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


No-Man’s-Land for Hyenas

Aboker war

Photo from video courtesy of Fredi Devas

Recall the last time I was in Harar, the Aboker hyenas were staging raids on the Sofi feeding place and all but driving the Sofi hyenas off for good. Well, the conflict is apparently ongoing because Abbas is no longer feeding the Sofi hyenas at the regular place; he’s taking food to the garbage dump and feeding them there while trying to coax them back to the shrine where they used to feed. They follow him some of the way but then lose their nerve and return to the dump. This says to me that the Sofi hyenas are too afraid to go back to the place that used to be a core area of their territory, and this is out of fear of Aboker raids. This is a valid fear as quite a few Sofi hyenas have been injured or killed in previous clan wars with the Aboker hyenas.

In the image above, you see two groups of hyenas facing off on either side of a building opposite Harar’s slaughter yards. This is from footage of a clan war that a BBC producer filmed while he was there a few months ago. It’s amazing footage of a rare event and he was right in the middle of it. In fact one hyena knocked his camera lens in all the kerfuffle. And there are many more hyenas on either side who don’t appear in the image; no less than 38 in the group on the left and 37 in the group on the right. Seventy-five hyenas in a clan war in the middle of a city and people walking past as if it’s none of their business! As for the building, it is (or was) right in the heart of Aboker territory; less than 10 metres to the right is where the other hyena man feeds the Aboker hyenas. And this is what makes it all so intriguing.

By comparing spot patterns on the hyenas in the clan war footage with some appearing in my old Harar footage I’m pretty sure that the group on the right is the Aboker clan. As for the group on the left, I’m not so certain. It could well be the Sofi hyenas even though they’re approaching from the west and the Sofi territory is east. This is because there are only two approaches to this place from the east and the easiest one takes you along a road past the Old Town and loops around so you end up entering the feeding place from the west. The thing is, I don’t recognise any of those hyenas in the group to the left – not one. But then again, I’ve been away a while and many may well have come and gone so I can’t be certain they aren’t Sofi hyenas. Still, the BBC producer said that Koti was still feeding at the time he was there and she’s not among these hyenas, but as the dominant female, she really should be.

So here’s my hypothesis: the group to the left is not the Sofi clan but instead another hyena clan from the west or even the Hakim clan from the southwest. The group to the right is the Aboker clan whose territory has contracted to the corner of that building right next to their feeding place. The contraction of their territory on that side is either the reason for why they are putting pressure on the southeastern border with the Sofi clan, or else it is the result of them dedicating too much effort on expanding their southeastern border to the detriment of the Sofi hyenas. If I’m wrong and it’s the Sofi clan in the footage putting pressure on the Aboker hyenas it means that the Sofi clan has taken possession of Harar’s Old town and expanded their territory right up to the Aboker feeding place. Which would make their behaviour at their own feeding place a little weird. Based on the map below showing the geographic relationship between the two clans, can you think of another explanation for what’s going on here?

Harar Map and Clan War

Map of Harar’s Old Town and Sofi (red) and Aboker (green) territories as they were in 2011.

New Article

There’s a long history in the social sciences of keeping humans separate from animals. Humans do things with other humans and this is what social scientists study. Meanwhile animals only do things with other animals and these are the concern of biologists and such-like who need binoculars to see their subjects. If fact sociology text books still make distinctions between humans and animals suggesting that animals only act according to instinct while humans are thoughtful and reflective. This is a hangover from the time of French philosopher Descartes who gazed over a barnyard fence at a cow contentedly chewing its cud and decided that animals must be organic machines with no thoughts and no feelings. Now, anyone familiar with hyenas (and all Hararis) will tell you how that ‘effete dabbler’ was somewhat mistaken, if not deluded.1

Hyenas are little persons. In fact, they’re not that little; quite a few hyenas in Harar weigh more than me. They operate in a hyena social world which includes negotiating relations with a bunch of other hyenas. There’s always stuff going on in the hyena community, whether its clan wars, romancing, avoiding enemies, making friends, watching others’ relations, or just playing games. And in Harar, their social relations spill over into the human world, while the human world spills over into the hyena world. So much so that a social scientist attached to the old dogma would be well advised to look outside of Harar for an exclusively human society.

I’ve written as much in an article that’s just come out in Social Science Information. Sorry, I can’t post the article here because the publishers would lose out if it was free on the internet but I can pretty much give you the gist of what I say: I describe the events of a poisoning incident in which a poisoned Aboker hyena was inadvertently taken by Yusuf to the Sofi feeding place to be cared for. The Sofi hyenas took exception to this intrusion, killed the hyena and three days later: clan war. What I say in the article is how the layout of the town contributes to the way that hyenas maintain territories. In which case the town’s history includes hyena histories. What’s more, during the poisoning incident and clan war, the actions of the hyenas influenced the actions of the people which in turn influenced the actions of the hyenas so that the whole episode was a mish-mash of hyena-human social, historical, ecological relations.


1.      This term comes from Paul Shepard. It’s made in reference to any enlightenment philosopher but it’s obviously directed at Decartes

The raid and the secret weapon

This is a guest post from Eli Strauss, a PhD student in the Zoology department at Michigan State University. He is interested in the evolution of sociality and the causes and consequences of variation in social system structure. Eli plans to compare the social behavior of hyenas in and around Harar with hyenas located in the Masai Mara Game Reserve in southern Kenya.

