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 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
African elephants (Loxodonta africana) are not new in the hirola’s geographical range. As a matter of fact elephant populations are historically known to occupy these areas until their extermination through poaching in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Their loss from the hirola native range largely contributed to tree encroachment in the available grasslands resulting in less grass for the hirola herds (this is because elephants are known to control tree encroachment by breaking and uprooting trees as they feed).
But more recently we have been receiving sighting reports of elephant within the conservancy and one notorious matriarch family that forced their way into the electric fenced sanctuary (late last year). With organized efforts of our rangers and research team based in Ishaqbini conservancy, the rangers confirmed their presence in the sanctuary and jumbos seem to have no plans to leave the sanctuary. Since the first time the jumbos were reported to have forced their way into the fenced sanctuary, our research team and the rangers at the sanctuary have been interested to know the whereabouts of these magnificent jumbo family.
Efforts to see them have been thwarted by their peculiar wariness of our teams in patrol (probably due to the historical persecution of their family members by marauding poachers killing them for their tusks). With efforts to know more about the herd, we recently deployed camera traps at waterholes in the sanctuary and guess what! we have been able to document their sightings as they visit the water holes (especially at night!) and we plan to use this info to monitor their movements and eventually learn how they use the landscape.
The sanctuary matriarch comprises of eight individuals including a young calf probably one and half year’s old . They are a very shy lot and would always try to avoid contact with our patrol teams and spend most of their time in thick bushes within the fenced sanctuary. Their current comeback and presence and feeding in the sanctuary and conservancy is an advantage to the wildlife populations in the area and would probably help in the reduction of tree cover that has been documented to increase in the hirola’s range. this is both a win-win situation for the wildlife as it means that there will be more grass cover for all!
Along the banks of river Tana, rangers have also repeatedly reported seeing elephants as they comfortably crossed and fed on the riverine vegetation. This is very interesting news and indicates that elephants are slowly maikng a comeback to these historically volatile areas that now willingly accomodates them. Thanks to conservation awareness efforts in the area.
Early june this year, reports of a white baby giraffe and its mother were reported to us by the rangers who got the report from one of the villagers adjacent to the Ishaqbini conservancy. We hurriedly headed to the scene as soon as we got the news. And lo! There, right infront of us, was the so hyped ‘white giraffe’ of Ishaqbini conservancy! They were so close and extremely calm and seemed not disturbed by our presence. The mother kept pacing back and forth a few yards infront of us while signalling the baby Giraffe to hide behind the bushes – a characteristic of most wildlife mothers in the wild to prevent the predation of their young.
While observing the magnificent long necked animal looking at us, I could not but help see the fading reticulates on their skin! It was evident that the coloration especially on the mother giraffe was not as conspicuous as the baby. The question that lingered in my mind was if the fading on the skin was something that happened at birth or thereafter in the adult giraffe life? This is because the baby giraffe, had very conspicuous reticulates but with a small tinge of the white coloration that seemed to continue fading away leaving the baby white as it approaches adulthood.
White giraffe sightings or leucistic giraffe as they are better known have become more frequent and common nowadays. In fact, the only two known sightings have been made in Kenya and Tanzania. The very first reports of a white giraffe in the wild was reported in January 2016 in Tarangire National park, Tanzania; a second sighting was again reported in March 2016 in Ishaqbini conservancy, Garissa county, Kenya.
As a matter of fact, these sightings have become a common occurrence in the hirola’s geographic range that the communities in these areas (especially within our conservancies) have become so excited to a point where everybody has been participating in reporting the sighting of these magnificent animals! But the question that lingers in the minds of many is, is the giraffe white or what’s up with its coloration? Experts have explained that the condition is known as leucism, which results in the partial loss of the pigmentation of the giraffes original color. In this very sighting, in Ishaqbini, there was a mother and a juvenile The communities within Ishaqbini have mixed reactions to the sighting of this leucistic giraffe and most of the elders report that they have never seen this before. ‘This is new to us” says bashir one of the community rangers who alerted us when they sighted the white giraffe. “I remember when I was a kid, we never saw them” he added. “It must be very recent and we are not sure what is causing it” he said.
