A sanctuary for Hirola
28 November 2012 | News story
Ever seen a flying Hirola? The tall distinctive Hirola (Beatragus hunteri) is the world’s most endangered antelope and is the only existing member of its genus. It is also, quite possibly, the only one to have flown by helicopter.
This SOS - Save Our Species funded project working with the Northern Rangeland Trust (NRT) aims to stabilise the population by creating a predator free sanctuary for a stock of 48 Hirola to facilitate breeding. Helicopter transport was the best means to penetrate the rugged scrub and bush terrain of Northern Kenya. Further, air transport ensured the sensitive animals were relocated quickly and safely due to the coordinated efforts of ground and air teams that relied on the support and participation of the local Ishaqbini communities.
Indeed community involvement is key to the project’s long-term success because it is hoped the 3,000 acre sanctuary will provide a new revenue stream for local communities in the form of eco-tourism opportunities as an alternative to livestock rearing. Consequently involving community elders in the capture operation helped entrench support for the sanctuary among the broader community.
In a technically complex, yet highly successful conservation plan two years in the planning and months in the making, the animals were relocated from the wild and placed in the sanctuary through a joint operation of the Northern Rangelands Trust, the Hara, Korissa and Kotile communities, the Ishaqbini Conservancy management and considerable support from the Kenya Wildlife Service Hirola Management Committee.
The first step in the 6 day capture and relocation operation was to find and identify suitable herds from the air, using light aircraft and helicopters. Individual Hirola were then marshalled safely into capture nets manned by teams hiding in the scrubland. Once secured, blindfolded and sedated, team members protected horns with rubber piping before loading two animals at a time into a waiting helicopter for immediate relocation to a holding area in the newly constructed sanctuary. Upon arrival the animals were revived and left to stabilise for a day before being released into their new home where they could explore and establish territories of their own. In total, the team caught 17 adult females, 3 sub-adult females, 2 juvenile males, 1 juvenile female and 1 adult male, while a further 24 living close to the sanctuary were herded in by foot. No more than five Hirola were relocated from any one wild herd.
Taking 8 months to construct the physical enclosure and supporting infrastructure, the conservation team engaged with local Ishaqbini community members to develop and agree maintenance plans that would ensure the sustainability of the initiative. In addition to the 48 Hirola, and the removal of predators, team members successfully introduced several zebra, kudu, giraffe, oryx and topi as well as smaller predators such as caracal, genet and civet to populate the sanctuary.
Having suffered a severe decline, dropping from approximately 14,000 animals in the 1970’s to less than 500 today, the Hirola is in dire need of intervention if the population is to begin recovery. Found in a narrow belt of bush and grasslands between Somalia and northern Kenya, the remaining population are subject to predation and human impacts created by the reliance on pastoralism in this remote and arid land. The loss of the Hirola would be the first extinction of a mammalian genus on mainland Africa in modern human history. Increasing the number of Hirola by creating a community oriented solution to boost their numbers before releasing them back into the wild in the future will contribute to the recovery of this elegant ‘spectacled’ antelope.