Interview with Ian Craig and Dr. Juliet King

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Ian Craig – Chief Executive Officer, Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT)


In many ways a pioneer in conservation, Ian has spent most of his life in northern Kenya and is familiar with the challenges of wildlife conservation and community development in the region. He has developed a personal relationship with many communities based on a foundation of trust, continuity, shared experiences and a common vision. He was a founding board member of both Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust and Il Ngwesi Group Ranch in 1995. As former Executive Director of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Ian was a founding member of the Northern Rangelands Trust together with key individuals from the community member areas.





Dr. Juliet King – Research & Monitoring Manager, Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT)


Juliet is a Zoologist with a Ph.D from the University of Western Australia. She was born and raised in Kenya and returned to work there in 1998. She has previous conservation experience in Kenya working with Save the Elephants, the Kenya Wildlife Service and as a consultant to several conservation NGOs in the country. Juliet is implementing community-based ecological monitoring in the Community Conservancies of the Northern Rangelands Trust. She brings a broad knowledge of Kenyan conservation issues as well as contemporary skills in community conservation.


Ian and Juliet talk to Safaritalk about the critically endangered hirola and the Ishaqbini Conservancy – and their latest effort to create a predator-proof sanctuary in order to save this genus from extinction.





Ian, let’s start with you. Please tell us the story of when you first discovered the hirola in the Ishaqbini area a few years back.

In 2006 my wife, Jane, and I were on a safari for a couple of months in N/E Kenya. We had decided to get away and explore a new area, and we hadn’t been to the Tana River area since hunting there in the early ‘70s, so we just drove in that general direction and camped along the way. We went via Garissa and meandered down the Tana River and were a bit disappointed because we just couldn’t find the wilderness we sought – just towns, people and cultivation. That was until we got near the Tana River Primate Reserve on the banks of the Tana. We explored the wonderful riverine forest there, and hirolas were just about the last thing on our mind. One day, whilst enjoying a cup of tea at our camp, we saw a group of animals looking at us. We thought at first they were impala but were surprised because we didn’t think that impala occurred in this part of Kenya. But something wasn’t quite right… the color, the horns. Of course, we then realized they were hirolas.



That trip motivated you to do something about the endangered Hirola. How did NRT get involved? How was the process of gaining approval of the community and the local government?


The Ishaqbini Conservancy existed before we (NRT) got involved, but there was little in the way of coordinated protection of wildlife. NRT was at the time only operating in the northern rangelands mainly focused on working with the Samburu, Rendille, Boran communities, so we were definitely out of our “comfort zone” in Masalani. We were approached by an elderly man within the town who was extremely aggressive in his approach and initially asked us who had given us permission to visit Masalani. In responding that we were Kenyans and free to visit any area of Kenya we wished, we ended up in a spirited discussion on the subject of conservation, heated further when he heard that I was involved closely with Kenya Wildlife Service. During the lengthy debate, he explained how he had visited Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and Il Ngwesi (one of NRT’s conservancies), and this was the level of conservation Masalani needed and that he was the Chairman of the County Council. Upon hearing of our involvement with both Lewa and Il Ngwesi, the scene changed instantly and we were suddenly at once all conservationists with a common cause. NRT subsequently initiated a tour for the elders from Ishaqbini to other NRT conservancies, and soon funding was found through the Safaricom Foundation and the project was operational. The local Member of Parliament, the Hon. Yussuf Haji, was an initial skeptic, stating that community conservation in Kenya was but an empty drum and yet to prove its value. However, a colleague in Parliament, the MP for Samburu East, The Hon. Sammy Leshore, convinced him to try NRT and a relationship of trust and commitment has been established to this day.



How does the core area of the conservancy differ from the greater conservancy area, and how was the site chosen?


Within the 47,000-acre conservancy, there is an 8,000-acre core area where livestock grazing is restricted. That is to say, of course, grazing is allowed in the non-core area. I must say we have had great success with the core area, as the community has been exceptionally abiding. The grass cover in the core area has recovered. The site for the core area was chosen because it was an optimal habitat area for the hirola. Among the NRT conservancies, it is the first core area chosen principally because of the habitat. We can’t thank the Ishaqbini people enough for making all of this happen.



How is the conservancy run today? Could you provide us with some details?


There is a board of 12 elected community representatives. There is also an elected grazing committee of elders who draw up and enforce the livestock grazing rules. There is a conservancy manager, Omar Tawane, and an accountant. We have recently helped Ishaqbini construct a headquarters in the conservancy, which consists of offices, radio room, managers house and scout housing. In the Ishaqbini Conservancy itself, there is a staff of 20 community scouts responsible for anti-poaching patrols, security and wildlife monitoring.



