword)

And to learn more about hyenas in general:

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