A new hope for the Hirola

If you look back to one of my first few posts, you’ll learn that I have a bit of a fascination with one of Africa’s rarest mammal species and one of the world’s rarest antelopes, the Hirola (Beatragus hunteri). This antelope, a unique species with a calming sandy-brown coat, white spectacles, lyre-shaped horns, and a long tail (looking like a cross between a Hartebeest and Impala), a part of its own genus and with a population of surely less than 500, and perhaps less than 400 worldwide, is localized to a rather volatile and sometimes unstable area of Eastern Kenya, bordering Somalia. Its extinction would mean the first disappearance of an African mammal genus in recent history.

The Hirola has something of topsy-turvy history. For a while, the Hirola was classified along with the Topi, part of the genus Damaliscus and known as Hunter’s Hartebeest (I even have that name in one of my wildlife books!). However, more recently (presumably in the 90’s, though I might be mistaken), it was reclassified into its own genus, Beatragus, of which it is the sole remaining monotypic representative. Beatragus is an ancient lineage of antelopes, stretching back millions of years (species of now-extinct prehistoric Beatragus have even been uncovered in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, the site of famous ancient hominid remains!), and is thought to be the progenitor of both the Hartebeest and Topi/Tsessebe families.

While the Hirola was never really common (since it’s something of an evolutionary relic, it faces competition from its newer descendants in many areas), its populations were stable back in tim. In 1979, it was estimated that there were around 12500-16000 animals in Kenya alone. In Somalia, the other range state for the Hirola, there were another 2000 animals. Back then, nobody could have been blamed for not imagining the events that were about to unfold for this species. By 1983, the Hirola population had crashed to 7000 and a severe drought in 1984 and resulting habitat change brought it down further, to about 10-15% of its original population. Counts in 1995-1996 revealed 500-2000 Hirola in Kenya and probable total extinction in Somalia. To make matters worse, the never formally gazetted Arawale National Reserve, a sanctuary meant to conserve Hirola in its native range, was overrun by bandits and illegal cattle herders; even plans for an integrated management area near the town of Galmagalla fell through. The Hirola was now in a state of emergency.

In the 1990s, in an abortive effort to halt the decline and prevent the now-immediate extinction of Hirola, about 60 animals were transferred to Tsavo East National Park, where the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) hoped to generate a secure out-of-range population in a protected area. However, this was rather unsuccessful: many Hirola dropped dead in their holding pens (Hirola are notoriously intolerant of translocation/introduction) and the population stagnated at around 100 animals, where it still lies today. When the Kenya Wildlife Service attempted to transfer more animals, the people living in the Hirola’s native range sued KWS, blocking the translocation and preventing further removals of “their” antelope. Now, the pressure was on for the local Somali communities to preserve the Hirola in its native range. Thus, the Ishaqbini Hirola Community Conservancy was born.

Following involvement with the Northern Rangelands Trust and the Nature Conservancy around the year 2009, increased attention and funds were brought to the plight of the Hirola. A core no-grazing zone was established and conservancy borders were created. The local Somali Communities of Hara, Korissa, and Qotile gave up their own community grazing land to help the antelope they cherished – an animal which they believe brings rain, good luck, and safety for their cattle: the Hirola, or Arawale in their language, which they believe is so beautiful that they sing songs wishing their cattle could appear more similar to it. Following the organization of the conservancy, everyone involved was hopeful that the species was being given a new chance for success.

However, despite speedy habitat regeneration, Hirola still weren’t prospering. Tracking teams were sent in and discovered that the Ishaqbini Conservancy, where wildlife populations were prospering, was becoming a magnet for the area’s predator population. Lions, Leopards, Cheetahs, Hyenas, and Wild Dogs were zeroing in the conservancy, and the Hirola were discovered to be the favored prey for the region’s lion prides. A plan needed to be formulated urgently to keep the population stable.

