The hirola antelope
of north-eastern Kenya, also known as Hunter’s hartebeest, is one of the most unique and critically endangered animals on the planet.
Before 1970, an estimated 14,000 hirola existed in the wild, but their numbers crashed due to hunting, predation by big cats as alternate prey sources dwindled, and the animals’ range became restricted by habitat loss and an increase in human settlements and farms rearing livestock.
The collapse of the Republic of Somalia in 1991 precipitated a massive influx of refugees into Kenya. The majority resettled in the middle of the hirola’s key habitat. With the refugees came increased poaching and general insecurity of the area. That left just a few animals surviving in a small area along the border.
Over the past thirty years its numbers have plummeted by almost 90 percent, and they continue to decline. Reports differ on how many remain. Estimates range between 350 to 450 animals in the wild and perhaps one–an aging female at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas–in captivity. The loss of this animal will mean that for the first time 75 years, an entire genus of mammal is on the brink of extinction.
As the hirola population continued to dwindle, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) carried out two translocations of hirolas from the region in an attempt to secure a separate “insurance” population. During the second translocation attempt in ’96, the people of the District of Garissa sued KWS to block the translocation, claiming that the hirolas were “theirs”. Though ultimately unsuccessful, this lawsuit, perhaps unintentionally, became a rally cry for the region, and the uniqueness and the plight of the hirola became widely known.
To conserve the Hirola
as part of their natural and cultural heritage, four local communities established the Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy Park. A remarkable story of tribes cooperating and giving up some of their traditional grazing land for an animal they associate with. (Imagine ranchers in America doing that.)
Last November, as the animals’ numbers continued to dwindle, a 30 kilometer area of the wildlife park was cordoned off as a predator-proof hirola sanctuary and a founder population of Hirola was introduced. Today the sanctuary holds 120 antelope.
Despite this effort the hirola population has failed to recover. Lions, cheetahs, hyenas and leopards continued to erode their numbers. “When you’re down to 350 animals, the loss of one or two is a huge deal,” said one of the team working to save the antelope.
Field-workers tracked seven herds of hirola in the Boni Forest and Tana River districts of the country and fitted GPS collars to nine adults to begin a monitoring study to develop goals for protecting the animal.
The collars will drop off remotely in June 2014. Results from this study will provide much-needed information on the basic ecology and natural history of the hirola. This will form the basis of developing conservation efforts and monitoring of this rare and beautiful animal.
These hirola are not only among the last of their species, they’re among the last of an entire genus — the taxonomic rank above species and below family. (As a point of reference, if the genus Canis were to go extinct, it would mean the disappearance of the planet’s dogs, wolves, coyotes, jackals, and numerous other species.) If this animal with the long muzzle and trademark white-spectacle markings dies, the entire three-million-year-old lineage goes too.
For more on saving the hirola: ishaqbini-hirola-community-conservancy.