Searching for Africa’s Most Endangered Antelope

Hirola family

Matthew Brown is Africa conservation director for The Nature Conservancy.

The heat is oppressive in the back of the land cruiser. As we bounce along the fenceline, we see plenty of wildlife: several giraffes, lots of dik dik, many gerenuk. But no hirola.

In the late 1970s, the hirola population was estimated to be nearly 16,000. A decade later, this African antelope’s numbers had plummeted to 1,600. Today, fewer than 400 individual animals are believed to remain, making the hirola the world’s most endangered antelope.

This decline stems mostly from greater competition from livestock for water, grass and viable habitat. This situation has led to the hirola’s increasing vulnerability to predators.

But a determined community has taken bold steps to protect the hirola.

We’re driving through the Ishaqbini Hirola Community Conservancy in coastal northern Kenya, near the Tana River delta and the Somalia border.

This Somali community has built a 27-square-kilometer fenced sanctuary thanks to support from The Nature Conservancy, Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), Fauna & Flora International (FFI) and Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

Removing pressure from predators will allow the hirola to reproduce successfully. As the population grows, animals can be released from the sanctuary.

Stalking the Wily Hirola

Our truck suddenly skids to a stop, and the Somali Chief of Ishaqbini, Ahmed, grabs my arm. “There,” he says. About 50 meters away, I glimpse the rear end of a hirola. Ahmed says, “Let’s go.”

I jump down from the truck and follow Ahmed into the thick, woody bush along a wildlife trail. Ishaqbini’s former head of security, Ahmed and I all move silently in single file. But every time we get close, we hear the hirola clatter on ahead.

We’re stalking them, I realize, and it’s exhilarating. It’s 12:30 in the afternoon and the sun is relentless, but a strong wind is in our favor. Still, these keen-eared hirola hear us coming and keep away.

Finally, we emerge into a clearing and there stand three hirola — male, female and calf — staring right back at us. My heart is pounding as I watch these amazingly beautiful hartebeest-like animals. We watch for a solid 20 minutes until the hirola wander off in search of something edible.

A Community Committed to Conservation

Only 10 weeks earlier, 48 hirola were captured and placed in this fenced sanctuary. Our trio were clearly still getting to know their home, but they looked comfortable and healthy. And soon the rains will come, urging more grass from this dry land.

As we drive back to conservancy headquarters, I recall NRT’s Ian Craig and others telling me about this community’s dedication to the hirola and conservation. So I’d heard about it, but now I’d seen the chief jump out of the truck, felt him grab my arm, and shared his excitement and passion for these animals.

This local commitment to conservation is an excellent indicator for success, of course. But I also come away personally impressed and deeply moved. These people’s devotion to saving a species from extinction on their community land is simply an amazing story.

In our debrief session, the Ishaqbini Conservancy chairman thanks all of us — NRT, KWS, FFI and TNC — for our support.

The road ahead is long and hard, he admits. But he also realizes that community conservation efforts are creating a better tomorrow for his people and for their wildlife.

[Image: Hirola family. Image source: Kenneth K. Coe]


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