People who know the area are surprised at how peaceful this area so near Somalia is. Can you comment on the security situation?


The area indeed is very peaceful. I think there are a couple of factors at work. First of all, there is really only one clan in the area, the Abdullah clan of the Somali tribe (from the east bank of the Tana River toward the Somali border), and it is a very strong and cohesive clan. Secondly, there is a history of peace here. During the Somali secession movement in the ‘60s, the Abdulla clan voted it down. And in the ‘80s, the then Garissa District Commissioner, Saleh, went on a big campaign to disarm the area. He is revered in Kenya for this, among other things. As strange as it sounds, the Masalani/Ishaqbini area is one of the safest in Kenya. I will tell you a little story. A dear friend recently visited Ishaqbini to look at the tourism potential of the area. His bag with his personal belongings accidentally fell out of his vehicle, unbeknownst to him, on the way in. Three hours later, the bag was delivered to the Ishaqbini campsite via a local government vehicle. Things like this usually don’t happen in Kenya.



What are the future plans for Ishaqbini?


I think there is exceptional tourism potential for Ishaqbini. The hirolas, of course… and we need to get our predator-proof fenced sanctuary up and working first. But the general game is really wonderful. The area is full of topi, buffalo, lesser kudu, gerenuk, giraffe, ostrich, zebra, and now we are seeing lion, cheetah and wild dog on a regular basis. In the nearby Tana River Primate Reserve, there are Tana River red colobus and Tana mangabeys to be found. Ishaqbini is very close to Lamu, which is a world renowned destination, so all the pieces are there. It would be wonderful to get a community-based tourism operation going. Some commerce other than pastoralism is badly needed to diversify the income source of these people and a strong emphasis on incorporating the agricultural communities alongside the Tana River into the overall Conservation plan, specifically the Ndera community.



Juliet, what can you tell us about hirolas and the unique biome of Ishaqbini that you have been able to learn?


There is not a huge volume of available research on the hirola. The most recent research that I am aware of was done by Sam Andanje of KWS. According to his research and our experience at Ishaqbini, the average hirola herd size has decreased since the ‘70s. They congregate in small herds, and they tend to bunch into big groups during the wet season. The largest wet season congregation observed was 40 individuals. They tend to disperse in the dry season. They can have very large range movements (as studies of the translocated Tsavo population suggests), but the herds at Ishaqbini are generally sedentary. Our scouts are able to identify individuals and groups and know their exact territories. We always see several herds in the core area. They sometimes associate with topis.


The biome is truly varied. The immediate Ishaqbini area can be described as Dobera glabra woodland interspersed with open grasslands. The Tana River Primate Reserve is a wonderfully intact riverine forest. Next to the Tana River, there are massive floodplains, and away from the river, the land changes to dry Acacia bushland. Then there is the dense Boni forest towards the coast and up to the Somali border with tall grassland fingers coming out of it. There really hasn’t been much ecological research done in the area, so I am very privileged to be working on the ground.



You not only conduct research, but you also assist in training the scouts. Are there any particular challenges for the scouts at Ishabini?


The heat can be a challenge but otherwise nothing really in particular except that the land is very flat, so there are no sight observation points. The bush can be quite thick in places also. When we first started, there was quite a bit of poaching coming from the other side of the Tana River, and getting that under control was a challenge.



Animals tend to be surprisingly tame around Ishaqbini. How do you account for that?


Well, I just mentioned the poachers coming from the other side of the Tana River, but the poaching generally didn’t infiltrate much beyond that immediate river area. The Kenyan Somali on the eastern side of the river, the Ishaqbini side, generally do not eat bushmeat due to cultural considerations and show extraordinary tolerance towards wild animals. Even just on the outskirts of the town of Masalani, it is not unusual to see zebras or warthogs carrying on peacefully between homesteads not really minding the people and donkeys walking about.



When and how were you made aware of the hirola depredation issue?


When we got the poaching issue under control and also saw a remarkable recovery in the vegetation of the core area, we expected the hirola population to flourish. But that didn’t happen. The scouts were seeing plenty of calves, so we knew the animals were breeding well, yet, the population was stagnant, if not decreasing even. Starting some time around 2009, we began to see more and more predators in the area. This is after observing an increase in other herbivores such as buffalo and zebra. The predator sightings increased steadily, and last year we counted 20 hirola carcasses. I am sure there were many more casualties we did not know about. One particular period in mid-2010, we really had a blitz with lions and wild dogs killing a lot of animals at Ishaqbini. A combination of eyewitness reports from scouts, carcass analysis and a scat study of predators confirmed that the hirola had become a preferred prey of lions in the area. We were not able to get any wild dog scat samples, but from eyewitness accounts we know that they are a big threat. A very large pack roams the area at the moment.



