The hyena men are predominantly Hausa Muslims who move from city to city, entertaining audiences with daring feats, which they perform with hyenas, poisonous snakes, and baboons. They could be seen especially in Lagos, Kano, and Benin City.
The men stick their heads into the mouths of hyenas and ride them like horses. They inch their faces dangerously close to the fangs of the snakes and sometimes stick the snakes’ heads into their mouths. The men cloth the baboons in human wear and order them to perform acts like backflips. The audiences, enthralled, give the hyena men money.
The hyena men use charms and amulets to protect themselves from attacks by the animals. It is also these charms and amulets that they employ when they go into the forest to hunt and capture the animals. For baboons and hyenas, the men prefer them young; this is because then they are easier to train and domesticate, and to lose their taste for wildlife.
The job the hyena men do is a tradition handed down to them from their forebears. A tradition they, too, pass down to their children. They give their children concoctions to drink and put them in close quarters with the snakes and baboons and hyenas. This is done to make them familiar with the animals and lose all fear for them.
Aside from performing magic acts on the streets, the hyena men also earn money by selling the animals to private collectors and zoos.
The hyena men earned worldwide recognition when the South African photographer Pieter Hugo published a compilation of photos titled The Hyena & Other Men (2007). The book featured the hyena men in various poses with the animals: standing, squatting, staring intently at the camera. It is regarded as Hugo’s most celebrated work. In The Guardian, Hugo remembered the men’s performance as “unforgettable.”
Writing for Another Man, a decade after following the hyena men and capturing their lives, Hugo remembered the moment that worried him greatly while in Nigeria.
“I never saw the hyenas do anything aggressive but. . . the baboons were a different ball game,” he wrote. “I felt really sorry for them because they displayed human-like emotions.”
The baboons were “almost self-conscious in a way, and it was very sad to see them in that environment, chained up. They would be much more rebellious and naughty than the hyenas and the guys would be quite severe with them, and that actually bothered me much more than the hyenas which were happy as long as they got fed. Their needs just seemed much simpler than those of the baboons.”
Although there is no legislation regarding animal welfare in the country, the Nigeria Criminal Code (1990) includes prohibitions regarding animal cruelty: “…cruelly beating, kicking, over-loading, infuriating or terrifying an animal,” and “transporting animals in a manner that causes unnecessary suffering,” among others. These prohibitions, however, are news to the hyena men as they move unhindered, capturing and doing to animals as they wish.
Since Pieter Hugo’s spotlight of the hyena men, they have attracted people’s fascinations, with documentaries produced on their lives and work by Real Wild, CGTN, Journeyman Pictures, Joe HaTTab, and, most recently, the Nigerian filmmaker Tayo Aina.
Uzoma Ihejirika is a Nigerian creative writer and journalist. He is an editor for the AfroAnthology Series and a copy editor for Minority Africa and has written for Open Country Mag. He has works on Lolwe and Isele Magazine.