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This remarkable relationship between man and beast has been kept alive for 50 years thanks to one family’s tradition.
Dusk is falling on the old walled city of Harar and the still air is broken only by an occasional, chilling howl. In the semi-darkness, five hungry hyenas circle a young man crouched on the ground. Their bat-like ears flick back and forth in greedy expectation while their jaws flex to reveal a snarl of teeth. It’s feeding time.
But while spotted hyenas are known throughout the world to be vicious scavengers, in this small Ethiopian city, its habitants are not afraid. The young man draws a chunk of meat from his basket and dangles it in the air. Instead of leaping to attack, one hyena comes forward and takes it right out of his hands, with the poise of a domesticated dog.
Abbas Yusuf, known as the Hyena Man, learned to feed these wild animals from his father, Yusuf Mume Salleh, who used to throw them scraps to lure them away from his livestock. Years later, the tradition lives on and though it has become a popular tourist attraction, this remarkable relationship between man and beast runs deep.
For photographer Brian Lehmann, who spent time documenting the phenomenon, it was this profound — almost transcendent — connection that interested him most. “I was in awe of their relationship,” Lehmann tells National Geographic. “People all over except this one little city in Ethiopia are terrified by hyenas because they will literally chew you up and turn you into a bloody patch on the ground in a matter of minutes. A few miles away you have a girl who was bitten in the face and dragged to a river…but here the children are not afraid at all.”
The city has a long history of living peacefully with hyenas. Centuries ago, the animals were attacking and sometimes killing the townspeople, the locals told Lehmann. Their solution was to cut holes in the city’s walls and start throwing scraps of food through, “so they would start eating the food rather than the people”. According to the Harari, there have been no hyena attacks for 200 years.
As well as Yusuf’s generous offerings, the hyenas feast on the city’s landfill. Like clockwork every day, the animals listen out for the crank and grind of the garbage truck; a dawn siren heralding fresh offloads of filthy scraps. At dusk, another noise calls them to feed. “Abbas would stand on this hill and call out to them to lure them into his house so he could feed them for the tourists,” says Lehmann. Every night, Abbas would stand on a hill and call out to them; coaxing them to come and perform for the tourists. He has names for all of them, though some are more responsive than others, and has even developed a special kind of dialect to woo them from their caves.
Though Lehmann is not a wildlife photographer, he has documented animals in the wild before and knows “the reality is you need to be close to make it visually impactful.” Rather than using a camera trap, Abbas’ relationship with the hyenas was his ‘in.’ “When I was with Abbas I could do whatever, when I was on my own it would take a significant amount of time to earn their trust,” he adds.
One remarkable example came one night, when a hyena — who Abbas is particularly close to — led him and Lehmann back to its den. “At that point, you feel hesitant, is this where he kills me?” he says. “But that’s when you come to the realization that Abbas has this amazing relationship with them.” One of the dens that Yusuf crawled into even had hyena cubs inside. “You could hear the other hyenas running around nearby and they could kill him in two seconds but they didn’t,” he adds. “They let him do what ever he wants.”
This peculiar tradition, passed on by generations, reaches beyond the natural order and shows how an animal — typically feared by man and vilified in folklore — can be misunderstood. As Lehmann says: “There is no doubt they are ugly creatures. But there is beauty within.”