Development vs Hyenas

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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.

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