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


Book Cover

Here’s the cover art for my book, to be published by Penn State University Press and due for release in September:


That’s Dibbey on the left, Koti in the centre and Willi at the back. I like that it has three of the most charismatic Sofi hyenas and I’m fond of all three but for different reasons.

What do you think?

More on Clan Wars

I’ve been looking at the footage from the clan war between the Aboker hyenas and their rivals (who I’ll call the Hakim hyenas for now) and it’s really interesting to read the body language of the hyenas. At the beginning, the hyenas on both sides are pretty nervous and they pay quite a bit of attention to Fredi who is off to one side filming it all. But as things intensify and they start making charges at each other they begin to disregard everything else, including Fredi who is still filming. I’d imagine that the hyena who knocked his camera lens was so focussed on her rivals that she didn’t even realise what she’d done. This is a similar sort of mentality to that of the male Tukwondilli who used to be so focused on the female Dibbey (who frequently attacked him) that he brushed past people’s legs and squeezed behind people seated at the shrine in order to keep his distance from the raging female.

I also noticed something in the clan war video regarding the ways that hyenas make charges at their enemies. The first step is to do some whooping to recruit hyenas from as far away as your whoops can be heard. Once there are plenty of hyenas present, you should start lowing and groaning, and look at your comarades expctantly as they become inspired by your low-pitched noises. Then when you have a few others beside you, stride purposefully as a cohesive group towards the enemy with your tails erect and your neck hairs bristling, looking as intimidating as you can. By this stage there should be six or seven of you involved in the charge with a few followers behind. When you get to the invisible line that separates you from the enemy, you make a charge, stand and stare briefly while the enemy (hopefully) retreats a bit, and then turn and walk back without looking behind to see if there’s a counter attack. Here there is one important point: when you turn your back to the enemy, swivel your ears backwards so as to make sure no-one is about to bite your ass while you march triumphantly back to your own lines. Repeat as necessary until you feel you’ve made a statement, or until a hyena gets hurt.

Photo from video courtesy of Fredi Devas

Photo from video courtesy of Fredi Devas

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.