‘Bone Eaters’ is Among Us

https://i2.wp.com/www.psupress.org/images/covers/FullSize/978-0-271-06721-6md.jpgIt’s a happy day for me today as my book on Harar’s hyenas is finally out. Penn State University Press were originally going to publish a revised version of my dissertation – all academic reading, and dry enough to kill mould – but then they had a meeting. They decided that the subject deserved a more accessible book for a general audience and asked me if I could come up with an entirely new manuscript. Two years and many long days/nights of writing later and Among the Bone Eaters is out. I’m very excited about this book and not just because I put so much work into it. It also gave me a chance to revisit my time in Harar and foreground the human and hyena characters, much as I’ve done here. I was also fortunate that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas agreed to write a foreword which for me is an honour beyond measure. And Suzanne Wolk, Nigel Rothfels, and Kendra Boileau provided the best guidance imaginable for which I’m forever grateful.

If you’re familiar with this blog and come to read my book I should explain some inconsistencies with hyenas’ named used. The hyena known here as Jalla is named in the book as Kamareya. The reason for this difference is that Yusuf the hyena man and his son Abbas often gave the same hyenas different names. Abbas called this hyena Jalla while Yusuf called him Kamareeya. I prefer the latter because, as I found out, it means ‘Like the Moon.’ I’ve also spelled Bebe in the book as Baby because this is closer to the correct pronunciation. Deraltu is named in the book as Koti and the young hyena named here as Burisee retains her original name, Fintamurey. This hyena was also called Rimbaud (after French poet Arthur Rimbaud) but that’s a whole other story. Apart from that pretty much everything is as accurate as is my memory. Ahem.

There’s an idiom in Harar which is waraba nasib (hyenas’ luck) and there’s a bit of that flying around this blog at the moment. That’s because right now you can get 30 percent off on a copy of Among the Bone Eaters if you use this order form.  I hope you find the inclination to get a copy of this book, whether directly or through your library, and if you enjoy it or not please let me know.



C’est une production de qualité sur hyènes

My spies in Belgium just informed me that a documentary about Harar’s hyenas is screening on Arte Belgique tonight at 7pm (thanks Sash). So if you have access to Belgian TV you can see a nicely made doco directed by Maurice Dubroca, featuring Yusuf and the dear Sofi hyenas. The producer Christophe really worked hard to get this doco made and is really passionate about the hyenas’ stories so congrats to him for getting this film to air when so many networks are afraid that people will switch off when it comes to hyenas.

Here’s the page about the documentary and here’s the link to the programme schedule. I love the mention of ‘un pacte de non-agression avec les hyènes.’ Hopefully it will be released for online viewing so those few of us living outside Belgium might have a chance to see. And being on the Arte network it should screen in France at some stage too.


Dumping of Rubbish Eagerly Anticipated

As you know from the previous post, the BBC were recently in Harar filming the hyenas for the One Planet series. In addition to the three way clan war and the goings on at the Sofi feeding place (which is now halfway to the garbage dump), the producer noticed some interesting things at the main market. One was this old clapped out female who went nightly to the main market looking for food. Apparently all the Aboker hyenas deferred to her as if she was the queen of the hyenas but she was never once at the Aboker feeding place. I doubt she was foregoing the feeding place in favour of the market because the feeding kicks off at 6pm while the hyenas don’t normally hit the market until about 10pm due to the crowds. So I wish I could find out more about this hyena-queen. The other bit of information, and this is even more fascinating, is that the producer thinks that a hyena had some cubs in a niche inside the Old Town. He saw the female entering the niche and on passing by, he heard what he thought was cubs, but didn’t stop to look because he didn’t want to draw attention to the place – for obvious reasons. This is really interesting because crowds of people pass by that spot daily, and some throw rubbish into the niche, so it would take a lot of nerve for a hyena and her cubs to stay there. I’m guessing/hoping that by now that they’ve moved house and established a den outside the town where the other Abokers have theirs. Otherwise you can add to the permanent population of Harar, one female hyena and her cubs living in a magical hole where food flies in through the entrance daily.

