Where the Antelope Play

Hirola in Kenya


in Archive


Our pilot circles to find Masalani’s red-dirt airstrip and its lone windsock in the drought-stricken scrubland, 80 miles from the Somali border. I spot two dusty vehicles next to Ian Craig’s fat-tired Super Cub as we touch down. It’s late July and warm, with whipping winds.

I’ve flown to Kenya’s remote Ijara district for the hirola, a little-known antelope with lyrate horns and a long, cartoonish face. Specifically, I’m here to find out how Craig, an ex-professional hunter turned wildlife savior, plans to help the area’s Muslim pastoralist community keep their tiny population of hirola from spiraling into extinction from habitat loss, predation and poaching.

The hope is that what’s happening here work might work elsewhere. The hirola isn’t the only Kenyan species in trouble. The majority of the country’s game animals, perhaps as much as 70 percent, exist outside its world-famous system of parks and reserves, where they share space with local peoples and often compete with them for water and grazing, or worse, trample crops and even take lives.

With few ways for rural citizens to benefit from wildlife on their land, there’s little motivation to protect game that no one owns but the government. Animal populations have been shrinking alarmingly; the country’s renowned Masai Mara reserve has lost two-thirds of its wildlife in the past 30 years, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Zoology. Without a radical change in policy, tourists may not have many animals to see in years to come.

And that’s what’s behind the effort to save the hirola: a profound shift toward community-based conservation.

The idea that the people who share land with wildlife need to be involved with any efforts to protect those animals seems obvious. Yet for decades, top-down conservation policies have ceded little actual control to locals. The four-year-old Ishaqbini Conservancy in Ijara is markedly different. Key elements of it are in the hands of local Somalis.

I’ve arrived with Kenneth Coe, 47, a member of the Advisory Council of the Nature Conservancy’s Africa Program, the principal outside backer of the hirola rescue. Short, with a compact build, he’s dressed to blend in with the landscape — cargo pants, green T-shirt, and dark glasses. Craig, stocky and sandy-haired with a ready smile, greets the two of us as we climb out of the single-engine Cessna. With a nod to local culture, he’s wearing the patterned sarong that Somali men wrap around their waists, along with tattered canvas shoes, checked shirt, and bill cap.

Born in Kenya, Ian Craig, 59, has had a career that reflects the changing attitudes toward the continent’s wildlife. In his early 20s, he was a licensed professional hunter leading safaris while simultaneously managing Lewa, his family’s 40,000-acre cattle ranch, begun in the 1920s near Mt. Kenya.

In 1983, Craig oversaw the transformation of the ranch into a rhino sanctuary and finally, in 1995, into the enlarged Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. He helped found the Northern Rangelands Trust, an umbrella organization of 15 community-based conservancies, including this one.

Coe wrestles duffels of professional photography gear from the plane’s belly; he’s hoping to upgrade his growing bank of wildlife images. Born in Seoul, Korea, Coe came to the U.S. with his family when he was 11. He went on to a career in investment. Along the way, he developed a deep passion for Africa’s remaining wild lands. Like many business people, he finds it hard to turn off his financial radar when donating to causes important to him. He’s made 15 trips to Africa, visiting projects across the continent to find what works and what doesn’t, and why. This is his second visit here.

I’d asked Craig if I could meet with local leaders about the fate of the hirola. “Omar’s organized that for you,” he says, introducing me to the tall, hawk-faced regional coordinator for the Northern Rangelands Trust.

“This town is growing from a small village,” Omar Tawane, 31, explains above the engine noise of his truck. On our way past the market, the school, the clinic, and the district headquarters, he proudly points out a tall tower in the distance that provides Masalani, a cluster of tin-roofed buildings and sandy streets, with Internet access. Born into a Somali herding family, the college-educated Tawane prefers Western-style clothes to traditional male dress.

But herding and livestock trading remain the way of life for this overwhelmingly pastoralist area. That age-old culture is on view in the thatched-hut villages and vast open range of the surrounding countryside, traversed by isolated herds of scrawny Boran cattle.

One of the nation’s 70-odd ethnic groups, Kenya’s 900,000 Somalis comprise roughly two percent of its population. In this district, the population is predominantly Somali, and unlike the majority of Kenyans, they are overwhelmingly Muslim.  

