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.
Aden Elmi Ali is a hirola ranger with the hirola conservation programme based within Ijara Subcounty Garissa County, Kenya. Aden joined our Hirola family in 2017 as a community scout tasked with carrying out monitoring patrols and community education. In the two years that Aden has been with us, he has shown exemplary skills which saw him rise through the to a lead scout and field research assistant for HCP.
Aden is also a local of Kotile village which is adjacent to the Ishaqbini Hirola Community Conservancy and the only hirola predator proof sanctuary in the world. Having schooled at Kotile primary school and later Kotile secondary school, Aden is very familiar with the wildlife occurring in the area. He loves nature, the outdoors and especially the wildlife in the area. “My favorite animal is the Hirola” he says.
His daily tasks revolve around helping the team in conducting patrols of both wildlife and Hirola monitoring on a daily basis, deploying and checking on the camera traps and helping with collection of transect data in the conservancy. In addition, Aden is also a great community liaison officer for HCP and the community as he works with the herders and the adjacent community members especially in handling human-wildlife conflict within the hirola rangelands of Ijara Subcounty. Aden is also a role model to many of the kids back in his Alma mater, who would want to take up conservation as a career in life as he does conduct frequent school visits to mentor the young children. He believes it’s upon them that the future for conservation lies.
Africa is home to 22 species of stingless bees, many of which favor Kenya for its climate and landscape. These tiny creatures are vital pollinators, helping to spread the grasslands which are so important for hirola, as well as elephants and other wild animals. Not only can bees play a crucial role in HCP’s ongoing Habitat Restoration work, but they are also helping to save elephants’ lives and to provide local communities with an income.
Helping to create habitats
Approximately 80% of Kenya's land is arid or semi-arid, and as HCP has identified, the communities in these areas rely on the land and its natural resources for their livelihoods. While historical studies suggested that grasslands were mainly wind pollinated, there is scientific evidence to show that bees do assist with grass pollination. Therefore, by encouraging their presence, it may be possible to speed the development of grassland habitats in which hirola and elephants can roam freely. Bees are also responsible for the pollination of many wildflowers, which can be good food for hirola and other wild animals too.
The African advantage
When it comes to encouraging bees, Africa has a great advantage over the rest of the world; research has found that Kenyan bees are resistant to the parasites and pathogens which are affecting other bee populations. They are currently exposed to fewer environmental toxins. In order to help them thrive, bee-friendly farmers should avoid using pesticides and ideally plant a few wildflowers. However, bees can also thrive in weeds and grasslands, so the wilder landscapes of Kenya suit them well.
Supporting thriving communities
The size difference between elephants and bees is enormous, and yet elephants have much to thank their tiny friends for. A project near Tsavo East National Park is seeing the benefits of building beehive fences to keep elephants safely away from croplands, resulting in fewer harmful conflicts between farmers and elephants. The farmers are also able to supplement their income by selling the honey produced by the bees. If similar initiatives are applied to other communities, the people will be better able to support themselves and to continue to work to protect hirola and other endangered species.
Despite their tiny size, bees can play a huge role in wildlife conservation. From improving the quality and abundance of the grasslands to providing local communities with a source of income, they can play many different roles in the areas they serve.
This is a Guest Post by Karoline Gore
The month of March is considered as the women’s month in relation to the International Women's Day on March 8, which seeks to commemorate and encourage the role of women around the world. As such, we shine a spotlight on one of our female rangers. To be a female conservation ranger on the frontlines of wildlife conservation is arguably one of the most threatening jobs in Northeastern Kenya. And yet in the heartlands of Garissa County, there are a resilient handful of women fastening their boots and standing up for wildlife every single day. One such lady is Hodhan Ahmed, a 23 years old ranger from Bouralgy village in Garissa county. She currently acts as the deputy warden for Garissa Giraffe Sanctuary, where she joined in 2015 at the tender age of 19 years old. The Garissa giraffe Sanctuary is situated a few kilometers from Garissa town.
WANGARI MAATHAI’S FOOTSTEPS
Having been born within the surrounding villages, Hodhan grew up seeing and interacting with wildlife especially the graceful reticulated giraffes and the majestic Grevy’s zebra; both of which are categorized as endangered by the IUCN red list. Inspired by their beauty, she decided to jump into the world of conservation in the footsteps of her role model, the late Nobel laureate, Prof. Wangari Maathai. In her memory, she has so far planted 173 native trees within two local schools.
BLESSED TO BLESS OTHERS.
Hodhan, which loosely translates - one who’s well off or blessed in Somali- believes those who are blessed have the prerogative to protect precious things—and that’s a maxim she lives by. On any given day, Hodhan helps coordinate and facilitate field patrols within the giraffe sanctuary and also monitoring of various wildlife species; and arrest the poachers who come bearing snares and spears. On the surface, she may be a soft-spoken lady—but awe unto anyone who underestimates her resolve.
Her job has also pushed her out of her comfort zone. She intimates that there are certain things that she can presently do now that she could not have done when she first joined the Giraffe team. She says being a ranger allows her to relay information and interact freely with people from different places.
She hopes to encourage more women to get involved in Garissa’s conservation efforts and explore opportunities for sustainable use of the wildlife resources within and around Giraffe center.
IT IS A MAN’S WORLD NO MORE
One main challenge that Hodhan and other female scouts face within the giraffe rangelands; is working in a man’s world. Despite the love for their job, there are instances where her male counterparts look down on them. This, however, boosts their zeal to show that they can not only do the job but also beat the gents at it too.
In the face of all of this, Hodhan and her female colleagues are out there, day in and day out, protecting what’s important, often at great personal risk. And they’re amazing at it.
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.
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.