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…


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