An Anthropological Study of the Uneasy Complicity of Humans and Spotted Hyenas in the Orthodox Ethiopian Context of Tigray

Master's Thesis, 2013

102 Pages


Table of Content

Declaration of Originality (KU Leuven)



List of Abbreviations and Acronyms

List of Foreign Terms

List of Figures

List of Pictures

1. Introduction
1.1 Research question
1.2 Methodology
1.3 Study sites
1.3.1 Enderta: in and around Mekelle
1.3.2 Kilte-Awlaelo: Awaleo
1.4 Structure of the thesis

2. The spotted hyena in Tigray: conservation and persistence
2.1 Symbiotic cohabitation
2.2 Conflictive coexistence
2.3 Preventive measures and protection
2.4 Ambiguity and ambivalence
2.5 Both predator and scavenger
2.6 Symbolic boundaries
2.7 Beyond the nature-culture dichotomy
2.8 Discussions between conservationists and anthropologists

3. Perception and folk stories of the spotted hyena
3.1 The spotted hyena as a dangerous animal
3.2 The spotted hyena as a powerful animal
3.3 The spotted hyena as a fast animal
3.4 The spotted hyena as a wicked animal
3.5 The spotted hyena as a greedy animal
3.6 The spotted hyena as a cursed animal
3.7 The spotted hyena as a fearful animal
3.8 The spotted hyena, revelation and omen messages
3.9 The spotted hyena as a wise animal
3.10 The male and the female spotted hyena

4. The Ethiopian Orthodox context and perspectives on nature ...
4.1 The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
4.2 The role of the EOTC in the conservation of church forests ..
4.3 Ethiopian Orthodoxy shaping landscapes in Tigray
4.4 Sacredness: closedness and secrecy
4.5 Valuing wildlife
4.6 Spotted hyenas consumed as tourist attraction in Harar

5. The spotted hyena’s relation with evil spirits
5.1 The Ethiopian evil eye belief: buda
5.2 Discourses on disease causation and explanations of misfortune
5.3 The roles of a debtera: a controversial figure
5.4 Different lines of treatment against buda
5.5 Different kinds of buda
5.6 The Beta Israel as buda
5.7 Buda and social relations: exclusion

6. Conclusion



A. The waste disposal site of Mekelle

B. Dagya, Enderta

C. Awaleo, Kilte-Awlaelo

D. Magic scrolls against evil spirits (Mercier 1979)

List of Abbreviations and Acronyms

illustration not visible in this excerpt

List of Foreign Terms

Aliya: the immigration of Jews to Israel Aqqwaqwam: liturgical dance

Birr: the national currency of Ethiopia

Buda: the ‘evil eye’ belief or the person who can attack or “eat” people by means of a certain kind of communication of the eyes that transfers evil spirits that are believed to cause illness.

Debtera: an unordain Ethiopian Orthodox priest (with similar education as a deacon). He can opt to work in the context of the church or outside of it, and specialize in official or unofficial duties. They are often traditional medicinal doctors.

Digam: prayer

Falasha: the derogatory term for the Beta Israel or the Ethiopian Jews

Ferenji: foreigner, as white people are generally called throughout Ethiopia

Injera: an Ethiopian sourdough pancake made from teff flour Kiremti: the rainy season

Kitab: an amulet or talisman that is believed to ward off evil influences

Maychellot: Holy mud

Qene: liturgical and religious poetry or hymns Satan ’ el: the devil or ‘satan’

Tabia: village (level of organization)

Tergum: Holy scriptures Tinqola: ‘witchcraft’ Tsebel: Holy water

Woreda: district (level of organization)

Zema: liturgical and sacred musical performance and instrumental practice

Zibb ’ i: the Tigrinya word for hyena

List of Figures

Figure 1: Administrative map of Tigray

Figure 2: Awaleo in the Kilte-Awlaelo District

Figure 3: Aerial view of Awaleo, Kilte-Awlaelo

Figure 4: Aerial view of Dagya, Enderta

Figure 5: Aerial view of Mika’el Tsellamo, Enderta

List of Pictures

Picture 1: A donkey recovering from a hyena attack

Picture 2: The EOTC of Mika’el Tsellamo and its church forest

Picture 3: Spotted hyenas in Mika’el Tsellamo

Picture 4: Youssef feeding a hyena in Harar

Picture 5: Young girls protected by kitab amulets

Declaration of Originality (KU Leuven)

I hereby declare

- including internet sources -

have been correctly referenced in the footnotes and bibliography.

referenced in the footnotes and bibliography.

from unreferenced external sources (including the work of other students or professional agencies).


