There is a place in Africa where man and beast do not seem to mind each other – just a glance, if that, as they pass each other by in going about their respective daily business. In that place lives a special animal, known as "arawale" to the locals, and known, though hardly, as "hirola" to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, the hirola ("Beatragus hunteri"), which has never been plentiful, is potentially facing its final decline. This possible extinction is not like others occurring, sadly, on a too regular basis. It would be the first loss of an African mammalian genus in modern human history.
The hirola looks unremarkable at a first glance. It looks like a cross between an impala and a hartebeest. Upon closer examination, however, it makes its case: a pair of extremely conspicuous pre-orbital glands just below the eyes; a chevron-shaped white strip across the forehead; and a soothing sandy/beige-colored coat. Where the white strip meets the eyes, it encircles them, making it appear as if the animal is wearing swimming goggles. Whatever it takes to stay afloat… Mature bulls, as if to fully appreciate their predicament, betray a furrowing of the brows.
The hirola broke off from the rest of the subfamily Alcelaphinae (which includes wildebeest, hartebeest and topi) long ago and began occupying a niche – a small area of coastal bushland/grassland north of the Tana River in Kenya and into southern Somalia. In recent history, hirolas have suffered from poaching and competition with livestock. The general insecurity of the northern part of hirola's range has not helped. According to the Antelope Survey Group, there were an estimated 10,000 – 15,000 hirolas in the 1970s. Their numbers dropped to low thousands in the 1980s and subsequently to below 1,000 in the 1990s. It is now believed that there are no more than 300 or so left in its natural range in northeastern Kenya, with a separate, artificially translocated population in Tsavo East National Park of 50-100 animals. The hirola is presumed to be extinct in its former range in Somalia.
But there is a hopeful story.
Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), headed by the Kenyan conservationist, Ian Craig, established a community-based conservancy called Ishaqbini (the last "i" is silent) dedicated to save the hirola in 2006. Ishaqbini, just north of the Tana River in northeastern Kenya has been a remarkable success story – a restricted grazing zone for livestock granted and patrolled by the local Kenyan Somali tribe for the benefit of its beloved "arawale". Hirolas thrived, given the reduced livestock pressure; Ishaqbini hosted as many as 150 of the animals in 2009.
The success is coming with an unintended consequence now, however. The predator population (lion, cheetah, leopard and wild dog) in the area has increased significantly, and the depredation of hirola has reached alarming levels in recent months. A survey just completed by NRT and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) (funded by USAID and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) turned up 245 total hirolas, of which about 100 or so are within the conservancy area.
Even before this latest survey, there were indications of significant predation pressure on hirolas, and several emergency plans were being drawn up by KWS, NRT, Flora & Fauna International, and the Zoological Society of London. The survey confirms the need now to create a predator-proof fenced sanctuary serving as a reservoir of fully protected animals – which animals can then be reintroduced in the future to the non-fenced area to supplement the "unprotected" population.
I was very fortunate to have traveled to Ishaqbini to see the hirolas in 2009. They are remarkable animals, and I am personally involved in trying to save them, as I am part of the KWS Hirola Management Committee. While not perfect (nothing is in conservation), the fencing option is the best available option right now to save this genus in the Committee's opinion. I am personally putting my money where my mouth is, and I hope many of you will be compelled to join me. A conservationist friend remarked to me recently when referring to the hirola – that if there is a four-legged animal the size of an impala that belongs to its own genus and that would be the first African mammalian genus to go extinct under our watch, that animal deserves to live – and that animal should have a "trust fund." To me, it's that simple.
I have posted my 2009 trip report on Ishaqbini. Ian Craig and Dr. Juliet King (NRT's Research & Monitoring Coodinator) have generously committed to do an interview on Safaritalk with me, and I will be posting that too in a couple of weeks. And in due course, to those who become interested in contributing funds to the cause, I will point you in the right direction (nothing has been set up yet but it will be).
To carry on reading the rest of Safaridude's Hirola article, click here.