As excited as the locals, Hirola Conservation Programme Director & Founder, Dr. Abdullahi Ali says, "Nature is always stunning and continue to surprise humanity! These rare snow white giraffes shocked many locals including myself but these gave us renewed energy to protect and save our unique wildlife. I am positive these rare giraffes will change the perception of outsiders regarding north eastern Kenya in which many people have negative perceptions. I remember two years while I was in the US someone asked me where do you come from in Kenya and I said Garissa in Eastern Kenya. Her immediate response was that "there is a lot of nothing there". Snowy white giraffes and the rare hirola are off course not everywhere! In this regard and in partnership with local communities, relevant authorities in Kenya and international partners, we promise to protect these beauties and their vital habitat. We are also curious to know the daily whereabouts of these giraffes, so we will keep an eye on them."
In an effort to diversify income for communities surrounding our conservancies, The Hirola Conservation Programme has started a new initiative to work with Somali women to identify alternative livelihoods for locals. While we have identified several projects that we could work on together, in the month of May, we have conducted trainings on spiral tie-dye technique and also the preparation of laundry detergent.
Headscarves and other fabrics from Tie-Dye techniques are commonly used by the locals here. Somali women have always been eager to get involved in the hirola conservation and we are glad to be working on this together. Some of our future projects will include disposable & reusable sanitary pad and bead work among others.
Not a month that passes by without the news of a missing person in villages surrounding the Bura East Conservancy. Late this month, locals from Bura village were disturbed by news of yet another crocodile attack along the banks of Tana River. The frequent attacks by the enormous beasts have now become a norm with desperate communities spending sleepless nights along the banks of the river with the hope of sighting floating bodies.
In May 2017, a thirteen years old boy was the latest victim of the vicious crocodiles’ attack having been snatched and gobbled in the river whilst trying to fetch water for his family.
“The crocodiles have been targeting women and children” says Aden one of the villagers who was helping with the search and rescue. “if nothing is done urgently we will lose our families to these dangerous crocodiles” he added. Efforts from the community were in vain as helpless traditional divers could not retrieve the body remains after several frantic searches in the already swollen Tana river waters. Embarrassingly, the traditional volunteer divers don't get any help from the authorities. Retrieving a family member body or remains from Kenya’s biggest river is never a joyous occasion, but it can be a comfort. This is because crocodile kill their prey by holding them under water to drown.
“We know the river is dangerous but we can also not do without it”— says the area chief while consoling with the family. To minimize conflicts the communities may therefore need 1) repair of the only existent borehole in the area 2) probably provision of items/tools necessary during emergencies 3) perhaps a speed boat that can help in rescue missions. While locals continue to pay the brunt of co-existing with these dangerous reptiles, crocodile farming is also common elsewhere in Kenya, where it generates a significant amount of revenue as a tourist attraction. Could this therefore be the ultimate solution to curb these conflicts? The Hirola Conservation Programme is currently engaging these communities to explore potential solutions for this problem.
The Hirola, endemic to north-east Kenya and south-west Somalia, is the world’s most endangered antelope. It faces huge survival challenges but all is not lost. The Conversation Africa’s Samantha Spooner asked Abdullahi Ali about his research and what he thinks can be done to save this rare species.
What is a hirola, where is it found and how many are there?
The hirola is a rare medium size antelope that can weigh up to 118kg. It’s tawny or tan brown in colour and has long, sharp horns.
The current population of the hirola is estimated at less than 500. This small population is found within its native range, restricted to communal lands along the Kenya-Somalia border with no formal protection. The highest numbers are in Ijara and Garissa County, Kenya.
The hirola is the only surviving member of the genus Beatragus and there are none in captivity.
The hirola is known as the “world’s most endangered antelope”. What factors caused this?
With a global population size of 500, the hirola is considered to be the world’s most endangered antelope. This is the smallest known number of an antelope species and its population has been reducing rapidly since the 1970s.
Several factors caused this. In the 1980s, rinderpest – a viral disease – killed about 85-90% of the existing 15,000 hirola, along with other wildlife. When the disease was eradicated in the early 1990s, the hirola populations didn’t bounce back.