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Name and first name: FROYEN Silke Title of the dissertation: An Anthropological Study of the Uneasy Complicity of Humans and Spotted Hyenas in the Orthodox Ethiopian Context of Tigray


Date of submission: May 13, 2013

Total number of words (without references and appendix): 22.508


I would like to give thanks to my local promotors in Mekelle, Hans Bauer and Gidey Yirga, who were a considerable help for their confidence and support, and their help with all the necessary administrative and practical arrangements. I owe great thanks two both of my local Tigrinya-English translators, Genet Alem and Alula Nega, without whom this research would not have been possible. I would like to thank VLIR-UOS for the financial support they gave me to undertake the travel to the Ethiopian highlands. Furthermore, I am very grateful to my promotors from the KULeuven, Ann Cassiman and Mark Breusers, for their help and support both before, during and after the fieldwork was committed. I would like to express my great gratitude to all the different people in the chosen study areas that showed a great hospitality and collaborated to make the research for my master thesis possible. And last, but not least, I would like to thank my family and friends for the support they gave me while I was working on my thesis both at home as well as in Ethiopia.


This thesis aims to provide an extensive account on the relation and interaction between humans and spotted hyenas in the Tigray Region in northern Ethiopia. Different levels of the human, the animal and the divine aspects of these relations will be considered. Local perceptions and (folk) stories are taking a prominent role in the exploration of the symbiotic, although simultaneously conflictive, cohabitation of people and wildlife. In a second part of the thesis, perspectives on nature, and the role of religion in the conservation of biodiversity will be considered. Special attention will be paid to the environment in which humans and hyenas coexist. In a last chapter, I will try to analyse the spotted hyena’s association with evilness, and the various related discourses on disease causation and healing. My aim is to give a holistic interpretation of the Ethiopian belief in buda (evil eye), in which culture, ecology, medicine, psychological conceptions, religion and social relations seem to come together in a complex whole. I will argue that the uneasy complicity of humans and spotted hyenas finds its parallel in similar tensions between majority and minority groups in the Ethiopian context, although buda also appears in other close interpersonal relationships.

1. Introduction

This thesis is examining the relation and interaction between humans and spotted hyenas in the Tigray Region in northern Ethiopia. I would like to make clear how we can understand and characterize the human-spotted hyena relation and coexistence in the human- dominated landscape of eastern Tigray. This thesis is an attempt to address the various layers and levels that are important to understand the uneasy complicity between people and hyenas in a prey depleted landscape.

Initially, the issue of human-animal relationships and conflict did not receive much attention of anthropologists. In some classical anthropological works, occasional references to conflicts between people and wildlife were made. In The Golden Bough (1922: 637- 638) Frazer gives some examples of 'exotic' practices to control 'vermin' and other annoying animals. In Coral Gardens and Their Magic (1935: 117-119) Malinowski refers to spells denounced by Trobriand 'garden magicians' to repel wild pigs. And in Nuer Religion (1956: 79) Evans-Pritchard indicates the link between totemic rituals and problem animals with the Nuer. In general, human-animal conflicts, if they were already addressed in early anthropological works, appeared only in the margin and attracted little analytical attention (Knight 2000: 5).

More recently, human-animal relationships are appearing more prominently in anthropological works. In recent years sociocultural studies as well as other disciplines like biology, geography, literature and cultural studies have paid much attention to human relations with animals as a topic with renewed interest and a new sense of urgency. Interdisciplinary conferences, volumes and the journal Society and Animals (that was founded in 1993) could count on numerous contributions by anthropologists (Mullin 1999: 201-202).

Various anthropologists (Noske 1989, 1994 and 1997; Ingold 1994; Kopnina 2012) have criticized their own discipline for its anthropocentrism by reminding us that homo sapiens is only one species among many and by extent a rather new one. Nowadays, more anthropologists are considering the challenges of interacting with other species and the implications this has for the anthropological discipline (Kohn 2007).

The renowned French anthropologist Philippe Descola (2012) seeks to break down the division between nature and culture that has been fundamental to Western thought since the end of the nineteenth century. He argues for a departure from anthropocentrism and the dualism of nature and culture as distinct phenomena. Instead, he proposes a worldview in which humans and nonhumans, or beings and objects, are understood through the complex relationships they possess with one another.

This thesis in Social and Cultural Anthropology is not only considering the human, but is arguing for the development of an anthropology that is also concerned with the ‘entanglements’ (Raffles 2002) with other species and the environment.

