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Monday, 1 July, 2002, 22:23 GMT 23:23 UK
The hyena man of Harar
Mulugeta Wolde Mariam
The hyena man of Harar feeds a friend

As darkness falls over the ancient walled city of Harar, local people and tourists make their way to the outskirts of the city to see a bizarre spectacle.

With only the headlights of a car to illuminate the night's events, a small group of curious spectators gathers a few feet from Mulugeta Wolde Mariam, the hyena man of Harar.

He then calls out to the 30 or 40 wild hyenas which inhabit the forests surrounding the city.

Within minutes, seven or eight pairs of luminous eyes appear in the dark. Mulugeta intensifies his calls and the wild animals draw closer.

Mulugeta Wolde Mariam
Meat for the animals is supplied by spectators
In short bursts, he loudly makes sounds in a combination of his own "hyena dialect," English and the local language of Afaan Oromo.

Spectators clutch one another and gasps can be heard amongst them, as the presence of the wild beasts is felt in the darkness.

He starts calling out to the hyenas by name.

"I know all the hyenas well. I have given them all names which they respond to," says the 26-year-old.

Mouth to mouth

Watching a hyena man perform is not for the faint-hearted.

From a small plastic bag, he produces pieces of meat provided by the curious spectators.

Mulugeta calls out to the other hyenas to come forward and slowly, almost obediently, more of them emerge from the darkness, their eyes glowing.

The hyena man then places the pieces of raw meat in his mouth.

The hyenas advance towards him and snatch the meat from his mouth with their large teeth, before scuttling back a few feet.

Mulugeta Wolde Mariam
Mulugeta feeds the hyenas by mouth

Mulugeta is fearless and claims that there is no danger involved in being mouth to mouth with these wild scavengers.

"I have been doing this for 11 years now. I was taught by my friend who is much older and more experienced than me. I have never felt scared and trust the hyenas totally," he says.

"There is no danger unless you are scared, as the hyenas sense fear," says Mulugeta.

Long tradition

The origin of feeding the hyenas date back to the great famine of the late 19th Century.

According to legend, the hyenas were fed by the inhabitants of Harar to appease the animals in good times, so that in times of drought they would not attack people or livestock.

Today, the hyena men of Harar make a living by feeding wild hyenas for the benefit of tourists and curious locals.

"It's not much of a living, but it's enough to survive on and I really enjoy being close to wild animals," says Mulugeta.

But he says it is a dying practice and he is one of only two hyena men left in Harar.

Concerned that the practice is now dying out, he has now started training young boys of Harar to carry on this bizarre ritual.

See also:

29 Jun 02 | Country profiles
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