Hirola Conservation Programme:

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.

Monday, 21 May 2012 00:00

Collaring the rarest in the region

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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.

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