It’s midday, and Tawane and I sit under the rustling leaves of a garas tree, the district’s ubiquitous evergreen, in Hossein Nur’s shady compound. The minarets of Masalani’s mosque are visible over the windbreak fence. Birds murmur, goats bleat. A woman creaks opens a shuttered window in a low wall, looks over our gathering, then quietly closes it.

“We are Kenyan Somalis. We are not shifta [bandits]. We are not pirates. We are not terrorists,” emphasizes Ahmed Bare, who sits on the board of the Ishaqbini Conservancy.

Bare, in a white shirt and cap over a patterned sarong, speaks English. Nur, the chairman of the local peace committee, wears a black robe and dark glasses and has a beard tinted with henna. Bare and Tawane translate for him.

They are eager to distinguish their peaceful Sunni Muslim community from the media stereotype of lawless, warlord-ruled Somalis elsewhere in the Horn of Africa, especially those in neighboring Somalia, which has been without a central government for a decade. Members of the Abdullah clan, they have been long settled in the country’s North Eastern Province.

Despite its endemic poverty and widespread health issues, the Ijara district falls outside the famine crisis zone aggravated by six years of drought in this corner of the continent.  Still, Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world, now swollen to 400,000 people by the starving that stream daily over the Somali border, is only 120 miles distant.

As we talk, a picture emerges of these pastoralists’ attitudes toward wildlife. The Ijara district has a population of 100,000 people and six times that many cattle, sheep, and goats. The government holds 90 percent of the animals’ grazing area in trust for the pastoralist community. There’s little poaching by local Somalis; I ask why. “It’s different here,” Tawane says. For cultural reasons, eating game is frowned upon, which is why zebras and warthogs sometimes trot unmolested through villages.

The elders remember that there used to be many more animals before the droughts degraded the wildlife.  Bare translates Nur’s memory of a time in the past when he was out with his herd and saw an antelope lying under a tree. He gave it water from his hand to revive it. Antelopes, the elders add, ask for very little, especially the hirola. They “don’t demand area.”

Tawane explains that when you see hirola, it means grazing conditions for livestock are good. “It’s healthy to have them in the grasslands,” he says. “If you can increase — improve — the environment for hirolas, the environment will be better also for the livestock.”

“So,” Bare summarizes, “in Ishaqbini, we have in our heads a plan for the hirolas to be conserved.”

Outsiders’ interest in the hirola is driven by a different set of concerns. The overriding issue, as Craig wrote me, is that “they live in a small corner of the world and really aren’t helping themselves particularly to remain on this planet for much longer.” The snuffing out of the hirola, Beatragus hunteri, would represent more than the loss of a species. It would mean the disappearance of a three-million-old evolutionary lineage, the once widespread genus Beatragus, of which the hirola is now the sole representative.

Until 1996, the antelope was widely known as Hunter’s hartebeest, named after H. C. V. Hunter, who bagged the first specimen known to the outside world near the Tana River in 1887. Taxonomists have now decided the animals are no mere sub-species of topi or any other antelope, but a very singular creature, and critically endangered — one step short of extinction. There may be no more than 300 of these antelopes left.

As far back as 1963, alarm over the species’ steadily falling numbers prompted one of the first attempts in East Africa at translocating wildlife to a different (and presumably safer) habitat. Some 50 hirola were captured by what would now be considered a crude method: lasso. Many dropped dead in their holding pens. In the end, only 30 of the weakened, highly sensitive antelopes were released in Tsavo East National Park in the hopes of creating a secondary and more viable population. Concurrent attempts to breed them in zoos met with little success. The last one in captivity anywhere, an elderly female, died in Brownsville, Texas in 2002.

By 1996, the hirola population had declined to some 1,500 individuals, prompting the formation of a task force, led by the Kenya Wildlife Service, to capture and transfer three dozen hirola to bolster the struggling Tsavo herd. Despite a “hirola sensitization” program in key communities, the intervention became a political issue, tapping into the simmering distrust and pattern of neglect that Kenya’s northeast has long had with Nairobi. The Ijara community voiced outrage that their hirola should be taken away, prompting the KWS to open an office in Masalani, signaling commitment to conserving the hirola in its original habitat.

