The hirola antelope – Kenya’s refugee

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The grasslands of Garissa County, Kenya are home to the last remaining hirola, or four-eyed antelope. After a population crash in the 1980s, numbers are slowly recovering. Georgina Lockwood tells us more…

The grass might be looking slightly greener for a species experts believe has been in dire straits. In the 1980s an outbreak of rinderpest (cattle plague) reduced the hirola population by nearly 90%, and competition with livestock, drought, predation and diminishing grasslands caused additional challenges. However, as conservationists delve deeper, it seems things are slowly changing for this critically endangered antelope.

“Research on hirola by the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) shows habitat loss due to competition with livestock and predation as the major factors in the hirola decline,” says Issa Gedi, regional director of NRT. Historically, more than 5 000 elephants occurred in the hirola’s native range in the semi-arid grasslands on the Somali-Kenya border, controlling bush encroachment. The decimation of elephants from poaching in the 1970s also played a role in the hirola antelope’s demise.

The hirola is an obligate grazer and depends on nutritious, short green grass for survival. “It is for this reason the Somali tribe from the north-east of Kenya consider the hirola an indicator of a healthy environment, and hence it is culturally protected,” explains Dr Abdullahi Ali, founder of the Hirola Conservation Programme (HCP).

Sketch: Graham Kearney

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the past, communities practised nomadic pastoralism, moving their herds with the seasons, but that has changed, and wildlife and livestock compete for limited grassland.

The HCP and the NRT are now providing practical conservation solutions for both the hirola antelope and local Somali tribes. There are two community-owned predator-proof reserves in the heart of the antelope’s range in Kenya, and Ali says, “There are hopes it will one day bring tourism and economic opportunity to the Garissa County.”

The community established the Ishaqbini Hirola Community Conservancy with support from NRT in 2008 and in 2012 48 hirola were moved to a fenced-off area within the conservancy. The Ishaqbini set aside some of their grazing land for the construction of the predator-proof sanctuary.

“We have roughly 118 individuals inside the sanctuary as of March 2018 and we are thinking of extending the sanctuary to accommodate the growing population,” explains Gedi. The conservancy employs 40 local staff, 22 of which are rangers.

In partnerships with other international conservation organisations, the HCP has been leading efforts to protect the remaining hirola population in Arawale National Reserve in Kenya. Projects include the setting up of habitat restoration projects, bush clearing, and anti-poaching units. The HCP also participates in community meetings and visits schools to create awareness around the four-eyed antelope.

Hirola antelope. Photo: Michael Gunther

Five facts

300–500: the number of remaining hirola antelope.

The hirola is also referred to as the Hunter’s hartebeest.

There are no hirola antelope in captivity.

The hirola is now confined to small pockets of land, therefore regarded as a refugee species.

Hirola have a dark sub-orbital gland below the eyes, contoured by spectacle-like markings.

 

Written by Georgina Lockwood

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