saving the world's most endangered antelope
Promotes the conservation of the hirola antelope and its fragile habitat in partnership with communities in eastern Kenya.
Our conservation efforts were recently bolstered by the adoption of SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool, www.smartconservationsoftware.org) and CyberTracker (www.cybertracker.org) softwares. SMART is an efficient conservation tool that measures, evaluates and improves the effectiveness of wildlife law enforcement patrols and site-based conservation activities. SMART is designed to help wildlife authorities, protected areas and community conservation groups strengthen their activities through staff empowerment and boost motivation. The tool provides increased efficiency and promotion of credible and transparent monitoring of the effectiveness of anti-poaching efforts.
Hirola rangers’ with help of HCP are gradually embracing SMART and CyberTracker apps across all our conservation sites as an effective way of achieving our conservation goals including data collection, anti-poaching, capacity building and partnership with local authorities. It is now easier for the rangers to monitor their patrols routes, report sightings of hirola and and identifying poaching hotspots within the hirola range.
HCP works with the local communities in partnership with local authorities to conserve the endangered hirola and its habitat. By combining indigenous information, scientific knowledge, and our area-wide network through herders (citizen science) for Hirola programme, we are able to generate information from SMART and other conservation apps for overlay on Google maps or share this information with the local authorities for effective planning. In this way, SMART is empowering HCP by converting patrol and intelligence data into useful information that will help long term decision making within the hirola range. So far SMART is helping our field team generate unique data on possible poaching hotspots while improving enforcement efforts and strategies. The software is also helping HCP develop protection plans and implement conservation strategies tailored to specific challenges facing hirola conservation along the Kenya-Somalia border.
In January 2016 we secured solar lighting and mobile-phone charging kit for hirola rangers and the surrounding community. This has been a major issue for our rangers and community members who for years were not able to use phones and other electronics due to lack of electricity. Our project area lies along the Kenya-Somalia border with no electricity and other infrastructure. HCP is taking this opportunity to thank our supporters who made this possible.
In May 2016, we have launched community based hirola habitat restoration project that aims at restoring grasslands in areas where hirola persist currently as well as future reintroduction sites. Between 1985 and 2012, tree cover increased 300% across the historic range of hirola, translating to a 75% decline in grasslands cover for hirola. To restore grassland habitats, we are implement the following practices: 1) the physical cutting, uprooting or breaking of branches in attempt to restore grassland at scales of hundreds of hectares in prioritized areas within the hirola range, 2) nucleation plantings (pocket plantings) of native grass seeds at scales of hundreds of hectares, 3) community-based protection of elephants (in the form of anti-poaching squads and enhanced communication between villages) to encourage elephant herds to reside on community lands. We anticipate our effort will also have the knock-on benefit of improving local livelihoods within the hirola range.
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In February 2012, I requested the Kenya Wildlife Service to fit GPS collars on 10 adult (>3 years old) females from 10 different herds to both estimate survival rates of collared individuals and relocate associated herds. The approvals finally come in May 2012 and we had to quickly to identify a company that could supplies us a reliable GPS collars. After considering and contacting several companies, we finally settled with Vectronics Aerospace, Germany. The GPS collars were then manufactured within three weeks and arrived in Kenya in early August 2012 as we intended to combine the collaring exercise with hirola translocation effort that was scheduled for early August.
The job was not just getting the collars and field preparations was a major component of the collaring exercise; we were tasked with identifying herds to be targeted for collaring and sensitizing the locals about this massive exercise. The first step was to get approval from the local communities and sensitize them about the importance of collars. We therefore held grassroot itinerant meetings involving the locals. Our meetings focussed on collaring process in general and in particular we informed the locals about what to expect during this period--the many visitors who will be present, the low flying helicopters, the capture nets/ dart guns that will be used. All these were very strange to residents and attracted great deal of interest and enthusiasm among the locals. Great majority of the Somali pastoralist in the region have never seen even outsiders/visitors not mentioning the noisy helicopters. As we expected, majority of the community members overwhelmingly supported the idea terming it as crucial step toward hirola monitoring in the region.
The second step was to identify 10 different herds occurring in the outlying areas of Gababa. Considering the elusive nature of hirola, this was not an easy task-- further complicated by the ravaging droughts in the area which dispersed the groups far and wide in search of greener pasture towards the open grasslands of the Boni Forest. These areas have not received any rain since the begging of the year and the dry acacia—grewia bushlands seems lifeless until you come across this strange antelope well camouflaged. Deciding on the best way of tracking the hirola was difficult and as starting point, I first trained about 10 scouts on different ways of tracking the hirola using both indigenous and scientific knowledge.
