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.
On Monday (September 3,2018), Kenya wildlife service's rangers in conjunction with the Bura East conservancy scouts and Kenya forestry service, tracked two problem lions that had caused havoc in parts of the hirola’s range. This search came after it was reported that a male lion had attacked and injured a 19-year-old local male teenager who was out in the bushes herding his livestock on Sunday the 2nd of September. They had tracked the lions to an area around the Elow Lake, a few kilometers from Jambele town centre.
On Tuesday (September 4,2018), it was also reported that the female lion had attacked a cattle boma and did away with a calf. Both lions are at large and this has alarmed the locals who say they are afraid, now more than ever, to take their livestock out to herd.
Lions, wild dogs and cheetah are fairly common in most parts of the hirola’s geographic range. Like many other African cultures, lions are a source of anxiety and pride among the Somali culture. HCP in partnership Bura East Conservancy scouts will continue to work with local communities to save lions and other large carnivores by reducing conflicts and helping them understand the importance of lions and other large carnivores.
Human wildlife conflict is a hindrance to conservation efforts. Despite efforts made to conserve wildlife globally, human wildlife conflict is one of the contemporary threats hindering wildlife conservation.
Conflicts exists between human and wildlife whom with contrasting interests have little or no tolerance to each other. In Kenya human wildlife conflicts are on the rise. Wildlife such as baboons, elephants, lions and cheetahs invade community areas surrounding protected areas and conservancies destroying crops and killing livestock have been reported.
In Garissa, wildlife including giraffe, baboons and hippos occupy community lands and co-exist with humans. They interact and compete with human for the limited available natural resources. Conflicts result as the community around practice both agriculture and pastoralism. Historical woodlands that supported giraffes have been converted to agricultural plantations, further, increased livestock and human populations have as well resulted to easy contact with wildlife.
River Tana, the longest in Kenya and main source of water in Garissa, is the major cause of conflict between giraffes and community. Despite the presence of dangerous wildlife in the river such as crocodiles and hippopotamus, the community around have converted the its bank into farm land growing different types of crops. The availability of water for irrigation make the practice easy. Giraffe in Bour Algy, Gumarey and Jarirrot areas find it hard to access the precious cool water and have to go through farm lands encountering food crops in the process, eating mangoes and guavas and eliciting tension and retaliations from farmers. This is despite few giraffe water troughs that are strategically located outside the farms.
With presence of human during the day, tilling and cultivating their land, giraffe avoid getting close to the farm. They wait till night when they can access water at ease, getting into the farms with plenty of mangoes and guavas as they head to quench their thirst. Mangoes and guavas are eaten when ripe, which is why the conflict is high when the crops mature. Due to the huge losses incurred, the farmers in their retaliatory attacks mostly use snares to trap giraffes along their paths and in the farms. Trapped giraffes are killed and eaten as meat. Other giraffes escape with the snares where they will severely be wounded to the point that they are no longer able to feed due to pain.
Giraffe population country wide has declined and those in Garissa are also facing multiple threats including poaching and habitat loss. HCP in partnership with Kenya Wildlife Service, Garissa County Government and other stakeholders have recently been spearheading giraffe conservation focusing on desnaring, veterinary care, capacity building and education and awareness.
The last three months have seen our region experience the worst flood ever recorded, second only to the disastrous El Nino of 1997. The current rains, previously considered a blessing, quickly degenerated into a natural disaster.
The heavy rains led to Tana river bursting its banks and flooding most villages within the hirola’s region. Hundreds of families were left homeless and have been forced to relocate to higher and safer grounds within Garissa town. These locals have had their houses including household items and other valuables washed away. Despite this, they consider themselves lucky, as some lives have unfortunately been cut short by the raging floods.
The farming communities along the Tana river are amongst the worst hit. Having cultivated their farms about 2 months ago in anticipation of good rainfall, they are reeling in shock as they cannot even access their farms to assess losses. Thousands of farming acres have had their crops swept away including livestock.
Our conservation operations have also not been spared as most of our project sites have been cut off. Most roads/paths are flooded and are currently rivers while some major highways have been washed off. The Kenya National Highways Authority has issued warnings to motorists against using some highways within our region including Garissa-Malindi, Ijara, Bura and Masalani roads. With the destruction of most road networks, our rangers have experienced a lot of difficulties in conducting their regular activities that include patrols, community education, manual cutting of invasive trees and reseeding. National humanitarian efforts have also had numerous challenges while rescuing those marooned in the floods.