In my recent study, my colleagues and I identified a combination of additional factors that kept their numbers low, and decreasing.
Firstly, hirola are a grassland species. Therefore, overgrazing by both livestock and other wildlife have led to a loss of food for the hirola in its native range.
The loss of elephants from hirola habitat, due to massive poaching, also contributed significantly to the encroachment of trees into grasslands and led to reduced grasses for them to eat. Elephants control forestation as they uproot, break or eat trees. In their absence, trees increase relative to grass cover.
Similarly, there used to be frequent bush fires, which contributed to a balance between tree cover and grassland. These were frequently used by locals but became suppressed by government policy.
Another key factor responsible for their low numbers is predation by carnivores. Lions, cheetahs, wild dogs and leopards pose a significant threat to the already diminishing hirola population. With such a low population, the survival of every individual counts. In many situations predators target mothers and their calves. This is because after calving, the female and her calf will temporarily disassociate from groups making them easier prey.
Finally, several droughts have occurred in the hirola’s range which also led to many deaths.
Why has their conservation and recovery been so difficult?
The conservation and recovery of hirola has been difficult for a variety of reasons.
Language, religious and ethnic differences between conservationists and the Somalis living in Eastern Kenya, have led to suspicion and mistrust. This limits conservation efforts to opportunistic field visits by outsiders rather than a long-term, sustainable project.
Insecurity is also a big problem in parts of eastern Kenya – this includes the hirola’s rangeland. These areas have been volatile since independence due to banditry activities from across the border and conservationists have shied away from these areas.
Another barrier to conservation is the neglect of this region by the government. The area is marginalised and has poor infrastructure which makes it difficult to establish conservation projects or protected areas for the hirola.
A final, major factor is competition for pasture and other resources between the communities in the area, who rely on livestock, and the wildlife. This leads to apathy for conservation and a lack of participation by locals in recovery efforts.
*What can be done to save them? *
Based on my research I believe that the following measures would help save the hirola:
Since there is a link between community livelihoods and hirola habitat, conservation projects must be supported by local communities. Trained, local scientists should be encouraged to take the lead in these. Communities are more likely to embrace conservation as a form of land-use if it’s not led by outsiders.
More protected areas should be created and existing sites need restoration. A part of this includes the restoration of the Arawale National Reserve which is at the centre of the hirola’s geographic range. This is a government protected area in Garissa County that used to thrive but has been neglected since 1982.
Because of the massive tree encroachment in the area that reduced grasslands, I also recommend:
Manual tree removal, to reduce tree encroachment on grassland, and native grass reseeding to increase food for the hirola
Voluntary reduction in livestock numbers to minimise overgrazing and competition between hirola and livestock
Community-based protection of elephants – in the form of anti-poaching squads and enhanced communication between villages – so that elephant herds can be safe on community land
Finally, there’s a big need for sustained funding. Conservation efforts tend to focus on other species in Kenya.
The African Wild dogs aka the painted dogs as they are called are exciting to see in the wild. For the month of April, we are happy to report another wild dog sighting in one of our conservancies following numerous sighting reports by our scouts. Early one morning, at around 6 am while out on their routine patrols, our ranger duo bumped into a pack of wild dogs (there were about 7 individuals), but we could only capture two on video as they were calling out and seemed pretty undisturbed by our presence . One of them, probably the leader of the pack, was busy sniffing dirt on the ground and calling out the rest of the pack. We followed them for about 10 minutes before they sneaked into the dense bush along the sanctuary fence.
It looked like something was holding its neck about sixteen feet above the ground. It was struggling to get it off. With curiosity, Siyat and his colleagues nimbly approached the scene to determine what was happening. They knew they had to save it before it entangled itself to death.
Earlier in the day, the hirola desnairing rangers had started their routine anti-poaching patrol in groups of three. There was a total of six groups which had split when they arrived at the core area of Bura East Conservancy. This was aimed at patrolling more ground.
The sun was half-way up the sky and its rays shone directly over the vast hirola range as Siyat led a group of three through the dense scrubby vegetation moving northwards from Bura village. The afternoon heat was so intense that the hirola rangers decided to take a break under the shade of one of the invasive acacia trees that encroaches large parts of the hirola range.