Somali feeling for the antelope is genuine. For centuries, these timid animals have followed pastoralists and their livestock, a pattern of behavior that affords them partial protection against predators and poachers and is a likely explanation of why their final stand is taking place in this parched landscape.

Traditional herding songs describe this ancient association, Tawane tells me at the end of our meeting. One expresses a herder’s hope that his cattle will be as beautiful as the sleek and elegant hirola. The antelope’s presence, Tawane says, is a sign of good fortune, “a happy scene.”

“I’m not aware of many places in Africa where this kind of thing would even be thinkable,” Ian Craig says about the district community’s plan to create a 4,000-acre, fenced-in, livestock-free sanctuary for their endangered antelope. Especially when, as he says on our truck ride with Coe down a track through the conservancy’s patchy grasslands, “90 percent of the conservation world has no idea what a hirola is.”

Craig didn’t seek out this project; he stumbled across it. In 2006, he and his wife, Jane, were exploring part of the Tana River, an area he hadn’t visited since hunting there in the early 1970s. He finally found the wonderful riverine forest he’d always remembered. The two set up camp. One afternoon while drinking tea, they were surprised to see a group of antelope studying them. At first they thought they might be impala. “But something wasn’t quite right… the color, the horns,” he says. “Of course, we then realized they were hirolas.”

The year before, several Ijara groups had sought support for a hirola conservancy. A year later, with Craig’s input, the Ishaqbini Community Hirola Conservancy, named after an area lake, had been added to the Northern Rangelands Trust’s roster.

At the Ishaqbini Conservancy headquarters, a cluster of cream-colored concrete slab buildings with Moorish archways at the edge of the core area, a polished brass wall plaque commemorates the opening of the facility this past May. Not everything is up and running yet, but there are rooms for offices, radio contact, and housing for the conservancy manager and 20 community game scouts. Supporting the staff is a policy-making board of community representatives and a grazing committee consisting of elected elders who enforce livestock rules.

It took four years — from 2005 to 2009 — to get this far. Setting aside land to protect the hirola proved “challenging, difficult to digest,” Tawane tells me. The elders, representing more than 3,500 pastoralists, held lengthy meetings to arrive at the idea of zoning their open pastures to prevent overgrazing, seeking a balance between how much land was needed for livestock, how much for buffer, and how much for their special antelope.

The community determined the size of the 47,000-acre conservancy, on the eastern bank of the Tana River. It took three years just to agree on the 4,000-acre livestock-restricted area’s boundaries, chosen after the board accepted biologists’ findings that this prime hirola habitat already harbored about 150 of the antelopes — likely half of all that remain.

With poaching largely suppressed and grass cover returning by 2010, it was puzzling that hirolas on the conservancy weren’t flourishing. It turned out that predation was taking a bigger bite out of their numbers than expected: Twenty hirola carcasses were found that year. Analysis of carnivore scat showed that hirolas had become, alas, “a preferred prey” of the area’s lions. In fact, Craig had a very smelly hirola skull with bits of rotted flesh hanging off it in the back of his open vehicle, a rank leftover from a pride’s recent meal.

These long-faced antelopes face other threats, too: leopards, spotted hyenas, wild dogs, and cheetahs. With no other viable options, everything pointed to a separate predator-proof sanctuary inside the conservancy as the best way to give hirolas a reprieve and enable them to recover their numbers.

“First, we build the sanctuary, close it off,” says Craig, as I join Coe to look over the huge rolls of wire netting and stacks of gum wood posts in the bush. “We will capture any leopard, any lion, cheetah, any predator in there,” he says. “We’ll pick them up and put them outside. There’s plenty of prey there, and they shouldn’t get back inside, because this is a pretty substantial fence.”

He says they’ll also take out any dangerous game, like buffalo, because they aren’t needed. But they’ll leave in harmless herbivores like topi or gerenuk — species the hirola associates with, to avoid having a “monoculture.”

The high mortalities of the first two translocations make everyone skittish about both the next capture operation and the Somalis’ reaction to any hirola casualties. Current thinking is to shoo the hirolas into nets, immobilize and truck them to a temporary holding pen inside the sanctuary to settle down, and then set them loose to hopefully breed like rabbits.

