Development vs Hyenas


Today I learned how to animate gifs so I wanted to put my new found knowledge towards sharing something that I’ve known for quite some time. Now I have a way of putting this information across in a way that has some impact. The animation here is from a pair of satellite images of Harar (taken from google earth), spaced 15 years apart from 2002 to 2017. It’s pretty easy to guess which is which but the dates are in the top left corner. After I’d made the animation I stared at it for some time because It’s frankly fascinating. I like seeing where trees have grown or been cut down, where roads have appeared where there were previously tracks, and how some human constructions seem to have been dropped onto the landscape from space without any regard for history or terrain. I’m easily fascinated. I’ve also included a set of boundaries. These were the boundaries for the three hyena clans that converged on Harar’s Old Town during the times while I was there from 2009 to 2013, but as far as I’ve been able to ascertain these have shifted a bit in the last four years. Part of the reason for this shift is a historical conflict between the Aboker and Sofi clans and a power dynamic that saw the Aboker hyenas putting tremendous pressure on the northern boundary of the Sofi territory. The Sofi hyenas for whatever reason weren’t able to collectively defend this border so they were pushed eastwards. This had a big impact on the guy who feeds the Sofi hyenas just outside the Old Town (the densely populated enclosed area at the top left which looks a bit like a hyena’s head in profile). He’s had to move his hyena feeding operation about 500 metres east because that’s as far as the Sofi hyenas are prepared to come. So it looks like the Aboker hyenas now control the Old Town and some portion to the east.

But the socio-political worlds of these hyenas are not a single species affair. The human population is inextricably caught up in the ways that hyenas are organised, and beyond feeding hyenas, the things that they do can have profound effects. Humans like to build things and in Ethiopia there is a massive amount of development occurring, mostly in urban areas. Addis Ababa is seeing the most with multi-storey buildings appearing every other day. Harar is seeing a lot of development too and you can see by the map just how much is occurring. The area to the east of Harar is supposed to be a UN designated buffer zone – a reserve designated to limit development in the rural area outside of the world heritage listed Old Town. But little by little the buffer zone is being occupied and the land being transformed. I mean, look at that stadium. While the government of Harar is very much pro-hyena and adamant that the hyenas are important in terms of heritage and tourism they are also pro-development and not very cognizant of the effects that development will have on the hyenas. I remember the time that I told a government minister that the loads of cobblestones being stockpiled near to the feeding place were scaring the hyenas away from the hyena feeding (hyenas are notorious neophobes). He told me I was talking nonsense and that hyenas who feed in front of car headlights would never be afraid of piles of rocks. So the town keeps expanding and the hyenas’ territories are being made to accommodate more roads, buildings, and humans. Certainly an increasing human population makes for more food scraps which keep these hyenas fed but when I look at this animation I think that there must be a tipping point. There will come a time when a combination of urbanization and modern garbage disposal will make it impossible for hyenas to breed and feed close to Harar. You want to know what localised extinction looks like? Look at the animation. This says something about large carnivores that has implications far beyond the boundaries of the Sofi hyenas’ territories: Regardless of the good intentions on the part of people and government, and the protections given to particular species, the weight of the human population and the capital-driven treadmill of constant growth will inevitably push large carnivores from their traditional landscapes into gated reserves where they will be maintained as relics, primarily for the benefit of tourists. Having said all that I’d like to end this post on a happier note. I really would.


Hyenas can change the world

I just heard from the hyena-man’s daughter, Ardalle, that she graduated from college this week with a nursing degree. I have to say I’m so proud of her. I remember my time with the family and seeing how difficult it was for the kids to succeed in school. For a start their parents can barely read and write so they had no-one to help with their homework (other than a stupid anthropologist). And the resources available to them were so limited. Books for kids are unheard of in Ethiopia and families have to pay for paper and pens for their kids. Most parents don’t prioritize these things so kids often don’t even have materials to do their homework. Ardalle is diligent and I remember her always doing homework, but she is also fortunate in that her father sent her to a good school and provided her with the paper and pens she needed. And this is where the hyenas played a crucial role. They showed up night after night to feed in front of tourists who paid the hyena man who had the wisdom to see how that income could be put to good use. And now thanks to these hyenas the cycle of ignorance and child marriage in Ethiopia is ever weaker and there is one more educated, independent woman in the world.

Harar hyenas is moving

This weekend the clan and I are moving house so it’s an apt time to move this blog. The new site is called Among Animals, giving me scope to expand the subject matter. Fear not, I’ll still be writing about my dear hyenas but now I can include a host of other creatures who would have struggled to find relevance in a site about hyenas in Harar. The new site is here and I hope you enjoy it.

Willi Moving

‘Bone Eaters’ is Among Us’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.