As the team rested under the tree, sipping from their jungle green water bottles, they noticed a group of the majestic reticulated giraffes dotting the horizon, approximately a mile away. The browsers nibbled on the acacia trees that patched the degraded landscape. The giraffes seemed peaceful as they plucked the tiny leaves from the acacias. Suddenly, one of them seemed to struggle but the rangers couldn’t immediately realize what the problem was. As they moved closer, they noticed that the giraffe had a snare around its long neck. Somehow, after a horrendous struggle, the giraffe managed to snap the cable and free itself. This one was lucky! Most wildlife after being caught in a snare usually end up dying.
Unfortunately, snares have become very popular amongst poachers operating across the hirola’s geographical range.
In an effort to curb these threat, the hirola conservation programme has set up a desnairing team under our anti-poaching unit. The team comprises of six goose-stepping rangers led by Siyat Bethul (42 years) who is second in command of the whole anti-poaching unit in Bura Conservancy. He is a well-trained ranger with over ten years of front line conservation effort under his belt. Prior to joining our team, he had worked with several multi-sectoral research projects, and also as a research assistant with the Kenya wildlife service (KWS) thus acquiring important skills in data collection and monitoring of wildlife species. Siyat leads his team on daily patrols in groups of three each. They comb the vast hirola range looking for human tracks, snares, wires, disturbed branches or dead animals.
Poachers set about 20 snare traps each day, particularly along the Tana River flood plains. This is because preferred hirola grasslands lie within ancient rivers and lakes adjacent to the Tana River. These riverine areas stretch up to 7 km wide over parts of hirola range, allowing poachers to have large areas and suitable habitat to set their traps. These is further complicated by the hydrological regime of this river that includes biannual floods which peak in May and November making these habitats attractive to both hirola and other wildlife. It is therefore vital that we conduct our patrols on a daily basis in order to weed out the poachers and remove the traps.
“We also look out for wildlife that have been caught or injured by the traps and require urgent attention. I have rescued a lion, buffaloes, baboons and ostriches that are currently recovering in various animal rescue centers” Siyat explains. He says that within the hirola range, most of the wildlife are hunted for their meat which end up (as bush meat) in butcheries within the region. This is why snares traps are popular among poachers in the region.
“The poachers prefer antelopes like hirola and dikdiks, and the gentle giraffes which they consider to be tender and sweet. The giraffe that managed to entangle itself from the snare would have found its way to the locals’ plate by mid-day the following day. It would have produced about 600lbs of bush meat and sold for as little as $40” he adds.
In the last three years, Siyat has accumulated approximately 5625 hours, covering 14,063 km in 900 patrols, and has helped confiscate hundreds of snares all by himself. He says that they do their best on this but the hirola geographical range is wide and therefore very difficult for them to cover much of it. The poachers know this and therefore take advantage of this gap.
In less than a week, poachers can set up more than 100 traps over a wide area. They do this knowing that it is virtually impossible for us to discover all the traps meaning that we are occassionally outnumbered by the poachers. It is therefore our responsibility to track these poachers in the hope of ambushing them or discovering all their traps. We sometimes camp in the bush for several days tracking the poachers and rescuing the trapped wildlife.
More recently, Siyat helped in the arrest of one notorious bush meat dealer in Ijara town and has been receiving threats to his life from the family of the culprit. “I have been confronted many times by the family members of the bush meat dealers and openly threatened to stop investigating them” he vividly narrates. “For example, and in the last month, I received a hand-written letter delivered at my door warning me to stop confiscating the snares or else they would do something bad to me or my family members” he said. “But these threats will not stop me from curbing the poaching menace in my area” he added.
In the month of February, this year, Siyat mobilized and led his team to patrol one of the poaching hotspots in the area and also mobilized the communities in the neighborhood to report any suspicious activities which are a threat to wildlife in the area. The last two months alone saw communities reporting one poacher, and also 12 dikdiks killed in the area. In addition, the desnairing team is highly motivated and passionate of their work despite the looming dangers, thanks to Siyat’s leadership skills. “We all know him as a dedicated and passionate individual and his anti-poaching crusade is unassailable” says Khalif, the deputy warden in the Bura east team. In fact, his efforts have resulted in a more open community that is conscious of the wildlife around them.
