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.
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
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.