1.1 Research question

This thesis is attempting to address the various layers and levels that are important to understand the uneasy complicity between people and hyenas in the prey depleted landscape of eastern Tigray, Ethiopia. To comprehend the human-hyena coexistence in the research area, I will focus on numerous meaningful aspects that can improve our understandings of the human-hyena interaction and relationship. The obtained data, gained during extensive ethnographic fieldwork, will be complemented with broader social, cultural and environmental theory.

To give an answer on the main research question, many sub- questions will have to be answered. Is the relation between humans and spotted hyenas a relation of mere conflict or can we speak of a certain kind of symbiosis between man and beast? How do people try to mitigate conflicts with the wild animal? What kind of measures do they take to protect themselves and their domestic animals? Or how is the presence of the spotted hyena impacting on the life of the local people? Are there symbolic and real boundaries that people establish between the world of humans and the world of wildlife?

A second set of sub-questions is considering the human perceptions towards the wild mammal. How is the spotted hyena perceived in the various rural and urban study areas? Is it a positive perception, or is the perception rather negatively colored? How does the spotted hyena figure in popular folk stories in northern Ethiopia? Which events influence the perceptions towards the spotted hyena, to what extent and in which manner?

After giving an answer to all these questions, I will try to go into the attitudes I came across while doing fieldwork in Tigray. What are the attitudes towards the large mammal? In what kind of ways do people value nature and wildlife? What is the role of the Ethiopian Orthodox religion in people’s value attributions to nature in general and the spotted hyena and other wildlife in specific? Can the spotted hyena play a role in wildlife tourism? How can the specific relation between humans and wildlife that are engaged tourism be characterized?

I could only start to ask a last set of sub-questions after several small and vague suggestions by informants. Although the topic seems to be a taboo, or was initially surrounded by great silence, I came to understand that the spotted hyena in Ethiopia is believed to have a specific relation with evilness. How do people characterize the hyena’s relation with evil spirits? Which kind of evil is connected to the large carnivore? How do people protect themselves from the evil influences or which kind of treatments can they undergo as a cure when they are affected? What does the issue say about the broader context and society?

1.2 Methodology

This thesis, written for the degree of Master of Science in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Catholic University of Leuven, combines qualitative research methods with academic literature. Ethnographic and other academic literature complements the ethnographic data obtained through participant observation, informal conversations and semi-structured interviews with local dwellers, administrators and Ethiopian Orthodox priests, debteras (on whom we will focus later) and other clergy of the Orthodox Tewahedo Church. The ethnographic research was conducted in 2012 during a three-month stay in the Ethiopian highlands. The period of fieldwork in the Tigray National Regional State (from now on I will refer to this area as the Tigray Region/State or simply ‘Tigray’) in the months of July, August and September 2012, overlapped for a big extent with the main rainy season (kiremti).

The kiremti, that in a good year generally starts in the beginning of June and ends in the middle of September, is also the main farming or crop cultivation season (Livelihoods Integration Unit 2009). During my stay, the heavy rainfall and the intensive agricultural activity of mainly men, but also women, posed certain constrains in accessing the different locale and shortened the time in which the ethnographic fieldwork could be conducted. Other events such as the various religious activities and the death of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi also had particular implications for the research. We tried to deal with the existing language barriers by relying on two native Tigrinya speakers, Genet Alem and Alula Nega, to whom I owe a great deal of thanks.

The empirical investigation of the human-spotted hyena relation and interaction is interpretative in nature and uses qualitative research methods to capture human perceptions and attitudes towards the large and opportunistic mammal that can be characterized as both a scavenger and an effective and skillful predator (Gade 2006: 609). The research tries to provide thick descriptions (Geertz 1973) of human-wild animal encounters in rural and urban contexts. The academic literature from anthropological perspective as well as from the perspectives of biologists, cultural geographers, ecologists, policy makers and others will be linked with the primary data collection by pointing out various themes that seemed of great interest. Finally, photographs will be used as illustrations to make the account more vivid.

The investigation recognizes the situated knowledge of the subjects who were involved in the research and it acknowledges that the knowledge is based on social constructions of the reality and mediated through the positionality of both the researcher and the researched (Haraway 1991; Willis 2007; Bolla and Hovorka 2012). Interested in and focusing on local perceptions, attitudes and beliefs, folklore, religion, human-wildlife conflict, conservation and (eco)tourism, I will try to point out, through multi-sited fieldwork, that human-animal relationships are not one-directional, with only humans exerting power and agency through placement of animals, but also animals exerting their own power and agency through actions and potential intent (Bolla and Hovorka 2012: 57).

