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Meet the men behind Africa’s unconventional, secretive hyena circus culture

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Several questions and thoughts run through the minds of people when they behold the sight of The Hyena Men. Yes, the Hyena Men are known for brandishing hyenas and several wild animals during their street performances. These extraordinary individuals, found in various parts of Africa, captivate audiences with their remarkable ability to communicate, tame and even befriend some of the most fearsome beasts in the animal kingdom. Through a blend of ancient traditions, daring feats and a touch of the supernatural, the Hyena Men offer a thrilling glimpse into the harmonious coexistence between humans and the wild. 

This piece delves into the captivating and controversial world of the Hyena Men, exploring their practices, beliefs and the intricate dance they share with these untamed creatures.

Who are The Hyena Men?

Who are The Hyena Men?

The Hyena Men, often referred to as the “hyena men of Africa,” typically refer to a group of individuals, often found in countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Sudan, who have developed a unique and controversial relationship with wild hyenas. These individuals are known for their ability to communicate with and tame these normally elusive and dangerous animals, often using them as entertainment for tourists or as a means of income.

However, the practices associated with the hyena men have sparked debate and ethical concerns due to their treatment of the animals and the potential risks involved.

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Hyena Men of Nigeria

In Nigeria, especially in the northern parts of the country, the practice of taming and domesticating hyenas is quite common. The Hyena Men venture into the wild to capture animals like hyena pups, baboons and snakes. These animals are then trained and brought to urban areas for street performances. The men employ ancient magic and traditional practices to bring these wild animals under their control. It is a tradition passed down through generations, with children being exposed to the animals from a young age to build familiarity and eliminate fear.

Hyena Men of Nigeria

Over the years, these men have gained attention for their remarkable and controversial performances involving wild animals such as hyenas, poisonous snakes and baboons. They travel from city to city, captivating audiences with their daring feats and the use of these dangerous animals. These performances are a mixture of spectacle, voodoo practices and street entertainment, drawing large crowds wherever they go.

The Hyena men of Nigeria have attracted attention from every corner of the world, their practices have even gone so far as to be covered by international media. There have also been several short films and documentaries about the Hyena Men over the years. 

Pieter Hugo, a South African photographer, gained recognition for his “The Hyena & Other Men” series, released in 2007, which includes fascinating pictures of the Hyena Men and their animal companions. These images portray the mysterious bond between people and wild animals, expressing a conflict between curiosity and dread. The series has received a lot of attention online, has been displayed in exhibitions, and even Beyoncé appropriated it for her music video, “Run the World (Girls)”.

Peter Hugo with some Hyena Men
Peter Hugo with some Hyena Men

Beyond Nigeria, several other countries in Africa are also home to individuals known as “hyena men” who practice the unconventional and often controversial art of taming hyenas. While the specifics of their practices may vary, there are common threads that run through their unique worlds.

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Here is an informative overview of the world of hyena men across different countries:

  1. Ethiopia: In Harar, Ethiopia, the ancient tradition of the “hyena men” has been practised for generations. These individuals, often referred to as “hyena whisperers”, have formed a relationship with wild hyenas, feeding them scraps of meat and even allowing them to feed from their hands. This practice has historical and spiritual significance for the people of Harar, who believe that the hyenas bring blessings and protection.
  2. Sudan: In Sudan, particularly in the city of Omdurman, a similar tradition of taming hyenas exists. Here, the hyena men are known to feed and interact with wild hyenas as a form of street performance. Tourists and locals alike gather to witness these interactions, which often involve the hyenas eating meat directly from the handlers’ mouths.
  3. Eritrea: Eritrea also has its version of hyena men who tame and interact with wild hyenas. In the city of Asmara, these individuals engage in public performances, showcasing their ability to communicate with and control the animals. These performances are believed to have cultural and spiritual significance, and they attract curious onlookers.
  4. Somaliland: In parts of Somaliland, the practice of taming hyenas for entertainment and traditional rituals can also be found. Similar to other countries, the hyena men of Somaliland build rapport with the animals through consistent interaction and feeding. These practices are often linked to cultural beliefs and can vary based on local customs.

All you need to know about The Hyena Men

old Hyena man

Wherever they happen to be, these Hyena Men undoubtedly know how to put on a show. Deeply rooted in tradition, their practices blend voodoo, culture and street entertainment, drawing attention worldwide.

