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Wednesday, 9 January, 2002, 14:10 GMT
Man-eating hyenas spread fear in Malawi
Hyena with cub
Goats and chickens are hyenas' normal prey
A five year old boy is among half a dozen people who have been killed by hyenas in Malawi since Christmas.

The attacks have spread fear among the local population around the city of Blantyre, Malawi's commercial centre.

The government has sent rangers to the area to track down the animals, whose aggressive behaviour has puzzled wildlife experts.

It is very rare for hyenas to attack people; goats and chickens are their normal prey.


The government is taking action and is bringing in rangers to try to track down the hyenas and kill them

Anthony Levuza

Anthony Levuza, Director of Information for the Malawi Government, told the BBC that all the attacks happened at night but it was difficult to pinpoint the reason.

"There are several speculations going round, there is talk of witchcraft, but perhaps the animals ran short of food," he said.

Hyenas are doglike animals which hunt at night in packs and often act as scavengers.

Environmentalists say damage to their habitat in countries like Malawi has been pushing them to live near villages.

Mr Levuza said that could explain the animals' unusual behaviour:

"The area is very hilly but the mountain cover is not all that good, so perhaps some animals have run out of their natural habitat and decided to go into the villages to foray for food and attacked people crossing their path."

Superstition

But local people have their own ideas of what might lie behind the attacks.

Some superstitious villagers believe the man-eating hyenas were kept and fed by humans, who used to send them out on clandestine magical missions.

After their keeper's death, the hyenas became hungry, and because they were reared by humans began attacking people, rather than animals.

Other traditional beliefs in Malawi hold that people can use witchcraft to change themselves into hyenas to terrorise and kill their enemies.

The government has dismissed these stories.

However, Vice President Justin Malewezi was sent to the area last weekend to investigate.

People in fear

"The government is taking action and is bringing in rangers to try to track down the hyenas and kill them," Anthony Levuza said, adding that people's safety was paramount.

Since the attacks began around Christmas, people in the affected areas have been afraid to venture outside after dark.

In most rural areas in Malawi, families prefer to sleep outside to guard their crops and keep cool during the sweltering summer heat.

But in areas were hyena attacks have been reported, villages now are deserted after sunset.

See also:

24 Nov 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Malawi
10 Apr 99 | Africa
Field of carnivorous conflict
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