1.3 Study sites

One urban area - the city of Mekelle, including also the city’s waste disposal site - and three rural study sites - Dagya, Mika’el Tsellamo and Awaleo - located in the northern part of Ethiopia, were selected for the qualitative study of the uneasy complicity (Gade 2006) between humans and spotted hyenas in the Tigray Region. In each of the chosen study sites the diurnal and/or nocturnal presence of spotted hyenas does not go unnoticed. Hyenas can be heard and seen regularly in and around the city of Mekelle, mainly at night time, and especially in the waste disposal site. In the rural study sites the hyena’s presence is felt even more widely and in particular livestock (cattle, donkeys, goats and sheep are most commonly held) owners have to be attentive to avoid conflict in the form of depredation.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 1: Administrative map of Tigray (Sara 2010). The Enderta and the Wukro or Kilte-Awlaelo District in respectively South and East Tigray Administrative Zone are shown in red.

1.3.1 Enderta: in and around Mekelle

Mekelle, located in the Enderta District or woreda, is the capital city of the Tigray Region. Based on national statistics from the Central Statistical Agency of Ethiopia the city has an estimated population of 273,459 (CSA 2012).

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with permanent residents, guards and students of the main campus of Mekelle University, inhabitants of Mekelle city, taxi-drivers and a debtera working in and around Mekelle.

The waste disposal site of Mekelle Currently the city of Mekelle is estimated to generate about 59 tons of solid waste per day. The waste is sorted at the transfer stations and then dumped into the sanitary landfill site, which is located at approximately eight kilometer west of Mekelle’s city center. About 82% of the daily generated waste is being collected and transported to Mekelle’s waste disposal and about 76-83% of the waste is composed of organic materials (Fikreyesus et al. 2011: 14). This organic material forms an important source of food for various animals such as the spotted hyenas that come to the sanitary landfill at night.

The site, that has been in operation since 2008 and has an area of 21 hectare, receives over 20,000 tons of waste per annum. The general characteristics of the sanitary landfill can be categorized as a ravine type where the waste is being placed in a deep valley. The landfill is fenced by wire and masonry work around its perimeter, which serves to restrict access to the waste by animals and delineates property lines. Mekelle’s sanitary landfill is designed and constructed in such a manner that the waste is disposed in a controlled manner with an intention of minimizing its social and environmental impacts (Fikreyesus et al. 2011: 19).

In nightly expeditions with a team of biologists and conservationists, it became clear, however, that many hyenas are wandering around at the sanitary landfill at night. In the past, various other researchers and geography students of the University of Mekelle already went to the city’s main waste disposal and asked particular questions. This made it rather difficult to find individuals who were willing to collaborate. However, some informal conversations and semi- structured interviews with people working on the sanitary landfill and others living nearby could give some basic insights on the nightly presence of the spotted hyenas in the garbage dumping site and foster the understanding of the local perceptions and attitudes towards the large mammal.


The village (tabia) of Dagya is located in around eight kilometer north-east of Mekelle city. The new building of the Mika’el Dagya Church is surrounded by indigenous trees and plants, which makes it a conductive habitant for various animals (Zesu 2012: 28), of which the spotted hyena is the largest one.

The basic economic activity of most of the people living in Dagya is mixed farming, which means that they are engaged in both animal husbandry and crop production. The poorest households, however, do not own livestock, neither for plowing, nor for breeding. There are also a number of people working as stone breakers and merchants.

Mika’el Tsellamo Church

The Mika’el Tsellamo Church is geographically located in a small village named Adi-Amuaq, six kilometer south-west of Mekelle city. In the forest around the Church animals of different species are dwelling. The holy water and holy mud that exist in the Church compound are believed to have healing power and people coming from different areas in and outside the region are using it to become ‘blessed’. The site serves as an important spiritual healing center to individuals coming from different localities (Zesu 2012: 27).

A significant number of the followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church believe that diseases have supernatural causes. Therefore people suffering from physical or mental disease can seek medical help in the Church. The medical practices have links with traditional indigenous medicine, however the Church itself refuses to acknowledge its relationship to pre-Christian practices (which will be made clear later in relation to the ambiguous position of the debtera). Nowadays, various medical practices, ranging from indigenous knowledge, spiritual healing in the Church and modern biomedical facilities can be combined (Anderson 2007: 4).