The crisis has been escalated further with the outbreak of waterborne diseases. Safer grounds housing displaced families lack adequate sanitation thereby exposing them to diseases like malaria, cholera, typhoid and flus. To ensure the safety of our rangers especially during this outbreak season, we distributed mosquito nets to them and their families. This is important particularly to our scouts whose families have been displaced. The scouts are thankful to the donors for the support they have received so far.
Further, locals and their livestock face disease epidemics such as the rift valley fever (an acute, fever-causing viral disease). There already is an alert issued by the national government of Kenya on Rift valley fever. These fatal, infectious diseases affect humans, livestock and some wildlife species. In a region where people practice pastoralism, this would be a serious epidemic and therefore there is an immediate need to initiate vaccinations and avert human, livestock and wildlife mortalities.
Snakes and crocodiles from the Tana river are also another threat brought by the floods. The public has been advised to be extra cautious since the probability of encountering these predators are high.
The current heavy rains will continue pounding our region for a while as there is a ‘Heavy rain advisory’ for our region issued by the Kenya Meteorological department. Even though this disrupts our conservation activities, our rangers currently involve themselves in humanitarian efforts to aid those marooned by the floods.
Referred to as ‘Scotland with lions’ the Aberdare ranges (Kenya) not only forms a section of the Great Rift Valley but it also gives rise to the longest river in Kenya. Flowing over 900km and through the snow-capped Mount Kenya, the Tana River marks the western boundary of the hirola’s geographic range and brings life to our semi-arid region.
With an average annual flow of 5000 cubic meters, the Tana river flows throughout the year and it is the only permanent river within the hirola’s range and a vital resource to locals, wildlife and vegetation. When the river discharge water over its banks and onto the floodplain, a large amount of sediment rich in nutrients is deposited. This periodic inflow (recharge) of water and nutrients makes these floodplains productive and have played a critical role in providing seasonal “fall-back” forage for a portion of the hirola population for centuries.
However, with a series of hydroelectric dams constructed along the river since the 1960s, the regeneration potential of these floodplains have been reduced and subsequently altering the frequency of the forage available for hirola during critical periods. These floodplains can be up to to 6 km wide over parts of hirola’s range. The natural hydrological regime of the Tana river typically consists of biannual floods, with peaks in May and November. Historically, flood extent (heights) and periods varied considerably along the Tana. These are now partly controlled by the five dams constructed along the Tana in the last five decades. Further, these critical areas are also threatened by overgrazing, farming and bush encroachment from invasive introduced species such as the Prosopis spp.
Within the hirola’s range, the river is flanked by two main tribes; the Pokomos (western bank) and the Somalis (eastern bank). Though neighbors for centuries, they have contrasting backgrounds and cultures. The Pokomos are ethnically Bantus who mostly depend on farming. These groups rely on the Tana river to irrigate their farms and provides water for their domestic use. They also carry out small scale fishing around the banks of Tana. Within the length of the Tana, you will find the Pokomos in their homemade canoes fishing, despite the presence of vicious predators under the waters. Somalis on the other hand are Cushite who predominantly practice pastoralism. They mostly depend on their livestock for livelihood and traverse the vast hirola’s range for pasture and water. Like the hirola, they mostly move closer to the Tana during the dry seasons and drought spells. These movements usually trigger a lot of conflicts as livestock invade the farms of their neighbors. Despite these differences, a common factor is that they are the unofficial custodians of the flora and fauna around the Tana river including the hirola antelope.
This river is not only a lifeline of the people, livestock and hirola but also plays host to wildlife including the Nile croc and the dreaded giant hippopotamus. The Nile croc, the largest fresh water predator in Africa, is perhaps the most successful predator the world has ever seen. They have a cerebral cortex that makes them extremely intelligent and helps them learn behavior, patterns and timings. This makes them very dangerous more so to the local folks who follow routines such as early morning fishing, fetching of water by females, bathing of children by the banks and evening quench of thirst by livestock.