“It’s a big deal,” Craig tells me later. “OK, so we build the sanctuary, but suppose the thing’s a complete bummer? It’s our heads on the block.” But he’s not dwelling on that right now. The sanctuary has yet to be built.

I can’t help thinking that when it is, nearly 15 miles of perimeter fencing will be a very visible symbol of a permanent decision to set aside another huge chunk of land: 6,856 acres. For a pastoralist people, the sanctuary’s unchanging nature on the landscape may be unsettling. Perhaps that’s why shortly after I left, the elders decided to alter the proposed predator-proof boundary, reducing the sanctuary’s size. Unless they can be convinced to compensate for the loss by ceding another piece of land, the decision will stand.

They’re in charge.

“That’s our friend over there,” Craig says softly, rolling the Landrover to a stop. “He’s a candidate for the sanctuary.”

The first hirola we’ve spotted, a bull, looks bigger than an impala. His sandy color glows coppery in the afternoon light. Coe takes multiple photos. I admire the horns. “Very pretty, aren’t they?” Craig whispers. Heavily ringed at their base, they curve back and then forward; viewed from the front they form a perfect lyre-shape.

The hirola swishes his white tail and dips his head, unsure if he should graze or flee. The face: the elongated sad-sack visage, with its high-set eyes, echoed by a set of black dots — they’re actually enlarged preorbital glands — where tears would be. Stranger still are its “spectacles,” white lines circling and joining the animal’s eyes as though a child had used chalk to add a pair of glasses to its portrait. Between the horns, a furrowed brow, as if puzzled at its plight.

We resume driving to camp, hunkering down in our seats as thick branches lining the faint track stab and scratch inside the vehicle before snapping off. Finally we pull into a tree-lined, lakeside clearing set out with mosquito-net pup tents, metal tables, and canvas chairs, our base for the next three days.

This is a no-frills working safari — Craig needs to do an aerial animal count, among other conservancy tasks — and the principal indulgence of our simple fly-camp will be a daily hot shower from a sprinkling jerry can hung from a tree.

But Craig says a future community-owned luxury tented camp on this site has always been part of the plan. He convinced the Somali elders to see that their hopes for local development could be harnessed to outside interest in the hirola through ecotourism. That was the sweet spot where community and conservation interests overlapped.

Some form of ecotourism, he explains, is a critical component of all of the Northern Rangelands Trust’s community efforts, both to diversify local incomes and to generate additional revenues for conservation efforts. The Trust has already brokered community-private agreements for the Somalis to create employment, secure management and marketing, and divide tourism revenue equitably.

Our campsite should appeal to safari tourists seeking remote, unspoiled landscapes. Lake Ishaqbini turns out to be an ox-bow body of water formed by one of the huge meandering twists of the Tana, Kenya’s longest river. Elephant, buffalo, and hippo bathe noisily in it at night, and there are crocodiles, too, though at the moment it’s all herons stalking fish, cormorants sunning themselves, and pied kingfishers hovering like hummingbirds above the green-glazed water. The tall tree line on the far shore is the pristine forest of the Tana River Primate National Reserve. It’s home to two scarce monkeys — the mangabey and red colobus — though our spot seems under the occupation of cheeky vervet monkeys, who make daring forays into our food stores.

In the moonlight, I lie in my mesh tent, which mercifully lets in breezes, but also makes me vulnerable to a urinating monkey, an unpleasant thought planted one night by incessant shrieking and branch-rattling above. The next morning, Craig shows me proof of what made them so hysterical: The cup-sized tracks left by a large male leopard prowling inside the camp.

Over the next several days, Ken Coe and I take a morning (and often a late afternoon) game drive in the conservancy with a driver and an armed scout. Coe, I discover, is the camera-carrying counterpart of a trophy hunter. Unlike the casual photographer who happily snaps shaky pictures of the rear ends of retreating animals spotted too late, he’s always striving for the perfect shot, or at least a shot better than the best one he has. He coaxes the driver to coast to a stop so he can stand and steady his bazooka-sized telephoto lens on the car frame. In effect, we’re previewing what tourists on future photographic safaris here could expect.

