Safaris & stories
Africa Geographic
Wildlife . People . Travel

Written by: Stephen Brend, Born Free Foundation

Meet Matama, an orphaned spotted hyaena.

© Thierry Grobet - Nyala Productions.
© Thierry Grobet – Nyala Productions.

He is about six weeks old, weighs three kilograms, and is lucky that he isn’t in Sudan. From the story we were told, he was caught near the town of Matama in western Ethiopia, apparently destined for sale in across the border in Sudan, where some people keep hyaenas as a sort of magic charm. This little cub, however, was purchased by an Ethiopian man who took him eastwards to the city of Bahar Dar. We understand that the man kept him for about three weeks before the authorities were notified and the little cub was confiscated by the police.

The police then contacted the Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority (EWCA) who contacted us, or more specifically me. That was just before lunchtime on Monday as I was contemplating the already busy week ahead. Five minutes later I was on the phone to Alison Hood in the UK, and so managed to upset her week. Fortunately, the cascade ended there. Alison gave the go-ahead for the rescue, and so yesterday evening Asmare Tigabu from EWCA and I boarded a plane to Bahar Dar.

We were up at 0530 this morning, met the policeman and went to the police station to pick up Matama. To our surprise, the first place the police looked for him was inside a stack of old car tyres. As a makeshift enclosure, car tyres win points for inventiveness but score terribly on “space available”. The cub was not found in the tyres; rather he had been tied up on the other side of the compound.

I do not know how many times you need to see an animal tied around the neck with a scrappy piece of string before it ceases to disturb you, but I have reached that number yet. Even though it was expected, there is something awful about seeing any animal – let alone a wild one – tied up.

To be fair though, Matama seemed OK. After some initial nervousness, he approached us. Our first glance suggested that he was reasonably healthy despite a couple of cuts and scrapes. We untied him, shepherded him into the carry-box and then Asmare completed the official paperwork to formalise the handover. Once all was in order, we headed back to the airport to catch the 09h00 flight back to Addis.

All went well until about 08h25. The airline officials then stopped us and asked for a health certificate. Now that’s a perfectly reasonable request for an airline to make, but was a tall order for us as we had had the little hyaena in our care for less than two hours. Attempting a bit of antipodean humour and quipping “he looks fine to me”, didn’t work. As the other passengers headed to the gate, our case was referred to the pilot – did he agree to carry a boxed-up hyaena accompanied by no documentation but a sincere man from EWCA and a nervous-looking Born Free staff member? He did! And we were on our way.

Back in Addis, we were met by Deputy Project Director Bereket Girma and driven back to the Born Free compound, where Matama could finally walk around freely. Rea Tschopp, our consultant veterinarian, came over to give him an inspection, and Matama concluded the interview with a quick chew on Rea’s stethoscope, as it to verify she was indeed qualified to check him out.

Based on what we were told about the dark colour of his coat and teeth, we reckoned he is less than two months old. Certainly, he shows no interest in solid food, but loves milk. So milk it will be for the next few weeks. That is not too difficult, but still leaves me with a couple of problems.

Firstly, hyaenas are reviled by most Ethiopians, in particular farmers. Unfortunately, a lot of our staff are farmers, for whom it is not an over-statement to the animals are considered “public enemy number one”. Convincing them that “a life is a life” no matter whether it is lived in a majestic lion’s body, as a human or as a hyaena, is going to be tough.

The second problem is much more personal. I am left having to hand-rear another nocturnal animal. Great!

© Thierry Grobet - Nyala Productions.
© Thierry Grobet – Nyala Productions.
© Thierry Grobet - Nyala Productions.
© Thierry Grobet – Nyala Productions.
© Thierry Grobet - Nyala Productions.
© Thierry Grobet – Nyala Productions.

To find out more about the Born Free Foundation go here:

To find out more about Nyala Productions’s work go here:

Shenton Safaris
Guest Blogger

In the Guest Blogger profile, you'll see fresh and exciting content from a range of contributors who have submitted their content to us on a once-off or temporary basis, including press releases, campaigns and exciting adventure and travel tales!