Mammal of the Week – Hirola

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Hirolas, Ishaqbini Community Conservancy, Ijara, Kenya

Hirola (Beartragus hunteri)

Status: Critically Endangered

The Nature Reserves of Northern Kenya – a streaming plain of golden savannah studded with acacia and garsa trees – harbor some of the most important wildlife populations on Earth. Classic African animals such as Elephants, Rhinos, Lions, Leopards, Cheetahs, Zebras, Hyenas, Giraffes, Hippos and Warthogs coexist alongside the lesser known, but just as unique inhabitants such as the Aardvark, Dik-dik, Aardwolf, Caracal, and Elephant Shrew. There is one animal though, that’s the rarest of them all. It’s name is the Hirola, or Hunter’s Hartebeest and it’s one of the most endangered mammals on Earth.

In the arid southeast of the region lies a great river called the Tana. Its banks are lined with lush riverine forests while semi-desert garsa savannah cloaks the lands surrounding the area. This is the home of the Hirola, and this is where it makes its last stand for survival.

The story of the Hirola is a troubled one. It was estimated that in the late 1970s, there were over 16,000 Hirola living across the vast semi-desert range-lands of Northeast Kenya and Somalia. Unfortunately, today, it is estimated that less than 500 exist in the wild. A translocation to Tsavo East NP “to establish a stable founder population” largely failed, with almost 100 animals introduced (outside of original range). Now, there are still only around 100 animals, with no population growth noted. These issues though, pale in comparison to the Hirola’s situation in East Kenya. After a series of terrible droughts, the population crashed almost 90% in less than a decade. The Hirola’s main stronghold, the Arawale National Reserve, fell into disrepair in the poaching conflicts of the 1980s and illegal cattle herders took over. Soon, the populations became extinct from the reserve and only two remained, one in a remote area of the Ijara District, near Masalani on the east bank of the Tana River, and another on the western fringe of the great Boni-Dodori Forest. The situation of the Hirola was clearly looking very, very bleak…

Fortunately though, there is always a beacon of hope, even in times of darkest desperation. In the early 2000s, Northern Rangelands Trust founder Ian Craig was camping in a remote wilderness of land in an area of Kenya known as the Tana River/Garissa District. While setting up camp one evening near the great river Tana, Craig noticed a small group of antelope watering at a nearby pond. His first instinct was that they were Impala, but of course, he remembered that Impala are not found for hundreds of miles around. After a quick peek through his binoculars, shock and awe followed – he had found a lost population of Hirola! After making agreements with locals, the Ishaqbini Community Conservancy, the only protected area for this species was established in 2007 with wholehearted support from the indigenous peoples, very unusual for wildlife conservation projects (the local clans believe that the Hirola is a sacred beast of great beauty and power, and that it is a sin to hurt or kill one). Just last year, a new breeding compound was built – signs of hope are already beginning to show!

Now, it is possible and encouraged for keen wildlife viewers and nature enthusiasts to visit the Ishaqbini Community Conservancy (with prior notice and permission of course). Those willing to make the trek to this remote sanctuary will be led back to a world lost in time – a land where lions, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas, and wild dogs hunt while rare Desert Warthogs, Coastal Topis, Reticulated Giraffes, Beisa Oryx, Dik-diks, Lesser Kudus, Elephants, and Zebras peacefully graze nearby; a land where Tana River Mangabeys and Red Colobus Monkeys forage in the tropical trees, and a land whose crowning jewel is the elegant Hirola, which just might grace the lucky traveler with its dainty presence, its tan fur gleaming, golden in the sublime East African sunset.

I hope to travel to Ishaqbini Conservancy sometime very soon…

(picture from: http://www.nature.org/idc/groups/webcontent/@web/@africa/documents/media/prd_032435.jpg)

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