Hyenas give up garbage for Lent

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Ethiopian hyenas are - albeit unwillingly - giving up certain foods for Lent.

Many Christians in the country stop eating meat and dairy products during a 55-day fast before Easter, and this is turning out to be bad news for donkeys.

In the absence of garbage and butchers' waste to eat, the animals are being forced to hunt donkeys instead.

When they get the chance, spotted hyenas are extremely enthusiastic scavengers, eating everything from cooked porridge to garbage and and dung.

"Hyenas can eat almost any organic matter, even putrid carrion and anthrax-infected carcasses," says Gidey Yirga from Ethiopia's Mekelle University.

"They are capable of eating and digesting all parts of their prey except hair and hooves. Bones are digested so completely that only the inorganic components are excreted in the hyena's droppings."

Working at three one-hectare sites around Mekelle, Yirga collected all hyena droppings on the first and last days of the 55-day Abye Tsome (Lent) fast - which must have been fun - and then again 55 days after the fast ended.

Comparing the hairs found in the droppings with a reference collection, he found the hyenas had been changing their diets too.

Before Lent, 14.8 percent of hyena droppings contained donkey hairs - but, during Lent, this increased to 33.1 percent. It fell again to 22.2% once the fast was over.

"Our study shows a remarkable change in the hyenas' diet," says Yirga.

"We found that hyenas around Mekelle mainly scavenge waste from butchers and households, but during fasting donkeys provided an alternative food source."

So, good for the Christians' souls - not so great for the donkeys.