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.
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.
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.
Mr. Ali Hassan is from the Malakote community (non-Somali), restricted to the banks of Tana river in eastern Kenya. Unlike the Pastoral Somalis, the Malakote are hunters-gatherers group and more recently practice subsistence farming. Mr. Ali is a retired teacher and prior to joining our project, he worked as volunteer conservationist and as an informant with the Kenya wildlife service (KWS). His story is unusual not because he is the only non-Somali member of our field team but hails from a bushmeat dependent clan. Surprisingly and without the mentorship of any individual, Ali innately became a passionate conservationist fighting many battles with poachers some of which are near death experiences across the hirola’s geographic range.
While his achievements are numerous, we will highlight a few outstanding cases. Ali reports that while he was young he never really saw any problem with wildlife poaching because to him, it was through poaching that his dad was able to take care of his large family. Surprisingly and with his own will, he decided to take a different course with his family. Consequently, he had to flee home and his community area to join and work with Somalis on the eastern banks of the Tana river. Apart from his dad, his brothers too were also known to be problematic wildlife poachers. Ali was really disturbed by this behavior, not to mention that it was being conducted by his brothers and people he knew. Motivated by his passion for conservation, he started convincing his brothers to shun the trade and involve themselves in rather legitimate actions.
More recently and while on training with our rangers, Ali confiscated lesser kudu and giraffe meat sold in the food kiosks in Bura town. In August 2016, he arrested his elder brother with bushmeat (lesser Kudu). Before handing over his own brother to the police, Ali in collaboration with other scouts publicly displayed him in Bura town. Following the arrest, Ali requested permission from HCP to attended court proceedings of his brother while testifying against him. Beside this highlighted scenarios, Ali has on numerous occasions put his life on the line and declared war with poachers in this part of Kenya.
For example, at one point while pursuing poachers, he was badly wounded as poachers shot at him forcing him to be hospitalized due to the bullet wounds. Over the course of his conservation career, Ali has confiscated over 20 snares, 8 bows and arrows and apprehended four poachers, some of whom have been taken to court and prosecuted. Ali has also been involved in convincing former bushmeat hunters to take up alternative livelihoods. Despite going against the grain, Ali Hassan is highly respected by both communities for his compassionate conservation efforts. Currently, Ali is the lead scout in the newly established Bura East conservancy that is supported through the Rainforest Trust. In November 2016 and in recognition of his dedicated effort, Ali Hassan was named the winner of the Houston Zoo 2016 Wildlife Warrior Award.
The antelope, giraffe, hippo conference is a conference set to promote conservation activities in Africa and highlight the positive results of conservation efforts in African countries. The conference connects in situ and ex situ research and conservation of antelopes, giraffes and hippos following the OnePlan approach and identifies new possibilities of in-situ project support for zoos.
We are fortunate to have HCP Founder & Director, Dr. Abdullahi. Ali, selected as a speaker in next year’s (2017) conference to be held from February 19th – 25th at the Prague in Czech Republic. Dr. Ali is expected to highlight the plight of the endangered hirola antelope in Kenya. With over 10 years of experience in hirola conservation, Ali will share some recent positive hirola conservation gains.
For more information about the conference, please visit www.angihip2017.com
Our conservation efforts were recently bolstered by the adoption of SMART (Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool, www.smartconservationsoftware.org) and CyberTracker (www.cybertracker.org) softwares. SMART is an efficient conservation tool that measures, evaluates and improves the effectiveness of wildlife law enforcement patrols and site-based conservation activities. SMART is designed to help wildlife authorities, protected areas and community conservation groups strengthen their activities through staff empowerment and boost motivation. The tool provides increased efficiency and promotion of credible and transparent monitoring of the effectiveness of anti-poaching efforts.
Hirola rangers’ with help of HCP are gradually embracing SMART and CyberTracker apps across all our conservation sites as an effective way of achieving our conservation goals including data collection, anti-poaching, capacity building and partnership with local authorities. It is now easier for the rangers to monitor their patrols routes, report sightings of hirola and and identifying poaching hotspots within the hirola range.
HCP works with the local communities in partnership with local authorities to conserve the endangered hirola and its habitat. By combining indigenous information, scientific knowledge, and our area-wide network through herders (citizen science) for Hirola programme, we are able to generate information from SMART and other conservation apps for overlay on Google maps or share this information with the local authorities for effective planning. In this way, SMART is empowering HCP by converting patrol and intelligence data into useful information that will help long term decision making within the hirola range. So far SMART is helping our field team generate unique data on possible poaching hotspots while improving enforcement efforts and strategies. The software is also helping HCP develop protection plans and implement conservation strategies tailored to specific challenges facing hirola conservation along the Kenya-Somalia border.
In January 2016 we secured solar lighting and mobile-phone charging kit for hirola rangers and the surrounding community. This has been a major issue for our rangers and community members who for years were not able to use phones and other electronics due to lack of electricity. Our project area lies along the Kenya-Somalia border with no electricity and other infrastructure. HCP is taking this opportunity to thank our supporters who made this possible.
In May 2016, we have launched community based hirola habitat restoration project that aims at restoring grasslands in areas where hirola persist currently as well as future reintroduction sites. Between 1985 and 2012, tree cover increased 300% across the historic range of hirola, translating to a 75% decline in grasslands cover for hirola. To restore grassland habitats, we are implement the following practices: 1) the physical cutting, uprooting or breaking of branches in attempt to restore grassland at scales of hundreds of hectares in prioritized areas within the hirola range, 2) nucleation plantings (pocket plantings) of native grass seeds at scales of hundreds of hectares, 3) community-based protection of elephants (in the form of anti-poaching squads and enhanced communication between villages) to encourage elephant herds to reside on community lands. We anticipate our effort will also have the knock-on benefit of improving local livelihoods within the hirola range.
Please support our initiative.