In 2011, plans for a predator-proof sanctuary formed. Here, the Hirola would be kept in a large 35 km2 enclosure. All predators and other dangerous game would be relocated from the area while the more placid herbivore associates of the Hirola, such as the Lesser Kudu, Gerenuk, Beisa Oryx, Coastal Topi, Plains Zebra, and Desert Warthog, would remain inside the sanctuary. Soon, 49 Hirola were placed inside the conservancy in summer 2012 (July-Aug). By November 2013, there were already signs of success: the Hirola population inside the conservancy had increased to over 70 animals!

Truly, Ishaqbini represents a new kind of conservation necessary in the developing world. Many protected areas in Africa and Asia are failing. Central governments creating worthless ‘paper parks’ from the safety of their capitals do little to contribute to conservation. While some of these areas are present on maps, the idea of such parks extends little beyond them: they are extremely understaffed, receive little to no funding, and suffer from rife poaching and habitat degradation – it is almost as if they are extension of the nearby countryside and community areas! Even properly funded, more secure protected areas – even as famous as Kenya’s Masai Mara – are suffering. When many parks such as these are created with little assistance from local communities, they create resentment among people surrounding the parks, contributing to poaching and habitat degradation, as well as human settlement. This destroys age-old migration pathways and forces rare and fragile species (such as the Roan Antelope in the Masai Mara) into extinction. Areas such as Ishaqbini represent a new lesson in conservation: passionate local communities who design and staff the protected areas on their own feel a much greater responsibility and buy-in from the conservation being performed. Should tourism occur, they will receive a significant amount of the revenues for the improvement of local peoples’ lives and increased funding for the conservancy. This is a truly a win-win situation for all species involved – wildlife populations increase, while humans living near the conservancy benefit from greater prosperity and security. Ultimately, in the developing world, wildlife conservation isn’t simply an issue that should be dealt with by the government, it must be placed in the hands of the people too.

Ishaqbini is truly a very unique place: the story of a passionate community protecting the endangered animal they love and a region with a unique ecosystem of globally important biodiversity. I encourage everyone to spread the word about the Hirola and perhaps give a small donation to help out and give it a more secure future. More on Ishaqbini later…

Venkat

Snowshoe Hares in Northern California – a little discovery

If you read my last post, you’ll probably be aware that I was in Northwestern California (Humboldt County) two months ago wildlife viewing. I meant to post this update earlier, but I was quite busy with various things last month so I guess better late than never…

Anyways, while on my trip, one of my most intriguing mammal sightings was that of an adult Klamath SNOWSHOE HARE (Lepus americanus klamathensis) on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation. Now, given that Snowshoe Hares are more famous for being an animal of the dark and frigidly cold Northern Boreal Forests of Canada and Alaska, I figured I’d give a bit of background on this animal for California.

Very little information exists on the status of the Snowshoe Hare in California. What we do know is that their range roughly coincides with the three main mountain ranges of the state: the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades, and the Klamath Mountains. In these areas, there are two main subspecies: the Sierra Nevada Snowshoe Hare (L. a. tahoensis), found in he Central and Northern Sierra; and the Klamath Snowshoe Hare (L. a. klamathensis), found in the higher ranges of the Klamath Mountains (Yolla Bolly, Salmon, Marble, Trinity Alps, and Siskiyou Mountains) and the Cascades (Mt. Lassen, Mt. Shasta region, and the Warner Mountains at the edge of the great basin). Both subspecies are generally thought to be quite rare and little-known and for these reasons they are rated as California Species (or in this case Taxa) of Special Concern.