We find long-necked gerenuks, small antelopes that stand on their hind legs to browse foliage, and spiral-horned lesser kudu, with large liquid eyes and a chocolate coat with vanilla stripes. There are male Somali ostriches, all black-and-white plumage and pale blue red-shinned legs, and dark desert wart hogs, their tall tails upright like car antennas. I see emerald-spotted wood doves, knuckle-dragging olive baboons, and vulturine guinea fowl that scatter at our approach.

From a conservationist’s perspective, it’s gratifying that so many other species will also flourish in the conservancy. But we’re especially happy to see hirola on each drive, moving through the grass and shrub ahead of our slow-moving truck.

On one drive, a bull guarding the rear of his little band pauses. The more I observe the hirola, the less odd it looks. I’m drawn to its fine-boned sleekness and elegant gait, and now find its face more wistful than mournful. I’m starting to see it through Somali eyes, see it for the lovely, diffident animal it is, one that asks for nothing more than a bit of grass, not even water.

With the clock ticking for the hirolas, the Ishaqbini Conservancy came up with a five-year plan and a $2-million budget, including nearly $500,000 for miles of electrified predator-proof fencing alone. The Nature Conservancy — the largest environmental non-profit in the U.S., with more than the $5 billion in assets — stepped in and became by far the Ishaqbini Conservancy’s largest contributor.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, given the cost,” according to David Banks, who directs the organization’s Africa program from Arusha, Tanzania. But, he adds, “if we can save the hirola, great, if we can expand the conservation model to a whole new part of Kenya, even better. I certainly think it’s worth $1 or $2 million dollars to make that happen.” Banks says the Nature Conservancy has committed to raising $800,000 to cover initial expenditures — i.e., the sanctuary. It’s not easy to solicit support for a virtually unknown antelope, but its website tries: “An opportunity to save a species from extinction doesn’t come along every day. Here’s yours,” it states.

Asked about the part his donations have played in all this, Coe deflects the question. He describes himself as “seriously allergic” to donor-promoting publicity and won’t comment on his anonymous contributions. But Banks admits they’re “substantial,” adding that Coe’s advice has been of equal value. “He has shaped a lot of what we do.”

Later, in camp on the lake’s edge, I study what’s left of a male hirola head. It’s the same one that had been decaying in the back of Craig’s truck several days before. The former fetid skull, now cleaned, is bone-white save for two black keratin twists of horn protruding above the empty eye sockets.

In the planetary scheme of things, extinction is the norm. All that’s left of Beatragus hunteri is a remnant population long out-competed in its environmental niche by newer, better-adapted grazers on the evolutionary tree. Is this project just delaying the inevitable?

The global motivation for brink-of-extinction rescues clearly stems from the unease over, and the desire to slow down, the cascading world-wide rate of species loss. But the immediate impetus is something else. As Coe points out, the stars are aligned for this project. The Somalis here care about the hirola, there’s a minimum of poaching, and outsiders that have learned from the mistakes of the past and want to help, all of which should guard against the indifference and mismanagement that plague similar undertakings. If this isn’t a conservation effort worth getting behind, what is?

I take photos of the head from various angles, then zoom in for a close-up of just the sculptural form of the skull, cropping out the lake and tree to emphasize this antelope memento mori. As I think about it, “zooming in” captures in visual terms what’s wrong with so much African conservation: over-concentration on tightly-cropped animal portraiture and not enough wide-angle, big-picture views accounting for issues that inexorably frame what can be done with wildlife. Omitting the people that live alongside these creatures from the picture fatally distorts the true image.

Earlier, Craig had told me that the Northern Rangelands Trust’s “common-sense model” didn’t just mean getting rural peoples to be involved in the conservation solutions the Trust sought; these people had to “drive the solutions” for them to work, and had to be allowed to shape them for their own benefit.

This shift in conservation thinking has taken decades to come about. But perhaps it’s also taking hold in time to answer, at least in part, the ominous threat of rapidly shrinking wildlife habitat in Africa.

From the air on my flight from Masalani the next morning, I can see the fat brown sprawl of the Tana River dominating the flat landscape below. I watch a small patch of land next to it fade in the distance — the last hope of a shy antelope known by hardly anyone but the herders who sing when they see it following their cattle. • 29 March 2012