An ideal place to raise hyenas

An ideal place to raise hyenas

Don't even think about it

Don’t even think about it

News from Harar

I just heard from the producer of BBC’s One Planet series who was filming in Harar over the past month and there is much afoot in the world of Harar’s urban hyenas. Where I described the clan war between the Aboker hyenas and some others, I suspected that the ‘others’ might have been from the Hakim clan, and it looks like this is the case. Apparently the Hakim hyenas have been going into the Old Town on a nightly basis and challenging the Aboker hyenas’ dominance. What’s more, when someone took a dead ox and dumped it in front of the Suqutatberi gate, not only did the Aboker hyenas and Sofi hyenas converge on the scene but the Hakim hyenas came up from the south. The result was a three-way clan war, and in the morning a dead hyena was found just east of Suqutatberi near the tannery. Meanwhile the Sofi hyenas are conspicuously inconspicuous. They don’t come to the feeding place at the shrine anymore – probably because they’re nervous of the adjacent building project – and instead spend their evenings at the garbage dump, without even going into the Old Town. If Abbas is to host tourists he has to convince them to go halfway to the dump where he carries a bucket of scraps and feeds hyenas in darkness. I think the BBC will have trouble squeezing all this into a 6 minute sequence.




I Hyena

The usual method that researchers use to recognise individual hyenas is their distinctive spot patterns. In the Masai Mara, the researchers from MSU use thick folders full of left/right profile photos of individual, named hyenas, which are categorised according to sex, age, and immigrant status. When a researcher there spots a hyena who she doesn’t recognise immediately, she thumbs through the folder, looking a photo of a hyena with a similar spot pattern.

In Harar, it’s really not practical to carry a folder full of photos around when you’re doing hyena reserach on foot. For anyone other than Doctor Octopus, it’s enough of a challenge to hold onto a camera, voice recorder, flashlight, nightvision scope, and notebook while keeping one hand free to stop your fall when you stumble in a drainage lane running with effluent. And besides it often really hard to get a good look at the hyenas’ spotty profiles when they’re walking ahead of you in a narrow lane.

One alternative method for recognising hyenas is to memorise the spot patterns just above their tails and the notches in their ears so that you can recognise individuals from front and rear. Although not all hyenas have notches in their ears. Another method, and one which I inadvertently ended up using in Harar, is to note the individual hyena’s relationship to persons and things in her environment.

For instance, Baby was easy to recognise because she often stood behind Yusuf, and Willi was often lying down beside the canal beside the feeding place. So from hundreds of metres away I could make an identification of those hyenas with 95% confidence because of the places they frequented and the people to whom they stood in relation. And as for Tukwondilli, he was usually hovering around Dibbey, so once I identified her, I could be pretty sure the nervous, skinny male running circles around her was Tukwondilli.

This brings me to an article published by Kevin Theis a couple of years ago which demonstrated how colonies of fermentive bacteria in hyenas’ anal glands varied in composition, and this corresponded to variation in hyenas’ scents. This suggests that group specific scents of hyenas are mediated by the bacteria. What’s more, hyenas are probably informed about sex and reproductive states of others by reconising the variations in scents that the bacteia are responsible for. I would go further and say that these scents also vary by individual based on variations in bacterial compositions.

Why is this relevant? Because it shows that hyenas’ identities are not limited to their DNA, spot patterns or even their bodies. A hyena person is a coming together of relations not just between hyena bodies and other hyenas, people and places in the landscape, but also between all of the above and fermentive bacteria which mediate the distinctive scents of individuals that other hyenas find so interesting. Of course it’s never going to be pratcical to identify hyenas in Jugol by the microscopic bacteria riding on their bottoms but it opens up some interesting ideas about what constitutes identity in humans and other animals.


Willi and his bacteria wiping some scent onto a blade of grass