Interview: Marcus Baynes-Rock on hyena-human interactions in Harar

The sun has set and outside the walls of the ancient city Harar, Ethiopia, a man is sittning on the ground behind a woven basket. It contains scraps of meat and the man, also known as a Hyena Man, puts a piece on a stick. All of a sudden a large hyena mounts the back of the man, reaches beside his head and snatches the meat from the stick. Tourists watching the event light up the darkness when they try to capture the unusual moment with their iPhones and cameras.

Feeding wild hyenas is a tourist attraction in Harar but interactions between humans and hyenas have taken place for centuries, and the hyenas also enter the city of Harar in search of food provided by the citizens. They leave bones in the streets for the hyenas.

Hyenas have massive jaws and a group of hyenas can devour a prey, a zebra or a wilderbeest, in 20 minutes. They only leave hoofs and hair behind. In Harar hyenas are also known as bone eaters.

And Among the Bone Eaters is the title of a spectacular and adventurous book by Australian anthropologist Marcus Baynes-Rock. Subtitle: Encounters with Hyenas in Harar. Baynes-Rock studied interactions between hyenas and humans in Harar for several years, expanding the bounderies of anthropology and our knowledge about the spotted hyena.

How did you get the idea to study hyena-human interactions in eastern Ethiopia? 

– I was always interested in evolutionary relationships between our human and large carnivore ancestors and this led me to study up on contemporary hyenas. I was reading Hans Kruuk’s seminal work on spotted hyena predation and social behaviour and I found a brief passage about Harar. Kruuk describes the hyenas in Harar entering into the town at night and being ‘encouraged’ by the locals.

– I was looking for a PhD project at the time and my honours coordinator, Marcus Barber, suggested that I do an ethnography on hyenas and humans in Harar. I wrote up a proposal and was granted a scholarship from Macquarie University. So without really meaning to I slid pretty seamlessly from Palaeoanthropology into Social Anthropology and multispecies ethnography and before long found myself on a plane to Ethiopia.  

What are some of the most surprising and significant results of your research? 

– Probably the most significant results pertain to the way that people in the Harar Region conceive of hyenas. They consider hyenas a parallel society with a lot of the characteristics that we would ascribe to human societies. In this way there is an ethical dimension to their dealings with hyenas and in the ways that hyenas respond to humans. A clear example of this was the way that the community in Kombolcha responded to a series of hyena attacks on children.

– They sought a reason for why the hyenas might have acted that way and determined that it was due to a poisoning incident in which several hyenas were killed. The attacks were seen as acts of retribution for the poisoning. The municipality sought to find an elder who could communicate with the hyenas in order to arrive at a truce. This is markedly different to the ways that animal attacks on humans are conceived of in my own country. 

– Also significant was the permeable nature of the hyena clan boundaries in Harar. Where hyenas live in high concentrations in reserves and national parks, they tend to be very particular about their boundaries and defend them very aggressively, to the point where hyenas transgressing might be killed. In Harar’s Old Town it’s not possible to maintain boundaries by use of scent or visual markers because of the layout of the town and the lack of vegetation. As a result of this I found hyenas from different clans interacting peacefully within the Old Town. Yet, these same hyenas would engage in aggressive interclan conflicts outside of the Old Town at a place that was an agreed boundary. 

You befriended hyenas from the Sofi clan, especially three of them. Please tell us a little bit about them, what you did while hanging out and what you learnt from them. 

– The three hyenas were Willi, Baby, and Kamareeya. They were each unique although the one thing that they had in common was that they were from the same age group. Mostly I followed these hyenas around Harar’s Old Town but there were times when we just hung out together on the hill outside the town and even played together. They showed me the subtleties of hyena communication and I eventually learned to grasp some of the things they were trying to communicate to me, such as ‘Follow me!’ or ‘Get off, that’s my bone!’ They also enlisted me at times, using my presence to fend off aggressive dogs and other hyenas. 

The hyenas get food from the citizens of Harar. What do they get from the hyenas? How do they percieve them? How do the hyena inform their belief systems? 

– The citizens of Harar consider themselves to have a deal with hyenas. They provide food and leave the hyenas in peace and in return the hyenas refrain from attacking any citizens and protect the townspeople from dangerous, outsider hyenas and unseen spirits known as jinn. I guess you could say that they see the hyenas as benevolent but with conditions, and so they understand the ethical dimension of their relationship. Hyenas fit pretty seamlessly into the Muslim belief system in Harar, in that they are believed to control jinn, and they serve as messengers for the deceased Sufi ‘saints’ who look after the town.  

Were more orthodox anthropologists and zoologists sceptical towards your research at first? Or maybe envious? 

– I haven’t experienced any scepticism toward my research other than from behaviourists who suggest that the hyenas who I engaged with might have just been conditioned rather than engaging as persons. That’s a pitiably impoverished view that isn’t worth my time addressing. I have had interest from hyena researchers but in no way do they see my research as invalid and in fact they have taken some of their experiments to Harar to see how urban hyenas might differ from ‘wild’ hyenas. 

Deborah Bird Rose was your doctoral supervisor. Has she he influenced your research in any significant way? 

– She influenced me insofar as she gave me way too much room in which to explore ideas. So I was kind of lost in terms of theory and what it was I was seeking to understand. I’ve since understood Debbie’s philosophy in greater depth and this has had an impact on my work on domestication in Australia.

Many thanks to Baynes-Rock for taking my questions.

Check out his critical study of domestication in Australia, Crocodile Undone, also published by Penn State University Press.

Among the Bone Eaters and Crocodile Undone are part of PSUP:s very fine book series Animalibus: Of Animals and Cultures

Visit Marcus Baynes-Rock’s website Hyenas in Harar.

Ola Wihlke

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