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Villagers’ effort to save rare antelope pays off

Wednesday October 16 2019

Hirolas

Hirolas grazing at the Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy in Garissa County. PHOTO | ISHAQBINI HIROLA CONSERVANCY 

NICHOLAS KOMU
By NICHOLAS KOMU
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To the Somali community of Ishaqbini in Garissa County, the rare hirola (Hunter’s hartebeest) is a sacred gift from God. So special is the creature to the community that hunting it is considered a taboo.

In a bid to protect the antelope, locals turned community land into a wildlife conservancy. They set aside 19,000 hectares of community land in 2007 to be used as a conservancy for the sacred creature.

With Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) support and funding from the NGO, Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), the Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy was born.

WHITE GIRAFFE

The conservancy, run by locals in partnership with KWS and NRT, is also home to a rare white giraffe.

“Hunting the hirola is unheard of. The community believes that if we kill the animal, our livestock will die too,” Mr Mohammed Ismael, a wildlife ranger, says.

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Mr Abdikadir Hassan, a local elder, adds: “The community realised it was up to them to protect wildlife in the region, so we agreed to give up some community land to set up a safe haven.”

The conservancy also protects other wildlife species such the endangered reticulated giraffe, elephants, lions, dik-dik and wild dogs. The antelope is classified as the rarest and most endangered antelope on earth, with less than 450 alive, and on the verge of extinction.

Hirola has a light brown coat with white eyebrows. It has curved rippled horns used for defence and fighting over mating rights.

It is relatively shorter than other antelopes and has two tear-drop like marks below its eyes.

VULNERABLE

The species is known for its shy and vulnerable behaviour. So shy is it that tourists have a hard time photographing it.

“It’s a character trait and a defence mechanism. The animal will start running as soon as it notices that it is being approached,” Mr Steve Chege, an NRT veterinarian, says.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the antelope as critically endangered. Its population fell by 90 per cent over the last 50 years.

The white giraffe grazing at the Ishaqbini

The white giraffe grazing at the Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy in Garissa County. The rare giraffe is believed to suffer from a genetic condition called leucism though scientists are yet to prove the theory. PHOTO | ISHQBINI HIROLA CONSERVANCY

The decline in the hirola population has been blamed mainly on predation, loss of habitat, poaching and disease.

“There are several factors that led to the decline of the Hirola population, but disease was the biggest blow,” Mr Ismael said.

“We believe that God put the animals in this area so that we could coexist in the same environment,” Mr Hassan said.

Conservation group NRT came in to control diseases that threatened both domestic and wild animals.

The NGO has been conducting vaccination campaigns against livestock diseases.

“We’ve vaccinated over 60,000 animals in the area and declared the region disease-free. But we continue monitoring recurrence or mutation to ensure that both wildlife and livestock stay healthy,” NRT Coast Regional Director Isa Gedi said.

PREDATION

Despite all the efforts, predation threatens the antelope’s survival. Calves are the most vulnerable because of their sleep habits.

“The young ones sleep a lot and are sometimes left by their mothers when they go to graze. Most don’t survive these early days as predators prey on them,” Mr Chege says.

To control this trend, the conservancy put up a 35-squarekilometre fence around the sanctuary. The fence was meant to be a test run on whether the antelope could thrive in a controlled environment.

“We decided to take out all predators and introduced 48 hirolas and several other herbivores like giraffes in the conservancy.

“Since 2018 the number has grown to 130, meaning, there’s hope for the hirola. We plan to expand the sanctuary and add more antelopes,” Mr Gedi said.

TRANSLOCATION

On the other hand, the translocation of the hirola has been a controversial topic over the years with locals arguing that the antelope is unable to thrive in other areas except Ishaqbini.

“The hirola has been translocated to Tsavo and an American zoo. Those taken to America died while in Tsavo the number has continued to drop.

“It’s evident that the animal can only survive in Ishaqbini and that is why we got a court injunction stopping any further translocation,” Mr Hassan said.

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