We are delighted to share the story of one of our field rangers, a reformed wildlife poacher-cum-ranger, Mr. Aden Mohamed Guhad (44yrs), a Somali married with six kids and from Bura township. He does not have any formal education and has practiced pastoralism all his life and knows the conservancy like the back of his hand. Prior to joining our project, he had been a notorious hunter (poacher) who aided his Malakote neighbors (non-Somali hunter and gatherer group) for almost 20 years to hunt and sell bushmeat to the nearby towns in Bura east conservancy. While Somalis do not hunt bushmeat, Aden was recruited by a neighboring community; the Malakote to assist them in trapping the rare hirola antelope that apparently requires excellent Somali tracking skills to successfully hunt them down. While poachers rarely pin down hirola because of their skittishness, poachers believe their meat is tender and is worth every effort. Aden was compromised and he successfully aided his partners in to the core areas of the graceful hirola.
We consider his story unique because he happens to be the only Somali member of our team who has been involved in bushmeat trade, something considered a taboo by both his family and the whole of his community. Because of his rebellious and clandestine past actions, he is considered an outcast in the Somali community and faces stigma even today. In Somali traditions, such individuals are often referred to as the ‘midgaans’ (low-life) and are not even allowed to marry from the community. He was lucky to have escaped this norm and ended marrying simply because his in-laws were not aware of his actions then. However, his kids are likely to carry the same trade name and might have to battle one of the toughest human traditions in the Horn of Africa regions. Mr. Aden although afraid to be apprehended for his past terrible acts, reluctantly reports that he was introduced into wildlife bushmeat trade by his Malakote neighbors at the age of 24. He narrates that he was never really into the bushmeat trade but was curious to join and follow his Malakote friends and neighbors on most of their forays into the hirola’s geographic range.
These trips were especially in the dead of night as they went to check their already set snares in the woods. Aden vividly explained to us how they set up snares and dug holes in the ground, and ambushed them late in the night with very powerful high beam torches. “The high beam torches are specifically used to make the animals literally ‘go blind’ due to the powerful glare of its beam” he said. This apparently makes them vulnerable to the poachers who grab them amid the confusion” he added. As a poacher, he confesses that he has personally snared over 80 dikdiks, 2 hirola, 13 kudus and 11 giraffes together with his team of poachers. “We used to target antelopes (hirola, gerenuk and kudu) with our snares but sometimes our snares would end up trapping giraffes” he explained. “Since giraffes are bulky and not easy to conceal from law enforcers (KWS), we would sometimes let them go with snares tight on their hind legs” he added. “This resulted in the deaths of many giraffes and sometimes livestock from the community as well” he confesses. But his turnaround came when one of his colleague was arrested and sent to jail for two years and a stern warning given to all other poachers in the area to stop the vice. “I was fascinated by his superb tracking skills, his agility to walk long distances and his unmatched knowledge on animal behavior before I considered him for employment as a ranger” says our director, Dr. Abdullahi Ali.
Relying on his past involvement in the bushmeat trade, with his aid we have collected a lot of information on how the poachers operate, their target wildlife species (e.g. giraffe, hirola, kudu, gazelles), the methods used and some of the culprits involved. Actually, Aden has used his undercover involvement with the poachers to help convince most of his ‘poacher’ friends to shun the vice and come clean as well. Most of the culprits who were involved in the bushmeat trade are now afraid that they will be apprehended and sent behind bars now that Aden is reformed. While on patrol, Aden has recently confiscated 11 snares and has helped convince three of his former poaching colleagues to shun the vice. His involvement in the project is truly a blessing and we are proud to have him onboard. Aden has also been participating in our community outreach programme to help reform other poachers and publicly share his story with the wider public. This unique partnership with our project might help Aden regain the trust of the community once more, potentially reshaping the uncertain future of his children who are already mentally, physically or emotionally expelled from involvement in the Somali society.