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African antelope picture: A hirola in Kenya.
A hirola in Kenya's Tsavo East National Park (file picture).

Photograph by John Warburton-Lee, Alamy

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic News

November 8, 2011

For the first time in 75 years, an entire genus of mammal may go the way of the dodo—unless a new conservation effort shepherded by Somalian herders succeeds.

The hirola, a large African antelope known for its striking, goggle-like eye markings, is the only remaining species in the genus Beatragus—and its numbers are dwindling fast, conservationists say.

The last mammal genus to blink out was Thylacinus, in 1936, with the death of the last Tasmanian tiger. A genus is a taxonomic ranking between species and family.

Considered critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the hirola has seen its numbers fall by as much as 90 percent since 1980. The latest survey, in February, found about 245 animals in fragmented pockets of northeastern Kenya and southwestern Somalia, according to the Nature Conservancy.

In all, conservationists estimate there are fewer than 400 hirolas scattered throughout the species' historic range of East Africa.

A range of factors, including climate change-related drought; unregulated hunting; habitat destruction; and more recently, predation have slashed populations.

Now the Ishaqbini Hirola Community Conservancy, a network of predominantly Somalian clans, is building a a new predator-free sanctuary for the species, according to Omar Tawane Dagane, the conservancy's Kenya-based manager.

Most of the herders living along the Kenya-Somalia border "are friendly to wildlife," Dagane said.

The locals also like hirolas because they don't harm livestock, he said.

"That is why [it] was easy for us to advocate for construction of a predator-proof ... hirola sanctuary in such a pastoralist setup."

(Also see "Hold the Champagne: Highway to Split Serengeti After All?")

Conservation Gone "Viral"

Somalian clans formed the Ishaqbini conservancy in 1996 after seeing the benefits of self-organized conservancies in northeastern Kenya, an often lawless region prone to cattle raiding and general unrest, said Tim Tear, science director for the Nature Conservancy's Africa Program, an Ishaqbini partner.

These conservancies, while setting aside land for protection of species such as elephants and buffalo, also provided exclusive rights to tourism companies. The majority of the tourism proceeds fund community needs, for example special operations for local children. The remaining percentage—about 40 percent—goes to fund conservation practices and employ game scouts to patrol and prevent poaching.

"This is one of the big reasons people are supportive—direct benefits to the communities and conservation and security value as well," Tear said.

There are now 17 conservancies within the Northern Rangelands Trust, a Kenya-based membership organization that helps coordinate and support the local initiatives, including Ishaqbini.

"This is the idea of conservation going viral," he said.

Hirola to Thrive in Predator-Free Sanctuary?

A few years ago the Ishaqbini clans created an 8,000-acre (3,200-hectare) conservation area to protect hirolas, mainly by monitoring poaching and restricting livestock grazing.

With grazing curtailed, the grasslands bounced back—and so did predators such as African lion and African wild dogs, which have been increasingly preying on hirolas.

Now, with predation cutting hirola numbers by as much as 15 percent in the past year, the Ishaqbini conservancy is constructing what they say is a predator-proof fence around the new 6,000-acre (2,400-hectare) sub-sanctuary within the original conservation area.

Ideally, the new sanctuary will give the antelope a safe haven in which to breed and rebound, Ishaqbini's Dagane said. (See pictures: "Rare Antelope, Big Cats Caught by Camera Trap.")

"People have a perception there's no peace around here because of neighboring Somalia," he said, "but Ishaqbini is very peaceful compared with other communities in the interior of Kenya."

The Nature Conservancy's Tear added that the Ishaqbini clans have "really identified with this animal."

"They've made some really heroic decisions about saving land for the purposes of saving this species."

Conserving Hirola Not Easy

Conservationists and government agencies have been working to save the hirola since the 1960s.

Because all attempts to breed hirolas in captivity have failed, conservation plans have mostly involved relocating the animals.

In 1963, for instance, the Kenya Wildlife Service captured 10 to 20 hirolas from northeastern Kenya and released them into Tsavo East National Park (map).

After that population had nearly died out, in 1996, about 30 more hirolas from the Arawale National Reserve in northeastern Kenya were added to this "founding population," according to the wildlife service's website. There is now a stable, though isolated, population of about a hundred hirolas living in Tsavo.

Community Involvement Important

The Nature Conservancy's Tear noted that for conservation for work long-term, "local people have to be engaged, involved, and supportive of conservation."

Philipp Goeltenboth discovered just that in 1996. Now the director of WWF-Germany's Forest Program, Goeltenboth at the time was working with the Kenya Wildlife Service to relocate the hirola as part of his master's degree research.

In a controversial move, the government took the animals from an impoverished area where residents believed the animal was "one of last hopes in this area for tourism," he said.

A court injunction initiated by the communities temporarily halted the translocation. According to a Kenyan court document dated August 29, 1996, locals brought the injunction on "the grounds that [the hirola] was a gift to the people of the area and should be left there."

Overall, local communities had not been involved in the government's initial relocation plan—"a big mistake," Goeltenboth said.

"The Kenya Wildlife Service was a study in how not to do conservation," he said. "They basically moved into the area with full force."

The Kenya Wildlife Service did not respond to requests for comment.

Hirola Sanctuary Can't Save the Species?

Yakub Dahiye, a scientist at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi, has studied hirolas for several years and published research on the species.

He called the Ishaqbini conservancy "a noble community initiative" that can "partly contribute to wildlife conservation and tourism development."

However, "I don't think this conservancy alone can save the hirola," Dahiye emphasized by email.

"Just like the local nomadic pastoralist, the hirola has a highly mobile habit.

"Given the small size of this conservancy and its limited/seasonal pastures, free-ranging hirola may not be permanently resident in the conservancy."

(See "Animals No Safer Inside Kenya's Parks Than Outside?")

What's more, hirolas face threats other than predation. For one, growing human settlements have displaced the antelope from its dry-season habitat along Kenya's Tana River, Dahiye said.

Hirolas are also forced to compete with cattle and sheep for food and water. Futhermore, traveling herders and their livestock can trample hirola grazing lands.

And despite the conservancy's creation, modernization and changing lifestyles mean that some of the pastoralists' conservation traditions are disappearing, Dahiye noted.

High Hopes for Hirola

Ultimately the Ishaqbini Conservancy's Dagane envisions this slice of Africa as a regional hub for tourism and research.

"I'd like to see community conservation spread to neighboring communities, increase the number of wildlife, and get conservation into the minds of the younger generations for wise use of their natural resources in the future," he said.

The Nature Conservancy's Tear also has high expectations for Ishaqbini and its hirolas.

"People hear a lot about things in crisis, especially in Africa," Tear said.

But "there are many reasons for there to be hope."

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