On the other hand, the hippos usually mind their own business during the day but turn disastrous in the cover of darkness. They come out of the river at night and destroy farms within their vicinity. They are dreaded and most locals fear encountering them. Their attacks are usually vicious and almost always end up in death.
Despite the lurking dangers around the flow of the Tana, the locals cannot do without it. They depend on it for their livelihood and survival and have adopted ways of living with these dangers. As intelligent as the crocs might be, the locals are usually a step ahead. Unfortunately, once in a while these predators win as death of a local occurs.
Hirola have been described as graceful, majestic and elegant but they can be vicious especially when protecting their territories. The adult male hirola have been observed to secure, hold and vigorously defend their territories.
Hirola exist in social groups that can range from 5-40 individuals. Each of these groups are usually accompanied by an adult male considered to be the ultimate leader. While such groups are fairly stable, hirola bachelor herds are quite the opposite. Their associations are mostly temporary with mixed or single sex herds.
True to type, and not long ago, a subordinate male broke away from his bachelor herd and was seen trailing another herd of seven individuals. Despite all attempts by the dominant male to mark his territory and claim supremacy, the subordinate male cautiously followed them. The dominant male on the other hand, marked his territory using secretions and dung, scrapped the soil using its hooves and slashed vegetation with his sharp lyrate horns. All these were clear warnings to remind the intruder that he will fight to defend his territory. Studies elsewhere and on other species indicate that the dominant male fights the bachelors to drive away competition especially for females during mating (Bro-Jorgensen 2002).
Despite the intimidating threats from the dominant male, the subordinate male made his intentions clear that he was there to take over. He was chased away several times by the dominant male, but relentlessly and stubbornly, continued to return and consistently kept close at a distance of about 100m from the group. It seemed like he was waiting for the right moment to strike and claim dominance of the group.
On one moonlit night of early January 2018, the lone male challenged the dominant male to a duel. To both of them, this was a fight to either dominance or death. Antelopes use their horns to fight and occasionally would use their rear legs to push forward after standing on their hind legs. The male hirola horns are beautiful but heavily ringed than females and are extremely sharp to cause maximum damage to their opponents during a fight. Packer (1983) observed that antelopes use their horns both in head to head combat with competitors and also in stabbing of predators. Hirola’s skin is also quite thick at the nape and fold up behind the horns to offer a degree of protection against the sharp horns of an opponent.
When the lone male decided to charge at the dominant male, the later knelt and pointed his horns towards the challenger. In a matter of seconds, the ungulates locked horns in a fascinating show of might and power. Again, and again their horns locked, each time with increased momentum and rage like the battle of the titans. The two engaged each other close to half an hour before they showed signs of slowing down. Their energy and fighting intensity suddenly appeared to come down, and both looked exhausted. This however was short-lived, and on one last show of might, the dominant male reared up on his hind legs and within a split of a second came roving down on the lone male so hard that the impact sounded like the explosion of a thunderstorm. Everything went quiet for a moment as both of them lay still. Their horns had interlocked and on a closer look one of them had ended up with a broken neck.
The dominant male had emerged the stronger, but in war, there are seldom any sacred souls. As the intruder male lay dead, the dominant male appeared exhausted, weak and wounded. In vain he attempted to get up. After a few failed attempts, the victor gave in to fate and was lying dead few minutes later.
Many examples of dominant males fighting off their opponents have also been reported for other species including Oryx, waterbuck etc. (Paton 2001; Caron 2005; Spinage 2012). In 2012, 48 hirola individuals were translocated from the periphery of the Boni forest in to a 25 KM2 sanctuary. The population has since doubled with nearly 50% of all the new borns thought to be males. In 2014, similar male battles have been reported by our scouts inside the hirola predator proof sanctuary. While most of these fights are more common in sanctuaries with limited space, it is possible to limit aggression between antelope opponents even in such settings. For example, antagonistic behaviors of bachelor herds within a sanctuary can be minimized through reducing aggressive hormones such as androgens and increasing melengestrol acetate given with feed or administered directly (Patton 2001; Penfold et al. 2002). This was found to significantly reduce the aggressive behavior in such herds. Further, the size of an enclosure has an impact on the level of aggressiveness. Studies have indicated that dominant males in small enclosures were more aggressive due to restricted environments (Cassinello and Pieters 2000). This means that the establishment of larger sanctuaries can reduce the level of aggressiveness and limit the risk of fatalities. It is also good practice to avoid having surplus bachelor males in a herd as this will increase competition for mating and lead to aggression and endless fights for dominance.