To my surprise most of the local scouts were very knowledgeable about hirola; they were able to distinguish the both the footprint and faeces of hirola from that of other ungulates occurring in the same area. After this we then began the big search—dividing the bigger area into 5 blocks and with two people literally combing in each block till we found the herds we desperately need. This was month long intensive search where were able to identify at least seven groups and monitored them for several weeks before the capture and collaring exercise began.
We planned to combine the collaring exercise with the hirola translocation effort into the new predator proof sanctuary that was planned during the same period. This was to reduce the overall cost of the entire exercise and to benefit from the presence of the helicopters, capture team and vets on the ground. So during the translocation exercise I have sensitised the capture team and the vets on deploying the collars. GPS radiocollars will record one GPS location every three hours throughout the year and each collar is equipped with a VHF (Very High Frequency) signal as well that will emit 50 pulses per minute for monitoring, or 30 pulses per minute to indicate mortality if the individual has not moved for eight hours or more. VHF signals will be used to relocate animals visually twice per month, and to note the presence or absence of calves. GPS collars have been scheduled to drop off remotely in June 2014, when they will be collected for downloading of the accumulated data.
During this period we targeted to collar about 10 females, however, we only managed to collar three females. The helicopter time could not allow us to complete this work and we had to re-plan to collar the rest of the animals in early October 2012 when the KWS chopper will be available solely for this exercise. We are currently fundraising for funds to defray expenses associated with this exercise including the helicopter time, personnel and transport and we will appreciate any help extend to us.
Results from this study will provide sorely-needed information on the basic ecology and natural history of hirola, and will form the basis of conservation and monitoring of this critically-endangered species in its native range in North-eastern Kenya. Further radio collared individuals will help me construct resource selection functions to quantify the extent to which particular habitat features (distance to water, distance to settlement, percent grass cover, percent forb cover, percent tree cover, etc) are selected or avoided by hirola. This information will be used to inform future reintroduction efforts of sanctuary-bred animals that were recently translocated.
Finally, I would like to thank to all those who contributed and supported this novel initiative. In particular, we would like to thank the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Denver Zoo, International Foundation for Science, Mohamed Bin Zyed Species Conservation Fund, National Museums of Kenya, People’s Trust for Endangered Species, Rufford Foundation, St. Louis Zoo’s Center for Conservation in the Horn of Africa, University of Wyoming’s Haub School, and Zoological Society of London’s EDGE Programme for funding this work. Much appreciation also goes to Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Hirola Management Committee (HMC), National Museums of Kenya (NMK), Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the Ishaqbini Community Conservancy (ICC) for their assistance and support during this period. We especially thank Dr. Charles Musyoki (KWS), Dr. Rajan Amin (ZSL), Cath Lawson (ZSL), Carly Waterman (ZSL) for all the logistical and academic advice provided. Special thanks go to my advisor Dr. Goheen and entire department of Zoology of the University of Wyoming for allowing me to stay in the field for one more semester to complete this crucial component of my study. Finally, I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to the scouts and community members, particularly Arawale, Gababa and Ishaqbini communities for allowing and helping me to undertake this massive initiative and their useful contribution, participation and insight have made the entire exercise interesting and successful.
It is now official that the first hirola sanctuary in the world is up and running in Ijara marking significant step towards the recovery of arguably the world most endangered antelope. The making of this sanctuary, has taken nearly two years of planning involving the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), The Hirola Management Committee (HMC), and off course local support from the surrounding communities of Hara, Kotile and Korisa villages in Ijara District.
The capture period was between the 7th to 12th of August 2012 and during this period the capture team successfully caught 24 hirola in the nets; 17 adult females, 3 sub-adult females, 2 juvenile males, 1 juvenile female and 1 adult male. Nearly all the males were released at the point of capture and only females were and few males were moved into the sanctuary. Surprisingly, there were no mortalities during the capture or at the holding pens. This is despite high sensitivity of hirola to capture myopathy and stress; previous translocations have been reported to have caused considerable mortalities.
We used drive nets and animals were pushed using low flying helicopters. Once captured the KWS vets quickly anesthetised the animal, immediately blindfolding and securing the horns with hose-pipe. The legs were then bound together using special belts and individual were then transferred carefully into special capture bags to the chopper where they were flown into the sanctuary.
Upon arrival at the holding pens, another team was tasked to carrying the hirola from the helicopter to a landing area near the holding pens for processing. Here processing time was quick, the main task being the collection of blood and tissue samples, fixing ear tags and recording of biometric body measurements for each animal.
The animals were then moved into holding pens for up to 12 hours, until effects of the tranquilizers had worn off, after which the curtains of the pens were pulled wide open and the animals were allowed to move out freely. Here noise and other human activities were minimised all the time to ensure the animals are not stressed further.