For various reasons - under which the initial reluctance to receive us, financial constraints and the constant presence of mentally and physically ill individuals - and together with my local promotors (supervisors during the research) and translator, we decided not to stay overnight, but to organize daily fieldtrips to the Mika’el Tsellamo Church for the period of a week.

1.3.2 Kilte-Awlaelo: Awaleo

Awaleo is a village located in the Kilte-Awlaelo or Wukro District, Tigray. The district capital, Wukro, is located 22 kilometer to the East of the village. One of the Orthodox Christian priests, Welde Abreha Berhe, who is also tabia administrator, asserts that Awaleo is inhabited by 931 households from which 220 families are not relying on the Productive Safety-Net Program and thus producing enough food or having an income that is sufficient to nourish all members. The Orthodox village counts 30 priests and 27 deacons. As in the other rural study sites, agriculture is the main economic source of the community. Most of the population is engaged in mixed farming, which means that they simultaneously participate in animal husbandry and crop production.

The ‘church forest’ in this tabia is less dense than others in the region and during daytime the spotted hyena is not present in the village. During nighttime, however, the presence of the hyenas does not go unnoticed.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 2: Awaleo in the Kilte-Awlaelo District (source: Kilte Awlaelo Plan and Finance 2009)

1.4 Structure of the thesis

In this chapter I already gave a very brief and introductory overview of how human-wild animal relationships figured and still figure in anthropology. The research question and the various sub-questions this thesis aims to answer were formulated by topic or theme. The methodology used to answer these questions was explained in detail. And the different rural and urban study areas were presented.

In the following and second chapter I will deal with fundamental issues I came across in the early stages of the research, while doing my fieldwork in the Tigray Region. In this chapter I will analyse the uneasy complicity between humans and spotted hyenas, as I found it in the different research settings. The relation and interaction between people and hyenas in Tigray will be defined as simultaneously symbiotic and conflictive. The ambivalence and ambiguity in perceptions I encountered will be explained, and attention will be paid to the different modes of existence of the spotted hyena, that is both a scavenger and a successful predator. Finally, I will try to address the issue of symbolic boundaries that people seem to establish between the natural and the human world, but not without making reference to how we can think beyond the old and persisting nature-culture dichotomy that even seems to underlie discussions between conservationists and anthropologists.

In the third chapter, the human perception of the spotted hyena will be addressed. I will go into ten different characteristics that people ascribe to the spotted hyenas in the area. Popular folk stories as well as events that were believed and told to have happened, will be part of this account. The ten characteristics I will deal with are strength, fear, speed, greed, wickedness, danger, curse, wisdom, revelation, and the anomalous female hyena that is observed to be stronger.

In a fourth chapter, I will deal with the local attitudes towards nature and wildlife in general and the spotted hyena in specific. The role of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church will be considered and analysed. I will make clear how the Ethiopian Orthodoxy shaped landscapes in northern Ethiopia. Attention will be paid to the different ways in which nature is valued in Tigray and in general. Finally, the spotted hyena as a commodity for tourism in Harar and the specific relation between man and beast will be presented.

In the fifth chapter, I will go deeper into a set of questions, that resulted from several comments that pointed at the spotted hyena’s relation with evilness or evil spirits. I will try to explain how this relation with evilness is thought of. In this context, the pan-Ethiopian belief in buda or evil eye will be described. I will clarify the various discourses on disease causes in the Ethiopian context and go into the role of the debtera, who can serve as a traditional healer. In this chapter I will discuss the various methods to ward off evil influences and the possible ways in which to heal people who are affected by evil forces. Finally, I will try to make clear what the issue of buda reveals about the broader society in which perpetrators and victims have to live together in an uneasy complicity.

In a last and concluding part of this thesis, I summarize some tentative answers to the research questions in a summarized form. After the bibliographical references, several pictures that were taken in the different research areas and some pictures of Mercier (1979) that are related to the belief of buda were included.

2. The spotted hyena in Tigray: conservation and persistence

Human-carnivore conflict is considered as the main reason for the decline of large carnivores throughout the world and the species most exposed to conflicts with people are most prone to extinction (Woodroffe et al. 2005). For that reason the understanding of human perception and attitudes, the mitigation of conflict and the minimization of socio-economic costs on people are of great importance for the conservation of large carnivores.

In this ethnography of human-animal ‘interactions’ attention will be given to the relation of local people with the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), that is known as zibb ’ i (ዝብኢ) in Tigrinya, in the northern Tigray Region of Ethiopia. The spotted hyena is one of the seven large African carnivores with a declining population. Large carnivores have disappeared from areas of high human density. The spotted hyena, however, is one of the few large carnivores that adapted to (and to a certain extent even benefits from) habitats with dense human populations (Woodroffe 2001: 74). Hyena persistence in the Horn of Africa (which consists of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia) seems to come from an uneasy complicity with people (Gade 2006: 609).