Andanje, S. A. (2002). Factors limiting the abundance and distribution of hirola (Beatragus hunteri) in Kenya. Ph.D. Dissertation. Newcastle University, United Kingdom.
Bro-Jørgensen, J. (2002). Overt female mate competition and preference for central males in a lekking antelope. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99(14), 9290-9293.
Caron, S. (2005). Short observations of Scimitar-horned oryx grouping patterns and population structure during a protracted dry period in Bou-Hedma National Park, Tunisia.
Cassinello, J., & Pieters, I. (2000). Multi-male captive groups of endangered dama gazelle: social rank, aggression, and enclosure effects. Zoo Biology, 19(2), 121-129.
Packer, C. (1983). Sexual dimorphism: the horns of African antelopes. Science, 221(4616), 1191-1193.
Patton, M. L., White, A. M., Swaisgood, R. R., Sproul, R. L., Fetter, G. A., Kennedy, J., ... & Lance, V. A. (2001). Aggression control in a bachelor herd of fringe‐eared oryx (Oryx gazella callotis), with melengestrol acetate: Behavioral and endocrine observations. Zoo biology, 20(5), 375-388.
Penfold, L. M., Ball, R., Burden, I., Joechle, W., Citino, S. B., Monfort, S. L., & Wielebnowski, N. (2002). Case studies in antelope aggression control using a GnRH agonist. Zoo Biology, 21(5), 435-448.
Spinage, C. (2012). A territorial antelope: the Uganda waterbuck. Elsevier.
Meet Yakub Ibrahim one of our rangers in Bura East conservancy. Yakub (44 yrs.) is a family man and a proud father of eight kids. Prior to joining HCP, he worked as a volunteer scout at the defunct Arawale National Reserve and has been supporting Kenya Wildlife Service as an informer. Yakub considers himself a conservationist, a trait which is easily seen in his work. Yakub’s inspiration to work in conservation comes from his heart. He says that a long time ago when he was still a little boy, he used to see very many wild animals and would always come across them while herding his father’s goats. Recently it has become hard to spot these animals especially the endangered Hirola antelope which he says is his favorite animal. With this in mind, he took it upon himself to become a conservationist in order to help conserve these magnificent animals in any way he could.
Yakub has been a very invaluable person to the Hirola Conservation Programme (HCP). Until now, Yakub has recovered roughly half of all the snares HCP has collected in areas along the Tana River. Snares can be anything but mostly are rudimentary pieces of circular wires, shaped into a loop and anchored downwards along animal corridors with the aim of capturing and killing them. Yakub knows snares are silent but deadly and are indiscriminate wildlife killers. He tells us the large majority of animals caught by snares rot in the bush as poachers might never return to claim them. Yakub is currently in discussion with some youth groups in Bura area to encourage them to turn the recovered snares into an opportunity for awareness through creating wildlife art. He is first goal is to produce a giant hirola from the snares, in which we are planning to display at the HQ of Bura East Conservancy. Additionally, he has also been part of a team that helped put one of the notorious poachers behind bars in early 2017.
The journey of conservation for Yakub has not been easy but he says it is rewarding. This is because from his job in conservation, he has been able to feed his family and take his children to school. He has also gained a lot of knowledge from his work especially on how to utilize wildlife non-consumptively, information which he happily shares with the community. Even with these successes, there are still challenges that come with the job, insecurity, wildlife attacks and threats from the paochers. For instance, he goes to the bush unarmed to meet poachers who are sometimes armed with guns or machetes. All in all, Yakub is still hoping and has faith that one day, wildlife numbers will increase to what they were in the past especially the Hirola numbers.
In 2016, Mr. Ali Hassan Ali, also the received the Houston Zoo wildlife warrior award. Facilitated by the award, Ali underwent successful computer training. He recently completed the training and is now conversant in Ms. Word, Ms. PowerPoint, Ms. Excel, Internet and Email and Basic IT concepts. With his newly acquired skills, he comfortably collects our field data, input and edit the data in a computer and successfully share the data via internet. He is now in charge of data in the field and is also training other hirola rangers on his new set of skills.
