Running with the hyenas of Addis Ababa

Hyena with wide open mouth

During the night, while everyone sleeps, the hyenas come into the city’s suburbs to scavenge for scraps of meat and animal carcasses that the human carnivores leave behind. Then, just before sunrise, like vampires, they flee to hide in the deep surrounding forests – thereby coinciding with me wheezing my way up a hill called Yeka, on the city’s north-eastern edge.

More often than not, it’s a solitary beast, with a huge head atop the sort of shoulders you’d associate with a nightclub bouncer. It has the oddest running gait, as if limping after being shot in the buttocks by an air rifle.

My closest encounter was about 8m away. After black spots on dun-coloured spiky-looking fur flashed past me, the hyena stopped in the vegetation bordering the track I was running along. I halted too and saw that looming head looking back at me over those powerful shoulders. We pondered each other for about 10 seconds, before it bounded forward into the undergrowth.

Hyenas are well camouflaged and disappear from view quickly. Occasionally I’ll see a pair, and once I saw three together.

Their bite is stronger than that of a great white shark, and they’re reviled and feared in many countries, but in Ethiopia there is a long tradition of people and hyenas living side-by-side, tolerating each other. Some people point out the creatures’ benefits – they do, after all, provide an excellent animal waste disposal service. They also keep the feral dog population under control.

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