The above photo is my favourite hyena photo of all for reasons more than its aesthetic appeal. It’s a photo of Willi and his mother, Hadha Kamar, standing on a garbage mound in the sunrise, listening for the arrival of the next truckload of garbage. The sun in Harar rises up from the Somali desert and when it’s close to ground level it shines blood-red. The photo doesn’t quite capture the blood-redness of the rising sun but, take my word for it, it’s very red. For me, to see the sun rise over hyenas sorting through garbage is a beautiful thing because of what it signifies: resilience. Hyenas have been touted as a reliable indicator species in that, if your hyenas disappear, then its a pretty good bet that your ecosystem is in serious trouble. The thing is that in Harar there is not much of what you would call an ecosystem left. Polluted streams cut through exhausted, eroded soils, piling plastic bags against their banks and refracting the colours of the rainbow in their greenish, oily waters. Introduced eucalypts grow in stands, sucking the moisture out of the ground, banning any growth below their canopies and, where there are no trees, the goats see to it that nothing can grow beyond a millimetre high. The only wild animals are the birds that eat the seeds of the Afkolo (the weed that dominates the landscape), the monkeys that steal from the farms and of course, the hyenas. It’s beautiful. No matter how far you degrade your landscape, the hyenas will persist and Hadha Kumar’s boy, Willi, is proof of that. I’ve watched him develop and learn his way around the old town, finding food and avoiding people and making a home for himself beside the polluted stream in amongst the rushes. And most mornings, he’s at the garbage dump rummaging through the waste that the urban population produces and finding plenty of food to survive on. Sorry if it’s not the vast savannah of the imagination, coursing with wildebeest and zebra, where hyenas compete with lions over kills and the only biped is the ostrich. There are too many people in Africa for that dream to be realised in anything other than a pipe. I love hyenas and I don’t care where they get their food from, as long as they live long and prosper and the above photo tells me that, in Harar at least, they will do just that.
This is my last post for the foreseeable future. I’m going back to Australia to write a thesis and probably won’t be back in Harar for some considerable time, if ever. I went to the hyena feeding place last night and, before saying my goodbyes to Yusuf and his family, went outside to say goodbye to the hyenas. Dibbey was lying beside the drainage channel looking peaceful. She’s never been aggressive towards me unless I happened to be sitting near to the food bucket so that it was a very peaceful moment saying goodbye to that big, normally angry hyena. And of course, Tukwondilli was just around the corner from Dibbey with god knows what going through that mixed up mind of his. Then there was Burisee, formerly Fintamuree, looking very happy with herself. I went over and scratched her chin and then gave her Willi’s comb, which she took in her mouth and then dropped as if not knowing what to do with it. Things have changed so much in the past six months. Bebe is gone, Jalla is gone and now Willi is absent most nights. Shebo and Funyamure have both disappeared. No wonder hyenas are so unsentimental, the way they disappear and die off, but it’s harder for a human to deal with it. I like to think that Willi had a chink in his armour and that just occasionally he was glad to see me and that, should I ever come to Harar and find him sorting through the garbage, he would come ambling over with that funny, waddling walk of his and stand in front of me the way he did, not knowing what to do. That’s the thing about our two species; is that we just don’t know how to connect with each other, but what was so remarkable about Willi was that he really, really tried to. Goodbye, Hyenas.