Immediately after completing his training, we gave Ali a laptop as a token of appreciation of his conservation efforts and also to inspire and motivate him further. He considers it as one of his most priced items and he says, it is to him what livestock is to a Somali pastoralist. Since he got the laptop, his productivity has doubled and he regularly sends updates. Prior to owning the laptop, Ali usually travelled over 50Kms to Garissa town to look for a cyber café where the data would be typed into a computer and shared for analysis. He now does all these by himself within the comfort of his boma.
All the other hirola rangers are inspired by this. Besides being in charge of data, he has become their unofficial computer teacher. Every day after patrols, they flock him to learn a thing or two about computers. We plan on training all the hirola rangers in computer and other IT concepts by the end of 2018 and equip them with all the necessary equipment as we advance our approaches in fighting poaching, monitoring wildlife and collecting data within the hirola’s geographic range.
Ali is one of the lucky few to have undergone computer training amongst the locals within the hirola’s geographical range, he is an inspiration to many. His basic IT knowledge and ability to operate a computer have elevated his position within the community. He now commands more respect, even from the village elders. His new status is an advantage to our conservation efforts especially our outreach programmes.
Our habitat restoration project includes nine experimental plots across three distinct soil where we are determining the ideal conditions necessary to increase grass growth. Using these plots we are testing the response of four native grass species (Cenchrus ciliaris, Enteropogon macrostachyus, Eragrostis superba, and Chloris roxbhurgiana) to four different restoration approaches (tilling, manure application + seeding, seeding, no treatment). In each of three soil types, we located three 50m x 20m treatment blocks. Our preliminary results from two soil types suggest total grass cover was higher in the seeded treatment than the seeding + manure treatment. Both tilling and no treatment did not result in any significant above ground biomass suggesting that lack of seeds rather than soil capping or water availability might be the key mechanism limiting grass growth. Overall, planted grass species performed better in loam soils (median 45% cover) than in high clay (black cotton) soils (median =40% cover). Similarly planted grasses performed better than other grass species and forbs in both loam and black cotton soils. These experiments are aimed at informing landscape level grassland restoration for hirola, where tree encroachment has suppressed their recovery for nearly three decades.
In addition, we rolled out larger restoration plots in core areas of hirola to test the effeteness of applied nucleation in restoring grasslands for hirola. Nucleation plantings is a concept that entails dense plantings of small areas with several species (grass etc), usually with the several species distributed like stepping stones of varying sizes. From these experiments, we observed less erosion in the areas where we have cut down tree branches and then placed on the ground as carpets. We also recorded more above ground biomass, forbs and perennial grasses including the planted grasses in the cleared patches compared to the control plots (cleared only and no seeding). Grasses were found to grow beneath the cut tree branches, with fallen trees forming litter under the tree branches.
Most importantly, hirola and other grazers (e.g. zebra) were attracted by these restored sites. As such, we quantified the relationship between grass species and two components of hirola habitat use: (i) relative probability of encountering hirola in improved vs not improved habitat types, (ii) Actual time hirola spent in each of these sites. Surprisingly, hirola is responding very well to restored habitat and spending approximately 10 times more in improved habitat compared to control sites. Equally seeding alone improved vegetation density by more than three times. While our restoration effort is long-term, manual removal of trees at a larger scale is expected to improve the availability of grass by 50% in the next two years. This means in the short and long term, hirola and livestock will have sufficient forage and improved habitat translating to productive and increased numbers. These habitat improvement efforts will coincide with the release of the first sanctuary bred hirola into restored areas hence high chance of survival.
On 10 February 2017, The Government of Kenya declared the ongoing, prolonged drought a National Disaster. Crop production had decreased significantly (e.g. Coastal region experienced a 99% decrease in Maize production), food insecurity had more than doubled (from 1.3 million to 2.7 million people as of May 2017) and more than half of the country’s water resources had dried up with an estimated 3 million people lacking access to clean water and mass loss of animals both livestock and wildlife.