2.1 Symbiotic cohabitation

Various respondents described the relation between hyenas and humans to be symbiotic, at least to a certain extent. This means that the cohabitation is seen to be serving mutual benefits. The role of the hyena in the sanitation of the village or the city is seen as the main advantage of its presence. Although the local perception of the spotted hyena can be very negative or characterized by indifference and many informants in the rural areas admit that the negative impact of the presence can be bigger than the positive one, the spotted hyena is nevertheless seen as an important animal for the clearance of organic garbage, like carcasses of deceased domestic animals and other leftovers.

The view of the spotted hyena as a garbage cleaner or municipal worker is one of the factors that remained rather unchanged in the Horn of Africa during various decades or even centuries (Gade 2006: 614). Small rural clusters of people, towns (especially the one with slaughterhouses), and contemporarily the waste dumping sites at the outskirts of cities can be counted on for a reliable flow of unwanted organic material, such as discarded animal parts, that hyenas remove at no direct cost. In the countryside, dead domestic animals are abandoned where they perished to await the scavenger (Gade 2006: 615).

The observation that certain wild animals are able to adapt themselves to and can sometimes even benefit from humanized areas seems to be true for the spotted hyena in the Tigray Region. The argument that wild animals can be indirectly beneficial for humans also seems to be correct for this particular case. While feeding itself with organic waste, the spotted hyena is reducing the population of flies and rats and diminishes bad smells. The bestial solution that the hyenas can deliver in an effortless way transcended for many centuries the technology that the society could provide for the disposal of waste (Knight 2000: 6). This clearance of the environment is the main positive characteristic the informants attributed to the spotted hyena.

2.2 Conflictive coexistence

Unfortunately, it was felt by the largest share of rural informants, in particular the ones whose family owns many sheep and goats, that the presence of the spotted hyena could somehow also impact their life in a rather negative way. Due to the presence of the large carnivorous hyenas and the scarcity of wild prey species in the Tigray Region, farmers have to protect their domestic animals properly to prevent possible attacks. Different measures to prevent conflicts between spotted hyenas and domestic animals (and by extension also humans) were found.

But before going over to the various precautions that are taken by farmers in the rural areas, I would like to retell the story of the great war between hyenas and humans, that was told to me by a security guard of the veterinary campus in Mekelle (August 14, 2013). In this particular story, although not common, but indicative of conflict that stems from human-wildlife competition over natural resources, hyenas and humans are fighting over a water source:

Once upon a time there was a great civil war in Mekelle town. At that time there was only one source of drinking water and that source was taken by the enemies. The king ordered all the people to find another source of water. Finally, a man found a source of drinking water, but there were a lot of hyenas in the area. The man told this to the king, who prepared to hunt the hyenas. This time is said to be the great war between hyenas and humans.

2.3 Preventive measures and protection

At nighttime, all domestic animals (in the chosen rural study areas, these included oxen, cows, donkeys, goats, sheep and chickens) are put inside of the compound. Various families have built a closed stable and a chicken run or even shared their house with one or more domestic animals at night. The woman that hosted my translator Genet and me in Dagya, share her house some nights a week with a young calf, the other nights the calf stayed in the neighboring compound where members of her extended family lived and who contributed equally in the purchase of the young calf. Other families in the same tabia affirmed that they slept with their donkeys inside the house.

The walls around the compound, are a basic protection system and can discourage spotted hyenas from entering at night. In the tabia of Awaleo, however, various respondents argued, because they experienced it, that a hungry hyena is able to jump over the walls.

This is one of the reasons why a great number of people have one or several watchdogs.

During daytime, the grazing cattle, donkeys, goats and sheep are protected by cowboys who will send their dog towards the spotted hyenas that are looking for feeding opportunities, throw stones or sticks in their direction, strike their whip to scare them, or run themselves towards the opportunistic carnivores to prevent a possible attack on a domestic animal. Other kinds of measures for protection, like for example a kind of scarecrow intended to keep away hyenas, were also found, but they were not applied by a great number of people.

2.4 Ambiguity and ambivalence

In all the study sites, both positive and negative perceptions and attitudes towards the spotted hyena were found. The spotted hyena was seldom represented only in a negative light, but even more rarely only in a positive manner. The hyena seemed to be an ambiguous animal and the representations are therefore also ambivalent. This will later be illustrated with reference to various folktales and proverbs. Furthermore, this will also be made clear by explaining the different kinds of characteristics, both positive and negative, that people attribute to the spotted hyena.