Let’s talk about the translocated hirolas in Tsavo East National Park. What are their prospects in your opinion?


They have managed to hang on. I think the latest estimate is 50-90 animals. For sure, they haven’t thrived. There are depredation and poaching issues there as well, and they may be suffering from competition from similar herbivores such as kongoni. Of course, the translocations were done in order to have a reservoir population outside of the hirola’s traditional range, but it is indeed an unnatural environment for them. There is an elephant census currently ongoing in Tsavo, and they will be looking for hirolas as well, so we will soon get an update on the Tsavo population.



At what point do you think there is a danger of genetic bottleneck for the hirola?


We have not done research in this regard, but I would argue that their genetics may be compromised already, though not to a critical degree yet. During the census we just completed, we were able to identify only three areas with any significant number of animals (Ishaqbini, Arawale and finger grasslands of Boni). These areas are separated by many miles of degraded rangeland, so genetic exchanges amongst those populations are likely limited. However, other herbivores have shown remarkable resiliency to genetic bottleneck problems, and I don’t think the hirolas are in serious trouble genetically at least for now, and I wouldn’t see this as a constraint to their long-term conservation.



Do tell us about the hirola census…


NRT and KWS collaborated on a very thorough aerial survey, which covered 12,000 square kilometers at 1 km transect intervals. Due to extreme heat, we were relegated to flying in the morning and late afternoon, but that’s when hirolas tend to come out into the open and graze. The hirolas were very visible from the aircraft in some habitats but it was a challenge in the bushy areas. We counted 245 individuals, which was less than we expected. Obviously, we are likely to have missed some, but since the animals were bunched in only three clumps as I said, it isn’t likely that we missed too many. So, we are talking about 300-400 individuals at most, plus the translocated Tsavo population. We are confident that around 100 of the animals make their home in Ishaqbini.



Ian, back to you, to the proposed predator-proof fence project, please tell us how you arrived at that option.


We have a working conservancy model in which the habitat has recovered and the animals are doing very well. Alongside this success, the predator population has increased. The community has now got poaching and livestock competition under control at Ishaqbini, and now predation is the one major limiting factor on the hirola population. If it were any other animal, we would let nature take its course: predators and prey balance things out in the end. But here, we are talking about an animal that is down to the last 300-400 individuals, found in only 3 real groups in their natural range and in danger of a potential genetic bottleneck -- an animal that could represent the first African mammalian genus to go extinct under our watch. We at NRT put our minds together with KWS, the London Zoological Society and Flora & Fauna International. We looked at several options. We considered trapping and moving predators, but that can become very expensive quickly, and in any case, predators are very territorial by nature and translocated predators often face brutal deaths in new areas by their own kind. We all came to the conclusion that a fenced sanctuary that is predator free is the only realistic option. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s the best option available to us. We are extremely thankful to the Ishaqbini community for gifting another big area of land (the proposed sanctuary) that will be livestock-free. I am not aware of many places in Africa where such a thing would even be thinkable. I am satisfied that we have done our due diligence on this with the best minds in science and conservation. This approach has been used elsewhere (black rhino and giant sable, for instance) and there is no reason why it should not work in this situation. If successful, satellite sanctuaries could be set up to establish a viable population across the historical range once the challenges leading to the current decline have been recognized and resolved.



Thank you both, and good luck.



The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.

Edited by twaffle

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Another great interview Safaridude! Great to hear about the good working relationship between the community and conservancy. Will look forward to updates about the hirola in the area.

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Such a great interview, casting a glance on a remarkable conservation effort. The Ishaqbini story is a rare glimmer of hope in a troubled continent. Now the challenge is saving its most peculiar animal.


Thank you, Safaridude. And thanks to Ian and Juliet.

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Excellent interview safaridude! And Ian and Juliet have explained the current situation extremely well. I'm sure that there will be questions surrounding the rescue effort which I'm sure you'll be able to get answers for. Rather than be depressed by this crisis, I feel an upwelling of hope and renewed excitement that something extraordinary is about to happen and for once, we ordinary people can take a considerable part. The local community's commitment to the conservation of their land and the hirola is going to set a shining example of what can be achieved.

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