One of the most affected regions of the country is the hirola’s geographical range. It has experienced the failure of three rainy seasons in a row with the current drought being the worst ever recorded. Frequency of drought has increased over the last 40 years with rainfall patterns fluctuating and becoming unpredictable and unreliable. These unfortunate trends in this region have led to failed rainy seasons, depressed rains and delays in onset of the rainy seasons. These recurrent dry spells have further led to the drying of water pans and rivers etc. Subsequently, competition for water between humans, livestock and wildlife has intensified as rainfall declined by 6.3mm/year or ca. 2.46mm total between 1970 and 2009.
The Kenya Meteorological Department forecasted poor rains throughout 2017. The short rains season that we experienced early this year was below the long term mean by about 40% and did not have much impact on the vegetation in hirola core areas such as Bura East, Sangailu, Gababa and Ishaqbini conservancies. As a result, lack of water has led to mass mortalities of wildlife following severe dry conditions. Some of the most affected species include the hirola antelope, the Grevy’s zebra, buffaloes and the coastal topi.
Even though some parts of the country received some rainfall at the end of May and part of June, the general drought situation across the hirola’s geographical region is still dire. According to the National Drought Management Authority of Kenya (NMDA), the average vegetation condition index for Garissa County (Our project area) is 23.31 with some areas experiencing severe vegetation deficit (NMDA advises implementation of intensive water trucking activities in these areas). The average vegetation condition index for Garissa County (Our project area) is way below the average range of >35 reported in the hirola’s geographic range in normal years.
As a consequence, and for example, we lost 23 hirola individuals due to drought within the last year in the hirola predator proof sanctuary alone. This is much higher than the average annual mortality of five individuals since the sanctuary was set up in 2012. Additionally, most watering holes within the hirola’s geographical range have gone dry and the few remaining ones are almost dry and cannot sustain the demand. Emaciated wildlife including hirola have become a common eyesore around water holes shared by humans, livestock and recently wildlife.
Currently, day time and Night time temperatures have been increasing over the hirola’s geographical range. Additionally, recent Short-term forecast (one week) of this region indicates sunny periods the whole day throughout the week while most parts of the country experience rainfall. With this trend, and with the early end to the poor March- May rainfall season, the extended dry period in the middle of 2017 will inevitably have a major impact on food security and survival of wildlife.
With support from The Columbus Zoo, The Houston Zoo, Rainforest Trust and others, we initiated emergency drought intervention measures. These measures include replenishing water holes, providing Lucerne and hay to hirola and other wildlife, enhancing community awareness on drought mitigation and developing better drought cycle management plans for the larger hirola’s geographical region. Our project aims to cushion both wildlife and livestock within the hirola’s range from further drought adversities until the next rains expected in November/December
Conservation education is one of the main core activities of the Hirola Conservation Programme. This involves an outreach program to schools and visits to communities with an aim of involving them in wildlife conservation. This month, we visited Kotile primary school (one of the schools adjacent to Ishaqbini conservancy), with the aim of interacting and educating the young environmentalists. There was a buzz of excitement as our team entered the school with kids running around with looks of anticipation in their faces. As we met the headteacher, he acknowledged our presence with a smile and Kenyan prison handshakes. He expressed gratitude in regards to our visit and said that our recent visits had really inspired the pupils to take up conservation. He urged us to increase our visits, not only to the school, but also to the nearby community as he has received requests by the parents and other members of the community asking how they can also take part in conservation.
We had a very interactive session with the kids as they participated in identifying large mammals from the screen using wildlife and conservation videos that we had selected. As part of the education tour, we also showed education clips touching on environmental issues e.g. water resources, waste management and green energy. At the end of the session, we also had interviews with some of the pupils who expressed their gratitude for our visit. We also had a chance to meet with the school’s environmental club members who asked us to help them identify activities they can take up to conserve the environment. Already, they were doing clean-ups twice a week in the school compound and watering trees and flower beds. The pupils requested for more visits to their school inorder to learn more about conservation and also provide them with a chance to visit the Ishaqbini conservancy and take part in some of the conservation activities.
At the end of the day the head teacher expressed his desire for the children to visit the conservancy to see the ongoing conservation efforts. He also proudly stated that the school has started celebrating Hirola day every year by doing clean-ups at the market places and planting trees. He could also not hide his joy on seeing Aden our field assistant who had accompanied us during the school tour. “This is a great motivation to the pupils as it shows that apart from conserving our wildlife species, conservation can also help bring food to the table of the residents here” he added with an ear to ear smile