The sanctuary with an estimated area of 2, 740 ha lies with the Ishaqbini Conservancy and now has 48 hirola representing nearly 10% of the world population. Within the sanctuary area also 30 giraffe, 20 zebra, 8 topi, 2 oryx, unknown number of lesser kudu, gerenuk and dik-diks that are considered as close associates of the hirola. In the coming years, I will be monitoring the hirola within the sanctuary and the wider conservancy, in order to determine survivorship and recruitments of key life stages (i.e., calves, juveniles, or adults) to target in conservation efforts.
The strike was swift and lethal. One heavy blow to the head was all it took to ascertain his authority and regain his dominance. Blood flowed freely and it was obvious death was imminent. We all watched as mere spectaters as the duo enaged in a gigantic battle that lasted for 15 minutes culminating in staggering gaits of the looser and eventually bleeding profusely and collapsing. The rest of the herd watched from a distance, none of them would ever dare challenge this dominant male “ the beast” anytime soon. He had just affirmed his position, he had earned it.
This spectacle sends shudders down your spine due to the ferocity involved and at the same time astonishes your being. Male zebras often fight for dominance, but contrary to this rare event, they are often a peaceful lot. In Ijara, Garissa County, Kenya, these mane less zebras are slowly but surely taking over villages in Kotile area displacing domestic livestock. They aimlessly interweave with livestock and herders, spending both day and night at the bomas’ doorstep.
Human settlements are usually a safe haven to these zebras as most predators like the lion keep their distance, staying at least 2-3 KM away. This allures them to the villages and as a result, their numbers have been rapidly increasing, making them more abundant than their domesticated relatives, the donkeys. Zebras are also attracted by nutrient rich new grasses and herbs that are common around old livestock corrals. However, no one seems perturbed by this, if anything, the locals seem to enjoy their presence and do not see them as competitors to their livestock. Regardless, the constant male fights for dominance are a danger to the children and elderly who are oblivious to these threats in the villages.
Zebra herds comprising of 5-20 individuals often dot the landscape co-occurring with evenly spaced dobera trees that occur in single files as if planted by the colonial powers. Here, they fearelessly mate, feed and fight. However, these harmonious relationship between the locals and zebras is threatened by lack of understanding between these two species. After birth, female zebras leave their foal to graze around the village, most locals assume the foals have been abandoned. They capture and nurse these foals with cow milk and often attempt to reunite them with their mothers but end up taking them to new group. Most times, the foals are rejected by the mother (real or surrogate) and often the dormant male will try to kill the foal and intercept any integration into the group.
In the last four months while I was in the field, four foals have been rescued by the locals and unfortunately only one has survived. This foal was luckily accepted by the mother and just integrated with the group as we nervously watched. Among those that died, was one nicknamed “marrow” by locals, named after the surrogate cow mother and later taken to the nearby ishaqbini conservancy, fed for a month but unfortunately passed on after four weeks. As a part longterm community involvement we are doing, we are creating area wide awareness among the local communities to stay away from these zebras, but more needs to be done to create awareness among the youth on how to co-exist with this sociable but dangerous beasts.
The recipient of the 2013 American Society of Mammalogist William T. Hornaday Award is Mr. Abdullahi Hussein Ali. The William T. Hornaday Award is awarded to a student who has made a significant contribution to the conservation of mammals and their habitats. Ali is a Ph.D student at the University of Wyoming where he is conducting a dissertation on the conservation and ecology of hirola antelope in Ijara District in eastern Kenya. The hirola may be the world?s most endangered antelope and Ali has made major strides toward hirola conservation because he is Somali and speaks local languages fluently; has worked hard to create and maintain a strong respect with local communities in Ijara; and most importantly, has a combination of motivation, patience, political know-how, intellect, and vision. Ali has worked tirelessly to educate local communities and earn their unwavering support. He is working in Ijara to disentangle the negative influence of range degradation and predation. Through a combination of GPS telemetry, analysis of long-term satellite imagery, a large-scale predator exclusion zone, and sustained community outreach and education, Ali is informing national policy toward this little-known species. Specifically, he is demonstrating that a combination of tree encroachment (driven by rampant elephant poaching in the 1970s and 1980s) and predation by recently-recolonized wild dogs and cheetah may explain the inability of hirola populations to recover in their historic strongholds. His research is proving to be crucial in guiding the Kenya Wildlife Service to identify sites for future reintroductions.
Hirola Conservation program manager and founder Mr. Abdullahi H. Ali has been awarded by the Garissa County Government for his outstanding efforts in biodiversity conservation in Northeastern Kenya.Mr. Ali was awarded for his significant contribution for species conservation in the area. He also helped in establishment of community protected areas including the Ishaqbini Conservancy, Garissa Giraffe sanctuary and for his ongoing effort to restore Arawale National reserve. This award was part of Kenya at 50 years celebrations that also recognized other individuals who made significant contributions in various sectors of the Country.