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.
The world over, billions of acres of arid and semi-arid lands play host to plants that produce dormant seeds. This seed dormancy allows the plants to have delayed germination until such a time that there are environmental conditions that encourage seedling growth. Most of these dormant seeds collect within the soils creating seedbanks that offer an invaluable resource for the renaissance of native plants post disturbance. Therefore, these seeds’ germination helps us better understand the soil seed bank dynamics which allows us to appropriately select the right seed mixes for restoration and estimate the restoration aptitude contained within the existing soil seedbanks.
Our work is therefore focusing on the Hirola’s natural rangelands within Fafi and Ijara sub counties of Garissa County, Kenya. These areas are characterized as ASAL areas containing vast areas of native shrubs and trees. Native grasses and other herbaceous plants also add diversity to these lands but are overshadowed by introduced invasive species such as the Prosopis juliflora species and Acacia reficiens. With this in mind, it is important for us to maintain a healthy diversity of native grasses and herbaceous plants as the plants provide forage for both wildlife and livestock as well as habitat for wildlife; and can also prevent establishment of nonnative plants.
In order to do deter the dominance of these invasive species, HCP has embarked on habitat restoration project and such an active restoration project necessitates prior information on the soil seedbank and seed germination so as to inform effective decision making when coming up with restoration procedures.
Our research seeks examine the soil seedbank composition of four different soil types within three hirola core areas where the proposed islands are being set up. Our main aim of this research is to explore the influence of edaphic factors in the growth of grass seedlings within these core areas. The soil samples were collected using a soil auger with 5cm diameter to a depth of 10cm. the soil samples were then transported to an offsite uncontrolled greenhouse that was set up at the Fafi girls’ secondary school in Bura.
Once at the greenhouse Plastic germination trays and filled with 1cm of soil from a sample. We have a total of 44 trays with each soil type having 11 replications. These trays are watered daily by one of our research assistants in the field. Once a week, we identify all the newly emerged seedlings will and mark them using toothpicks. We try our level best to identify Seedlings soonest possible and once identified, we remove them from the trays to prevent contamination by self-seeding. The Unidentified seedlings are left to mature for later identification.
Many school going children within the northern frontier counties, have little to no knowledge of the drylands extraordinary landscape and wildlife; especially the knowledge about the worlds most endangered antelope, the hirola. In order to improve the wildlife knowledge amongst these children, HCP endeavors to conduct educational school visits at least once a month within the hirola’s natural rangelands. This visits help spark an environmental interest within the young minds by showing them how hirola conservation is of benefit to both wildlife and the local communities.
This month saw our conservation education team head to Fafi Girl’s secondary school a few kilometers from Bura town. Our agenda for the day was make a presentation to the girls of what a hirola is, the threat they are facing and ways that we can help recover their numbers. In our presentation, we also explored how the Somali community has integrated the hirola antelope and other wildlife species in their culture which helped the students better understand the connection of wildlife and anthropogenic aspects surrounding them.
We also did a Q &A with the students on how humans and wildlife can share space; and the girls were more than enthusiastic about the topic which led to a roleplay, where the girls made decisions in small groups on the development of a protected natural area that would act as a menagerie for the hirola antelope to help raise awareness of this endangered species.
At the end of the talk, the girls pledged to start a hirola club within the school to help raise knowledge concerning the hirola. We as HCP are hopeful that this visit will bear fruit and will support the club in whatever capacity we can.
Firstly, setting up of these islands necessitated holding of Community awareness programs and focus group discussions on how these restoration grass islands would be of benefit to the local community in the long run. This were held with the help of the area administration and the committee members for Bura East Conservancy. Going by the number of people who showed up to help us manually clear the invasive trees, we can bravely state that these discussions bore some fruit.
Secondly, we had to identify areas where setting up of these islands would have the most impact on the hirola populations and other grazers. For this we had to get an input from the community elders. This is because the community elders best understand the wildlife behavior of wild animals in this area. Another reason as to why we deemed it fit for the elders to select the sites, was because of the land ownership regimes within the North eastern region of Kenya, which identifies the community elders as the custodians of the community lands in trust of the other community members.
Once the sites were selected, the islands were demarcated and the process of manually removing the invasive tree species began. This was done using machetes and axes. These tools did come in handy in most of the clearing, though in some areas we did have trouble clearing due to the high density of tree cover. In such areas, we had to set a few burning coals onto the trunks of these trees and fire would do the rest. In spite of these mishaps the locals are more than willing to see this project to fruition.
Clearing of these six islands has been ongoing for the past two months and out of the six islands, three have been fully cleared and seeding of two of the three islands has already been completed.
In as much as we are having some success in this habitat restoration endeavor, we are also having our fair share of disappointments, frustrations and challenges. Some of the challenges we are encountering at the moment is the apathy among some of the locals who don’t seem to know or care about the protection of these native grasses that we are planting within the islands or restoration as a whole. In order to mitigate these challenges more awareness meetings need to be held so as to build more public support and political will. Without this support, it will be difficult to maintain and develop the businesses that will support the restoration efforts i.e. native seed harvesting. The absence of this support reminds us of how fragile the field of restoration is, considering its dependence on voluntary work by the locals.
90% of the communities living within the hirola rangelands depend on their land and natural resources for their livelihoods and well-being. However, in recent decades they have been facing increasing pressures i.e. a growing population, break-down in traditional nomadic structures and longer drought periods which has caused high livestock and wildlife mortalities. With time, the health of these rangelands has changed for the worse, thus reducing the carrying capacity for both wildlife and livestock. This dilapidation of the environment has led to increased vulnerability of the local communities and ultimately leading to critical poverty levels especially for the most disadvantaged members of the society.
A major cause to the ecological degradation of these rangelands is the rapid dispersal and colonization of Acacia refeciens within hirola’s natural range. This has led to the destruction and loss of much of the native grass species over the last several decades.
Therefore, it is imperative to develop sustainable restoration management practices compatible with the conservation of biodiversity whilst supporting the wellbeing of the local communities and their economic development.
In order to reclaim the hirola rangelands’ lost glory, HCP has embarked on its second phase of a 5-year hirola habitat restoration project. This habitat restoration project seeks to develop and implement a rangeland restoration management plan that will see the introduction of sustainable natural resource management. This will in the end benefit the environment, wildlife, livestock and the local communities within the hirola rangelands
This project is a collaboration of HCP and other local and international partners working closely with various agencies and the local community to raise support for the rangeland biodiversity conservation on the ground.
This project is a participatory endeavor whereby the local community especially the women are encouraged to create grass banks for production of grass seeds.
In this second phase of the project, our focus has been on the clearance of invasive tree species in core hirola areas and seeding the cleared areas with five native grass species, i.e. Cencrus ciliaris, Eragrostis superba, Enteropogon macrostachyus, Cymbopogon pospischilli and Sehima nervosum. The native grasses are well adapted to the arid and semi-arid environments but are mostly out competed by the Acacia refeciens which presents some real management challenges.
The last 2 months have been busy with hands-on work across the spectrum of our activities which entailed setting up of six restoration grass islands across the vast hirola rangelands. each island measuring 500 by 500 meters long which equals an area of 50 acres per island. The islands were then subdivided into 27 plots each measuring 149 meters long and 43 meters wide. Between the plots we set up a 10 meters buffer zone. We came up with design so as to compare how the five native grasses would fair against each other and other grass species and also enable us to measure the rate of dispersal of the native grasses from the plots to the surrounding areas. The essence of setting up grass islands is that they act as nucleation sites for vast degraded areas by providing a seed source that spread out of the planted areas.
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.
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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.