Although various respondents described the relation between humans and hyenas to be symbiotic, other individuals saw the cohabitation as problematic, conflictive or incompatible. If domestic animals are not well protected, depredation by the spotted hyena can be the result. But even people who suffered such an economic loss could attribute positive characteristics (like for example beauty and wisdom) to the animal and they saw the loss as a mere result of their own inattentiveness.

2.5 Both predator and scavenger

Spotted hyenas are widely regarded as scavengers that feed on carrion or that pick up leftovers at kills of other carnivores (see also Glickman 1995: 505-506). However, a study of Giday Yirga and Hans Bauer (2010: 124), as well as various testimonies of people in the Tigray region and my own observations demonstrate, that this view is not totally correct. The spotted hyena is also an efficient predator in its own right.

Due to the reduction of wild prey species in Tigray, the spotted hyena preyed mainly on domestic animals, like sheep, goats, donkeys, mules, horses and camels (although the later three were not present in the rural areas where I carried out my research), but also poultry, cats and dogs (Yirga and Bauer 2010: 124). Comments like “hyenas won’t let you down, if they have the chance to take one of your animals, they will do so” (a respondent in Dagya, Enderta) were common in the rural study areas. Livestock losses are one of the most serious human-carnivore conflicts in Tigray.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Picture 1: This picture shows a donkey recovering from an attack (on August 23, 2012) by a spotted hyena in tabia Awaleo, KilteAwlaelo, Tigray, Ethiopia.

The spotted hyena, however, has not only the reputation of killing these and other domestic animals, but is also scavenging on this domestic stock (Yirga and Bauer 2010: 124).

While doing research in the tabia of Dagya, one noon it was hailing very large hailstones and if you would stay outside you would get severely injured or dragged away by the flood that it caused. Most of the people managed to bring themselves and their domestic animals in safety before the situation became too extreme to stay outside. One ox, however, gave its life that noon, and the morning after there were no signs left of the deceased animal that was said to be eaten by hyenas close to Kalamino high school.

The spotted hyenas that are cohabiting with humans in humanized or human dominated landscapes in the northern Tigray Region of Ethiopia are picking up carrion and feeding themselves on anthropogenic food sources (Yirga et al. 2012). Hyenas with dens near cities or towns live on garbage or other human-associated organic refuse, including offal, cooked porridge, and a variety of vegetable matter (Yirga and Bauer 2010: 214).

The spotted hyena is known to be a very opportunistic animal that has occupied both a predatory position and a scavenging niche at the top of the food chain in the highlands and lowlands of the Horn of Africa, where it is the most common wild carnivore (Yirga and Bauer 2010: 214). Later we will come back to the greed of the spotted hyena that eats “everything it can get” or “everything except soil and stone” (comments of respondents in Dagya, Enderta).

2.6 Symbolic boundaries

In Purity and Danger Mary Douglas (1966), writing from a structuralist perspective, argues that what unsettles culture is “matter out of place”. She indicates that stable cultures seem to require things to stay in their appointed place (see also Hall 1997: 236). Douglas’ writings on human culture and symbolism are an interesting lens from which to study the symbolic boundaries between the world of humans and the territory of animals. In defining “matter out of place”

- as that what breaks certain unwritten rules and codes - it can be helpful to pay attention to the concept of space. The following words of Rogoff (1998) can shed some light on this issue:

Space is always differentiated [...] and it is always subject to the invisible boundary lines that determine inclusions and exclusions. [I]t is always populated with the unrecognized obstacles which never allow us to actually ‘see’ what is out there beyond what we expect to find.

Participants, narrating on a past event in Awaleo, could tell me that although there are strict governmental rules against the killing of any wild animal in the community conservation areas in the Tigray Region, the government itself had killed a spotted hyena that was reported by the inhabitants to regularly enter the village at daytime (Hagosa Hamaze, Awaleo: August 28, 2013). I would like to argue that it is not a simple opposition between nature and culture that is at work here in this particular case. The spotted hyenas that are wandering around in the village at nighttime are tolerated and are not perceived as intrusive or showing an abnormal kind of behavior. The hyena that entered the village at daytime, however, was seen as highly threatening to human life (and by extent maybe also to cultural order).

