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Safaridude

The Critically Endangered Hirola

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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).

 

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Thanks for bringing this very urgent cause to our attention Safaridude. The hirola is a very distinctive antelope, and deserving of our protection. It is unfortunate that the success of the Ishaqbini conservancy is leading to increased predation on the remaining hirola - several endangered predators preying on an endangered antelope is truly a conservation irony! As you say, nothing is ever perfect in conservation, but I'd like to applaud you for putting your money where your mouth is and being part of the KWS Hirola Management Committee.

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That's an interesting story! Anybody on Safaritalk ever seen a hirola?

 

I guess the good news is that the remaing ones are in Kenya rather than Somalia, and Kenya at least has a history of being able to preserve species in parks.

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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 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.

 

I found myself shocked reading this, I had no idea the Hirola was in such an urgent need of a conservation rescue, knowing their number where very low, I found myself shocked how critical their numbers really are. With having been so involved in other issues in 'Southern Africa' one does forget about these smaller species in a worse state of survival in other parts of Africa.

This would be such a catastrophic failure if nothing is done to help save and preserve the remaining numbers today every effort needs to be made to save the Hirola.

 

A good read regading the needs to be made to save the Hirola

 

CLICK HERE A REPORT FOR THE KENYA WILDLIFE SERVICE AND THE HIROLA ANTELOPE MANAGEMENT COMMITTEE

SEPTEMBER 2000

INDEPENDENT EVALUATION OF HIROLA ANTELOPE BEATRAGUS HUNTERI CONSERVATION STATUS AND CONSERVATION ACTION IN KENYA

 

 

 

 

INDEPENDENT EVALUATION OF HIROLA ANTELOPE BEATRAGUS HUNTERI CONSERVATION STATUS AND CONSERVATION ACTION IN KENYA

Every effort needs to be made to save the Hirola in situ while establishing several ex situ populations and a captive

population as “insurance” against the possible failure to save the in situ population. To help ensure the long-term

survival of the hirola, five additional populations should be established in Kenya and a viable captive population must be established outside of Kenya. The priority site for the introduction of the next population of hirola on a KWS

managed area is Meru National Park, followed by Tsavo West National Park. The priority site for the establishment of a hirola population on a private game sanctuary is the Ol Jogi (Pyramid) Wildlife Sanctuary, followed by the Athi River Game Ranch. Most of the founder animals for these new populations

should come from the natural population in Garissa District, after careful and full negotiation with local stakeholders.

As an initial undertaking, however, consideration should be given to translocating the threatened Mackinnon Group of 15 hirola from the heavily poached Kulalu Ranch (east of Tsavo East National Park) to the Ol Jogi (Pyramid) Wildlife Sanctuary.

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Posted (edited)

It had been a commonly accepted notion for many years that the hirola ("Beatragus hunteri") could be the first mammalian genus ever lost in human history ("since the evolution of modern man" was often quoted). That notion had even been published in at least one conservation magazine.

 

Recently, it has come to the attention of those of us involved with the hirola plan that that is not necessarily the case. (With the help of Twaffle, we have made the necessary edits on Safaritalk).

 

There have been as many as 18 or so genera that have gone extinct since 1500. Many of these were rodents in the Carribean. Most of these were given their genus names many years after extinction. There are three big mammals of note: the Stellar's sea cow (Hydrodamalis); the large sloth lemur (Palaeopropithecus); and the Tasmanian wolf (Thylacinus). The Stellar's sea cow (very similar to the dugong) appears to have been given its own genus status many years after its extinction. The same can be said of the large sloth lemur (known only from fossils and given its own genus status perhaps 300 years after its extinction). This lemur appears to be the only genus lost from Africa, but not mainland Africa (Madagascar to be exact). The Tasmanian wolf, extinct since 1936, had been given its own genus status prior to its demise (the last one died in captivity).

 

So, a more correct way to state the status of the hirola might be that it would be the first mammalian genus to be lost from Africa in modern history. It does appear that the hirola would qualify as the first genus to be lost from the Bovidae family. Of course, we are just being overly pedantic here: the fact is, the extinction of the hirola would represent one of very few examples of extinction of a genus.

 

The most important point is that none of this diminishes the plight of the hirola. Anyhow, we have made the necessary changes. We shall go on with trying to protect this genus.

Edited by Safaridude

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A mixed herd of seven Hirola (5 adults and 2 youngsters) with Peter's Gazelle, in Tsavo East, Kenya - photographed on Sunday (June 5th 2011).

 

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The Hirola seems to be totally unimpressed by the courtship behaviour of the Peter's Gazelle in the background.

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Stunning photos Tanya, and great to see them looking healthy. Thanks for giving us some fresh new images for our collection.