Both subspecies prefer similar habitats, which unsurprisingly, are also similar to their habitats in their more familiar northern habitats. Snowshoe Hares prefer wet mountain meadows at elevations of around 7000-9000 feet in the Sierra Nevada, as well as mountain fir forests and riverine alder thickets; in the Klamath Mountains, they use very similar habitat, however at lower elevations, extending down to almost 4000 feet due to the increased moisture of this region. The Snowshoe Hares in California are very unique: unlike the famed “Varying Hare” of the northern forests, whose numbers fluctuate enormously year to year in a fixed pattern and undergo a unique dynamic with the Canada Lynx, in California (and other southern areas of the Snowshoe Hare’s range), their populations stay relatively fixed from year to year. For this reason, they remain rare and little known, one of the secret species of California’s mountains – one that few are aware of and even fewer have ever seen.

Now, this brings me to my main point. As many people who know me well are aware of, I enjoy seeing as many of California’s mammal species as I can within this hugely bio-diverse state – the Snowshoe Hare is no exception. However, I wasn’t exactly aware of where to look for it: due to the paucity of data from the Klamath Mountains, I always assumed that they were very rare (as rated by the Dept. of Fish and Game) and restricted to the most inaccessible areas, such as the high country of the Trinity Alps Wilderness. The story was similar in the Sierra too: here, naturalists and field biologists performing camera-trapping studies in the range almost never recorded the rare hares on trail cameras, let alone observed them. So, you could only imagine my surprise when driving down a remote gravel road in a forgotten part of Northern California at dusk, I spotted a large brownish-gray rabbit that I couldn’t immediately identify!

Now, having last seen a Snowshoe Hare around 4 years ago in Alaska, I was admittedly a bit “rusty,” but soon called out the sighting. My guide Rob, who had lived in Northwestern California for the past 10 years (and had seen a large percentage of the region’s mammal fauna) was just as shocked as I was! While I didn’t see very much else that evening, I was quite elated with my hare.

The next day, Rob talked to some biologist friends working in and around the Hoopa area (we observed the hare at the summit of Big Hill Road near an area called ‘Box Camp’ in the red fir zone). Of those, one confirmed the sighting (stating that they were rarely seen in the high red fir forests), but another two was in disbelief (apparently, she needed 10 minutes of convincing before she believed us)! While we was confident with the I.D., we still needed some more confirmation, so we discussed matter with Mark Higley, the chief biologist in the Hoopa Valley, who confirmed our sighting (stating that they were rare, but occasionally seen). Looking back at our sighting, it makes perfect sense – Box Camp is located in moist, cool mountain red fir forests at almost 5000 feet near the Humboldt-Trinity County border; the camp is in a lush mountain meadow bordered in many areas with dense thickets of alder  – perfect, “textbook” Snowshoe Hare habitat! Box Camp, even without the Snowshoe Hare sighting, was already a fascinating place though – in about an hour of searching, I found FISHER sign in the meadow and Mountain Beaver (Aplodontia) burrows in the alder thickets; just three weeks before our trip, a Fisher was observed on a road nearby, and two  weeks after, rare Flammulated and Spotted Owls were seen at the meadow itself as well as numerous Black Bears – a true wildlife hotspot!

Now, back to the Hare. By the end of my trip, the Snowshoe Hare was one of the top wildlife sightings of the trip – alongside Sooty Grouse, Mountain Quail, White-headed Woodpecker, and Northern Flying Squirrel! However, I’ll remember this sighting for more than just that reason… This Snowshoe Hare is a reminder to me that you can’t learn everything, particularly about wildlife and nature by just sitting at home in front of a laptop (granted, you can learn a LOT though!). To unlock some of nature’s true secrets, get out and explore! You never know what you might find…

Venkat

Postscript:

A little while ago, I received an email from Rob telling me that he had just recently seen 2 (!) Snowshoe Hares while on an evening owling trip (during which he saw Nighthawks – jealous!) to the montane birding hotspot Horse Mountain in moist red and white fir habitat at around 4500 feet! I don’t know for sure (it may be a series of remarkable coincidences!!), but I suspect that at least in a select number of places in California’s wild, remote, and untouched Northwest, there may be a few places where this species is a bit less rare than we thought…