The hyena that showed its presence in the village at daytime, was perceived as “matter out of place” and the government officials that killed the hyena with poison restored the place to order and brought back the normal state of affairs. As a process of purification, the intruder was eliminated in the same vein as dust, dirt or food remains on the floor of the house were swept up or chickens entering the house were thrown out or scared away by flailing arms accompanied by a particular sound.

Although there are no strict boundaries between human endeavor and wildlife domains for the spotted hyena in Tigray, the hyena population seems to persist in the Horn of Africa. Contrary to what happened for example in Botswana and Zimbabwe or south of the Limpopo river in South Africa where settlers of European origin hunted, captured and poisoned the animal until it had almost disappeared, no systematic or effective eradication campaigns did occur in the Horn of Africa. The governments in the Horn have considered the hyena as vermin, and when depredation on cattle achieved intolerable levels, they did make use of poison to reduce the human costs, but without resources and organization to eliminate the whole hyena population (Gade 2006: 613).

2.7 Beyond the nature-culture dichotomy

Wherever you live, the place where you live is alive, and you are part of the life of that place (Peter Berg in Jensen 2004: 198).

The renowned anthropologist Tim Ingold (1994a: 154) suggests that to conceive of an animal as being truly wild only if it is “untainted by human contact” would be very limiting. This argument seems indeed to be valid in the case of the spotted hyena in the Tigray Region, where the wild animal is relying to a considerable extent on the humans living in the area for the organic residues they leave behind as well as the domestic animals they possess. Ingold argues for a critical rethinking of the relationships humans have with animals. He tries to go a step further than many anthropologists - who have assumed that culture is the medium through which people interact with their environment - by posing that culture is the medium through which people adapt to the environment. In this manner he attributes a degree of power to the environment and positions people inside the natural world, as being a part of it (Ingold 1992: 39, Milton 1996: 23).

Now it should be clear that wilderness and human domains cannot be that easily separated, although the construction of symbolic boundaries between nature and culture seems to be very tentative and can be easily evidenced, as we illustrated above. The old and persisting dichotomy between nature and culture is thus not as clear- cut as it often seems, and this important adjustment has certain implications for the anthropological discipline and practice. As the anthropologist Eduardo Kohn (2007: 20) argues, anthropology is not just confined to the human, but is concerned with the effect of our “entanglements” (Raffles 2002) with other kinds of living selves. In this regard, Ingold (2008: 1796) claims the following:

[...] despite human attempts to hard surface this world and to block the intermingling of substance and medium that is essential to growth and habituation, the creeping entanglements of life always and eventually gain the upper hand.

This thesis takes the view that people are not that easily separated from their “surroundings” (West et al. 2006), and similarly that society and nature are not so readily divisible as easily identifiable compartments. Together with environmental anthropologists, such as

Helen Kopnina (2012a: 19-20), we take the co-constitutive and interdependent relationships between humans and nonhumans as our starting point.

2.8 Discussions between conservationists and anthropologists

The environmental social scientist Helen Kopnina (2012a) refers to the different perspectives and discussions held amongst anthropologists and conservationists by use of the notion of “conservation/culture conflict”. This could be grasped as follows:

Traditional anthropological focus on the indigenous, local and minority groups coupled with support for human rights in the context of “traditional way of life” is often pitched against conservationist efforts to institute limits to “cultural practices” that negatively affect nonhuman species (Kopnina 2012a: 14- 15).

She urges us to overcome the conflict by calling for what she calls “the conscious realization that the extinction of species needs to be ethically addressed”, and this “in the same way the traditional anthropological subjects - the local, the indigenous, the minority, and the poor - have been addressed” (Kopnina 2012a: 18). From the viewpoint of anthropology of conservation, she aims for the inclusion of the welfare and rights of nonhuman species - as actors - in the discussion of environmental justice, and a viable future of the biosphere which we are all a part of (Kopnina 2012a: 22). In the creation of protected areas or national parks (West et al. 2006) the “conservation/culture conflict” can be particularly tangible, and seems to be closely related to the tensions between anthropocentric and ecocentric perspectives on the environment, which we will later address further.


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An Anthropological Study of the Uneasy Complicity of Humans and Spotted Hyenas in the Orthodox Ethiopian Context of Tigray
Leuven Catholic University  (Social Sciences)
Master Thesis - Social and Cultural Anthropology
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anthropological, study, uneasy, complicity, humans, spotted, hyenas, orthodox, ethiopian, context, tigray
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Silke Froyen (Author), 2013, An Anthropological Study of the Uneasy Complicity of Humans and Spotted Hyenas in the Orthodox Ethiopian Context of Tigray, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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