Even before the raid it had been an interesting night. A steady stream of people and hyenas had come and gone, each leaving satisfied with the fruits of the evening. Koti had made her first appearance in over a week, strutting about the place like the alpha she is. Abbas had even gotten some of the hyenas to chomp down on the steak-shaped squeaky toy that Marcus brought from Australia, although they seemed a bit betrayed to discover it wasn’t food. After the first set of hyenas had left, a few latecomers had come, including a one-and-a-half year old sub-adult making its first foray to the feeding site.

4x6Edit_20130516_Everly_Harar_HyenaFeeding244Abbas and the squeaky steak. Photo courtesy of Kaylee Everly.

When the Aboker hyenas descended, the four latecomers, led by a square-faced female named Botole, were staring longingly at the last piece of meat lying on the ground. She wanted it real bad, but it was just a bit too close to people for her comfort. Suddenly, they all looked up, growling with tails bristled.

Then, chaos.

Where there were four hyenas a second ago, hyenas were now running every which-way. From south along the road to Suqutatberi their came the sound of hyenas lowing in unison, marking the center of the conflict. I rushed over, but there was nothing to be seen. As soon as it had begun, the raid was over.

Hearing groans from the hill by the feeding place, I walked over to find eight Aboker hyenas, including five huge females, reveling in their victory. Tails held high, the females marched up the hill to the Sofi latrine site that marks the feeding place as Sofi property. There the conquering females sniffed intently about and enthusiastically pawed the ground, depositing scent chemicals from the interdigital glands between their toes.  Finally, like an army raising their flag over a recently won battlefield, the Aboker hyenas began whooping.

A hyena’s whoop carries a lot of information, and it carries far.  From the top of the hill, the Aboker hyenas were sending a resounding message that was certainly heard loud and clear by the Sofi hyenas at the dump: Aboker hyenas had taken the feeding site.

We waited for a while for the Sofi counter attack. Having seen the dump at night, I knew that there must have been at least twenty Sofi hyenas that heard those Aboker whoops.  Where were Koti, Gurra Murra, Jaagi, Botole, Eegey, Duleti, or any of the other big Sofi females? Many of them had been there earlier that night. Nevertheless, the response from the Sofi hyenas that I expected was not forthcoming. Which isn’t to say the Sofi feeding place went undefended.

Armed with the steak-shaped squeaky toy, Abbas walked to the top of the hill and made that steak sing. The Aboker hyenas jumped, visibly unnerved by the sound. He worked his way down the hill, vigorously squeaking the steak and sending the Aboker hyenas into a startled frenzy.  They watched anxiously as Abbas whistled the same whistle he uses early in the evenings to attract Sofi hyenas to the feeding site. He was calling for reinforcements.

Despite Abbas’ efforts, the Sofi clan never showed. The Aboker hyenas again settled on the hill, and again Abbas drove them off with the squeaky steak. This time, the invaders dispersed, some back towards Argoberi and their territory, others towards Suqutatberi, further into Sofi territory. Relinquishing the steak, Abbas retired to his home.

I stayed another half an hour, thinking about the night’s events and waiting for any further developments. When I finally left, there was one Aboker hyena rummaging through the dumpster behind Abbas’ house. The last piece of meat lay forgotten on the ground.

Edgy hyenas

Gee, there really is something going on between the Sofi and Aboker hyenas. At the feeding place, the Sofi hyenas are doing a lot of social sniffing – going around in groups of three or four abreast, sniffing and scratching at the ground. And they’re so edgy. They keep hearing noises, and as one they turn and face the direction from where the noises are coming. And they keep staring in the direction of the clan boundary as if at any minute, the Aboker hyenas will appear at the top of the hill. If it happens I wonder if they’ll defend their territory or if they’ll turn tail and run, like the other night.

I’ve been on edge too. Watching these hyenas and how they constantly look towards the clan boundary, I can’t sit still. I’ve been making forays up the road to the boundary where I stand and wait for the appearance of the Aboker hyenas. I keep expecting to see the silhouettes of six or seven hyenas coming over the hill. But since the invasion a few nights ago, there’s been only one incident.  That was last night when I shone my flashlight up the road and saw a pair of glowing eyes halfway down the hill. I’d been monitoring the comings and goings of the Sofi hyenas all night so I was pretty certain that this was a stranger, and he was making his way down towards the Sofi hyenas.

By the time this guy was within 60 metres of the feeding place, he dropped down into the drainage ditch that runs parallel to the road and there he sat while Koti and a couple of other hyenas approached him with aggressive postures. The stranger popped his head up from the ditch, grimacing and making all sorts of appeasement gestures, looking like a profoundly submissive hand-puppet. Meanwhile, the massive Koti loomed over him, lowing and growling. After satisfying herself that his intentions were of a sexual rather than warlike nature (male hyenas cross territorial boundaries to seek mates), Koti left him to himself. The stranger went over to a place beside the dumpsters and lay down, and that was it.

Isn’t it fascinating that this kind of border crossing can happen in the middle of such a tense time? I would have thought that the edgy Sofi hyenas would have reacted violently to any of the Aboker hyenas transgressing territorial bounds especially after the raid of the other night. But while diplomatic relations might have been severed, everyday life is obviously continuing and the comings and goings of males in search of love will transcend the female imperative to fight a war.