Scientist on mission to save endangered antelope in Kenya

Hirola, the world’s most endangered antelope.

You may not know that Kenya  is home to the hirola, the world’s most endangered antelope found nowhere else on earth today, having been virtually cleared in neighbouring Somalia where incessant conflicts exposed them to extreme danger.

Popularly referred to by scientists as ‘living fossils’ because of their small numbers, the remaining 500 or so mostly beige (hirola is Somali for beige) shy, slender, antelope distinguished by their long faces and distinctly ringed horns  that reach up to 70 centimeters (28 inches in length) are the only link between the genus Beatragus antelopes and extinction.

Hirola’s unmatched distinction is perhaps most pronounced by enlarged pre-orbital glands beneath its eyes giving it a unique ‘four eyes’ or bespectacled look absent in all other antelope species. A white line or chevron passes from one eye to the other across the animal’s slightly convex forehead.

According to Dr. Abdullah Hussein Ali, an ecologist with the National Museums of Kenya who has dedicated much of his time researching on the rare ungulates to secure their dwindling natural habitat in an effort to salvage them from extinction, the hirola has been listed as one of the ‘Top 100’ Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) mammal in dire need of enhanced conservation attention.

He says if the hirola joins the Dodo, a flightless Mauritian bird hunted to extinction about 300 years ago, it  would go down as the first mammal genus in Africa to disappear from the surface of the earth and only the second in the world since Australia’s Tasmanian wolf in 1936.

What has contributed to the graceful hirola’s dwindling numbers from approximately 17,000 in the 1970s to just over 500 today?

The pain on Ali’s face is palpable. “Habitat loss stemming from the extirpation of elephants, overgrazing by livestock, fire suppression lead to  nearly 251% increase in tree cover according to Ali’s recent research published in the Journal of Applied Ecology. This subsequently led to decline of grasses that hirola and cattle depends on.  Additionally, frequent drought in the hirola’s geographic range also favored trees over grasses

Researcher Dr. Ali at work in the wild. (Photo: Courtesy)

"In particular  a 98 per cent decline in elephant numbers throughout hirola geographic range in North Eastern Kenya might have triggered tree encroachment,” he says, quoting research findings that elephant numbers in North Eastern region  have dropped from 7,725 in 1978 to less than 100 today, hindering the maintenance of grasslands on which hirola and other grazing animals depend.

“It has been established that overgrazing reduces fuel loads that subsequently reduce fire frequency,” he says and explains that fires and elephants kill shrubs that hamper the growth of short grasses on which hirola feed.

 “Fires make grasses to sprout afresh. Hirola are known to follow the progress of newly sprouting grasses on the savannah and grass lands,” clarifies Ali.

Ali says declines in hirola population have coincided with an increase in browsing livestock (goats and camels) and decrease in grazing livestock such as cattle as a coping mechanism to the landscape change and from a shift in traditional Somali nomadism to sedentary pastoralism.

He describes the decommissioning of Arawale national reserve, the only protected area dedicated to saving hirola due to lack of funds as regrettable because this was the only formally protected area for hirola in their entire native range.

More recent threats according to Ali include the   lawlessness and conflicts in hirola’s natural habitat on the plains along the Kenya Somalia border. Not only have the animals been killed by individuals with illegal firearms including Al Shabaab bandits, a swelling Kamba population with an irresistible urge for wild meat has exacerbated the problem.

He says the collapse of the Somalia government in 1991impacted negatively on the hirola as an influx of refugees into Kenya disrupted movement in their corridor.

“With the influx and the absence of a functional government in Somalia came lawlessness that heightened poaching to near decimation of the once innumerous elephants that felled trees in their feeding, hence thinning tree cover as they roamed the thickets for food.  Their sheer presence guaranteed more open spaces suitable for grass to flourish. The hirola thrive on grasslands.

Ali says the hirola conservation programme in which he is engaged incorporates efforts to conserve elephants alongside manual clearing of trees and grass seedling in hirola habitats. “This undertaking is in collaboration with international partners. We hope that besides triggering the recovery of hirola, it will   have a knock on effect on improving local livelihoods,” he says.

“We are also educating communities on the benefits of reduced livestock herds to tackle the menace of overgrazing that has impacted adversely on the hirola,” says Ali.

What attracted him to the hirola? "I grew up seeing these elegant creatures and I have watched them dwindle over the years. So, when confronted with a choice for my PhD dissertation work at the University of Wyoming, I quickly settled for the hirola," says Ali, currently a post-doctoral fellow at Utah State University in the United States with a focus on identifying ideal conditions under which hirola habitat can be restored.

He says past hirola conservation has been prohibitive because of historical issues such as the Shifta war in the mid-1960s that made their geographical range a no-go zone for scientists and the perennial mayhem in Somalia.

"Besides, many people view Somalis and the northern Kenya region with suspicion and are reluctant to work among them. Lack of infrastructure and negative perceptions about insecurity in Somali populated areas that are the natural hirola range have only made matters worse,” he laments.

Ali is optimistic that solutions for hirola recovery are at hand. “It all rests with the people,” he says with a smile. “Among the Somali, hirola are indicators of healthy rangelands. Local communities welcome them. We are working with these communities to find solutions that that will boost the numbers of this creature whose image appears on the seal of Garissa County Government.

Effervescently he adds, “we are hopeful for the recovery of the species because we now understand the problem better and have our eyes on solutions.