Perhaps the subject I’ve discussed most about on this blog is the plight of the Hirola, one of the world’s rarest animals. This summer, I was fortunate enough to travel to Ishaqbini Conservancy, located in a very remote part of Northern Kenya, hoping to observe this rare, unique animal and witness the conservation there firsthand. And I’m happy to report that I was successful!
After a stunning flight over the Tana River and Meru National Park, we landed in humid, dusty Ishaqbini and were picked up by our guides, a Northern Rangelands Trust surveyor and the Community Conservancy Rangers, for a drive to the park headquarters. Already, signs of the value of the conservation efforts there were evident: we saw small groups of Reticulated Giraffe, Gerenuk, Kirk’s Dik-dik, and even tracks of Elephant on the muddy road.
At park HQ, we had a meeting with the Conservancy Manager, Mahat Abubakar, who talked about the conservancy and its goals. Here, we learned about the newly developed predator-proof sanctuary, as well as the valuable work being performed, in partnership with NRT and The Nature Conservancy to protect perhaps the world’s rarest antelope. Naturally, I was keen to learn more about the wildlife of the area, and I was in for a treat – Cheetahs, Lions, Leopards, Elephants, Buffalo, Oryx, Giraffe, Tana River Mangabey, Tana River Red Colobus, and most importantly, Hirola, were all making comebacks through the protection of the conservancy. Poaching had decreased drastically and several calves of the conservancy’s focal species, the unique Hirola, had been born in recent months both in and out of the sanctuary. Finally, we entered the ranger vehicles for a half-day trip around the conservancy to observe wildlife.
Just 10 minutes after leaving HQ, we saw our first Hirolas: a herd of 4 animals, including one precious calf, alongside a rare Coastal Topi. Then, we spotted six more Hirolas, and also many Reticulated Giraffes, Yellow Baboons, Gerenuk, and even a female Lesser Kudu seeking respite from the midday heat. Then improbably, the green curtain of tropical forest closed around us, and the air grew thick and moist! From the shady banks of the Tana River, we spotted Hippos, Crocodiles, and large group of Yellow Baboons along with fresh Elephant, Buffalo, and Lion tracks, and most importantly – a rare Red Colobus in the riverine forest. From there, we headed to our lunch spot by way of dense thicket along the river, seeing large groups of blue-necked Somali Ostrich and Vulturine Guineafowl, scattering as our car bounced along the bumpy track. At the peaceful Lake Ishaqbini, waterbirds paddled, and a small group of Waterbuck and Coastal Topi ate marsh vegetation and drank, seemingly unaware of our presence – it almost felt as if we had been transported back in time! After having a light lunch, we were on a mission – one of the world’s rarest primates, the Tana River Crested Mangabey, had recently been spotted in this forest by a ranger. So, with our local guide in front, we walked through the spiny, dense vegetation, attempting to make as little noise as possible (not any easy task!). We spotted many Red Colobus and Sykes Monkeys, and just as we were about to give up hope, we spotted a small troop of five mangabeys dashing around the branches of a fruiting fig.
At this point, we left and retraced our steps back to the predator-proof sanctuary, hoping to see more Hirola, as well as perhaps a Fringe-eared Oryx or Elephant. Immediately upon entering the sanctuary, we stumbled upon a gorgeous male Lesser Kudu staring at us from a nearby thicket. However, the best sighting came a few minutes after: a wonderful breeding herd of 14 Hirolas, with several calves! We continued through the sanctuary, very happy with our success at spotting the Hirolas, and saw many more, as well as plenty of Maneless Plains Zebras, another Waterbuck, and lots of Gerenuk, rare Desert Warthogs, and Yellow Baboons! We then returned to the airstrip, said goodbye to our guides, and took off over Giraffes, Topi, and Zebras, looking out across the vast expanses of pristine rangeland beyond, bound for our accommodation in Lewa.
I hope this gave you a good idea of what a visit to Ishaqbini is like. It was a truly amazing experience to visit a place so pristine, and untouched by poaching and tourism – one of the last few truly unique wildernesses on Earth. Below are a few pictures from the trip…
All photos from Ishaqbini Conservancy, July 2014