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Yes, Twaffle, the Hirola looked in great physical condition. We were lucky to find them right by the road, and they were very relaxed about the vehicle. We stayed with them for quite some time. Nice to see the two juveniles in the herd too.

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Are their numbers increasing in Tsavo?

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Anyone monitoring the Hirola to see how the population(s) are coping with the current drought?

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Safaridude should have an update for us shortly.

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Just got back. I will, of course, do a full report soon.

 

Spent 3 full days looking for the translocated hirola population in Tsavo East (this was my second time doing it). Despite working very hard at it, we did not come across any (one of Satao Camp's guides saw a group of 3). Tsavo is very dry at the moment, though it is not as bad as parts of northern Kenya.

 

Spent 3 full days at Ishaqbini. Saw 40-50 hirolas on the ground. Though the conservancy is very dry at the moment, hirolas are feeding on little nubs of grass and also browsing on wild sage. Prior to the establishment of the no-grazing core zone in the conservancy, I am told that goats would have eaten all of that stuff up. The day I arrived, there was a fresh carcass of a hirola bull which was taken down by a lion. The day I left, I saw a pack of 6 wild dogs at the edge of the conservancy. The scouts have been seeing cheetah, and the last morning leopard tracks were found near camp. Indeed, predation is a big threat. Ishaqbini might have the densest population of gerenuk on the continent (even exceeding that of Samburu), a good number of lesser kudu, zebra, reticulated giraffe, topi, desert warthog, Somali ostrich, buffalo.

 

The highlight was flying to Boni Forest in the north. In the finger grasslands extending out of Boni, we saw another 50 hirolas. In the wetter, greener depths of Boni, topis and buffalos were abundant. Amazingly, the groups of hirolas counted in the Boni area in February were found within a few hundred meters from where they were located back then. Those groups appear to be very sedentary.

 

Again, I will have more to say later, but the real important point to be made is that the community is completely rallying around this cause. Unlike most other areas in Africa, this community is "all-in" on the conservation of a big chunk of its land and the species along with it.

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Thanks for the update, Safaridude.

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Great stuff Safaridude. Hope you were able to get an indication of population structure - calves/subadults, females, males? Great pictures Tanya!

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I was able to observe 3 breeding herds inside the conservancy, each breeding herd with 2-4 calves or subadults. The Boni population -- I only recall seeing on subadult.

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Safaridude, did you get any feelings about what the community expects for the future of their conservancy and how much time they are prepared to give the concept before losing heart if expectations aren't met?

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Twaffle, as strange as it sound, I did not get any of that feeling. This community is different. However, we should be realistic about it, of course.

 

The community would like to see tourism. The kind in which the community really has an ownership. To that end, there is something brewing, and I may be able to say something about it very shortly.

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Excellent news. Discount rates I hope for Safaritalkers...

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Excellent news. Discount rates I hope for Safaritalkers...

 

I like your optimism!

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Posted (edited)

Here are some images taken of a lone Hirola bull -part of the translocated population in Tsavo East. We searched the Aruba Dam-Satao Camp-Satao airstrip-Aruba dam circuit on three separate occasions without any luck. There is no off-road driving and on a couple of occasions we saw distant animals through the heat-haze which might have been Hirola though in heat-haze at that distance they could also have been Impala, Kongoni or Grant's Gazelle!

 

We stayed at the Aruba Ashnil lodge and whilst having lunch there on our final full day the waiter told our guide Ben that he sees a single Hirola bull most days as it comes to the pasture on the adjacent silted-up Aruba dam. He later returned to say that he had just seen three Hirola; we quickly followed him but were dismayed to find a group of three Topi (apparently they are part of a coastal population which have strayed into Tsavo East and established a small population). Through the heat of that afternoon I sat under a tree by the lodge swimming pool drinking Tuskers and gazing out over the hot dry pans of the Aruba dam (hard work but someone had to do it!) when through the haze between some zebra and an oryx a lone Hirola bull appeared. He wandered closer and associated himself with a group of three Hartebeest.

 

If ever you are in Tsavo East and want to see a Hirola then stop off at the Aruba Ashnil -have a drink or two, speak to the waiters and keep an eye on the horizon!

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Hirola and Kongoni for comparison.

Edited by Rainbirder
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Beautiful photos, thanks Rainbirder.

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They are a beautiful antelope. They always look like a cross between impala and hartebeest.

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Any updates about the Hirola? Shame there has not been more information forthcoming. Has the predator proof fencing worked? Has there been an increase in numbers since the area was fenced?

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Posted (edited)

I will be there in six weeks (with @twaffle) and will report back.

 

As far as I know, things are proceeding fairly well.

 

Possibly @@Safaridude has more recent updates.

Edited by Paolo

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Ah @@Paolo and @@twaffle, you can be Safaritalk's reporters in the field. Look forward to seeing many photos, updates etc.

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