Here is a comprehensive look at this unique phenomenon:

They are skilled hunters

The Hyena Men perform daring acts with the animals they have tamed, showcasing an intimate and often dangerous relationship with them. They put their arms and even heads between the jaws of hyenas, ride them like horses, interact closely with poisonous snakes, and make baboons dressed in clothes perform backflips. This spectacle is designed to demonstrate special powers, and they often sell potions and amulets to the audience, claiming that these items can grant similar abilities.

Hyena training process

The training process employed by the Hyena Men to tame and interact with hyenas involves a series of careful steps that help establish a bond between the handlers and these wild predators. Hyenas that have been captured are handled to acclimatise them to their new surroundings. In this stage, handlers approach the hyenas cautiously without inciting fear or hostility.

Consistent interaction is key to building trust. The hyena men spend time near the hyenas, providing food and engaging in non-threatening activities to develop a sense of safety and familiarity.

a hyena man in the night

Positive reinforcement tactics are used by handlers. Hyenas learn to link particular behaviours with advantageous outcomes by rewarding preferred behaviours with goodies or praise. Using voice orders and hand gestures, handlers create the most fundamental communication cues with hyenas. Over time, hyenas develop the ability to recognise and react to these signs. Hyenas are exposed to a variety of stimuli by handlers to get them ready for public presentations. Hyenas can maintain their composure in a variety of circumstances and settings because of this progressive desensitisation.

Handlers (Hyena men), begin teaching hyenas specific behaviours or tricks that will be part of their public performances. These may include allowing handlers to approach closely or participate in interactive activities.

Spiritual beliefs

The Hyena Men have gained a mystical reputation, with some people believing that they possess supernatural powers that allow them to interact with these dangerous animals. This belief adds an element of mystery and intrigue to their performances, contributing to their popularity among audiences.

Their performances often incorporate elements of voodoo and ancient magic. The Hyena Men may use potions, charms, and amulets that are thought to grant them protection and control over the animals. These practices serve to reinforce the idea that their abilities are derived from supernatural forces.

The supernatural beliefs associated with the Hyena Men’s practices contribute to the dramatic nature of their circus performances. The idea that these men possess unique, almost magical powers enhances the spectacle, drawing in larger crowds and creating a sense of awe and wonder.

Tourism and Economic Impact

The hyena men’s performances can attract both local spectators and tourists, leading to economic benefits for the communities where they operate. Tourists often pay to watch these unique displays of human-animal interaction, contributing to the local economy. However, the ethical considerations surrounding the treatment of animals and potential risks cannot be overlooked in the pursuit of financial gain.

Controversies Surrounding the Hyena Men of Nigeria

Controversies Surrounding the Hyena Men of Nigeria
Photo Source: REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

The Hyena Men of Nigeria have garnered significant controversy due to the unconventional and sometimes ethically questionable nature of their practices. While these performers have continued their unique line of work, their appearances in music videos and pop culture ventures have added another layer of complexity to the ongoing debates.

However, there are controversies and concerns surrounding the Hyena Men and their persistence in their unconventional profession. They include:

  • Animal welfare and ethical concerns: One of the most significant controversies centres around the treatment of the animals involved in the performances. Critics argue that capturing and training wild animals, such as hyenas and baboons, for entertainment purposes is inherently cruel. The conditions in which these animals are kept and the potentially harsh training methods used to make them perform have raised ethical questions about their well-being.
  • Conservation and ecosystem impact: The capture of wild animals like hyenas and snakes can disrupt local ecosystems and wildlife populations. These animals play essential roles in maintaining ecological balance. The practice of removing them from their natural habitats can have ripple effects on the environment and this further fuells the controversies surrounding the Hyena Men.
  • Public safety risks: The unpredictable nature of wild animals poses risks not only to the performers but also to the audience. Hyenas and other predators can exhibit unexpected behaviour, leading to potential dangers during performances. This concern for public safety adds another layer of ethical consideration to their practices.
  • Clash of tradition and modernity: As Nigerian society modernises and urbanises, traditional practices like those of the Hyena Men face challenges. The clash between cultural heritage and evolving societal norms has led to debates about the appropriateness of continuing these practices in a changing world.

However, it must be noted that in recent years, some Hyena Men have shown a willingness to adapt and raise awareness about animal welfare and conservation. While not all performers have embraced change, there are efforts within the community to find more ethical and sustainable approaches to their practices.

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