The Hyena Men of Nigeria & the one thing they are afraid of

In order to please the crowd, these men remove the muzzle from the snout of their hyenas and place their head between the jaws. A bite can literally saw off their heads.

In the northern part of Nigeria roam Gadawan Kura’ (which loosely translates as “hyena handlers”), “a group of itinerant minstrels, performers who use wild animals like hyena, python & baboons to entertain crowds and sell traditional medicines,” popularly called “Hyena men”. As many of you might be thinking why do these young men who have families have to go to such lengths to please a crowd? Well, for starters Nigeria is a country that cannot support its population. There is widespread poverty and often people turn to a life of crime to survive. But dare I say, few madmen believe they can carve out a life for themselves with the help of these majestic beasts. The story of these nomadic people was first told by Pieter Hugo. A Johannesburg based photographer who works to document marginalized and downtrodden groups mainly in Africa.

The public still perceives hyenas as a rotten, smelly scoundrel that is a good-for-nothing scavenger. And I think people really believe that the world would be better off without them. They’ve kind of put them in the same category as vermin. And this couldn’t be further from the truth. If you do a bit of research you will find that these animals have a rigid social structure and have an extremely complex relationship with each other. They are intelligent and fierce. And extremely territorial. This is what makes them so feared. A reputation that these Hyena men use to sweep the crowd of their feet during their performances.

Why risk life?

In order to please the crowd, these men remove the muzzle from the snout of their hyenas and place their head between the jaws. A bite can literally saw off their heads. It’s not fun at all. But these men do not have any choice. From an early age, they are thrown into a world of violence, drug use, and poverty. To survive they have to earn. They have families and children to feed, back home. They just can’t afford to do nothing.


Over the years a tradition has been followed in Nigeria. These itinerant minstrels every three to four months go in the wild to catch wild animals like hyenas, cobras, pythons, and baboons. It is almost a symbiotic relationship. The areas adjoining the dense forests where a few villagers live are in constant conflict with wild animals, particularly hyenas. Hungry mother hyenas find it easy to prey on livestock the villagers rear. When the Hyena men reach these villages the people welcome them knowing that they will put an end to their miseries. These men risk life to find pups and go deep into cave systems where there is no light and an angry mother that is ready to rip off anything that tries to touch her pup. But these people believe charms, spells & sacred incense burning by the elders of their group keeps them from harm’s way, and surprisingly it does.

If they are lucky they can find up to two to three hyena pups, few pythons, and baboons. They often sell a few of these animals to zoos and private collectors of exotic pets. They keep a few so that they can train them from an early age to perform in front of the crowd. If you search on YouTube and watch some of their videos, you will see similarities of street shows performed in many countries. You will be amazed to see them perform, it is like the Gladiators themselves have transcended on earth to fight for their lives in order to survive the day. The performances to put on is like a spectacle. It is not really for the faint of heart.

Images by Pieter Hugo

They would beat drums to draw in the crowds, then take away the muzzle to let hyena free. They would then place their hands, and even their heads, between the jaws of the animal. The aim is to persuade the audience that they have special abilities and that if the audience purchased specially prepared potions from them, they can also obtain superhuman powers. During performances often these men get cuts and bruises. Surprisingly not by hyenas, but baboons. Baboons are vicious creatures. They are more emotionally complex creatures compared to hyenas. They often enter into fights with their handlers and bite them. On the other hand, hyenas are happy to rest and wait for food. They are cool till they are being fed.

What are they afraid of? 
Even though these hyena men have proper licenses issued by the government they fear the inevitable. They know that someday the regime in Nigeria will change and the new one might not be so kind to them. They will have to stop performing if the government cancels their license. The hyena men do not fear death but uncertainty. Fear of not being able to feed their children in a country that is stricken with poverty and widespread hunger.

I know some would say why to empathize with these madmen who spread fear to earn a living, but as I see it when you have no choice you have to take drastic measures to survive. What do you think?