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In Kenya, Hope for an Endangered Genus

By John Frederick Walker

IJARA, Kenya—I’ve flown to Kenya’s remote Ijara district, 80 miles from the Somali border, to find out how Ian Craig, an ex-professional hunter turned wildlife activist, plans to help the area’s Muslim pastoralist community keep their tiny population of hirola antelope from spiraling into extinction from habitat loss, predation and poaching.

With few ways for Kenya’s 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. This has led to a new, community-based conservation effort to save the hirola.

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. Born in Seoul, Korea, Coe came to the U.S. with his family when he was 11. He went on to a career in investments. 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 to find what works and what doesn’t, and why.

Ian Craig, stocky and sandy-haired with a ready smile, greets the two of us as we climb out of the single-engine Cessna.  Born in Kenya, 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. Later, Craig oversaw the transformation of Lewa, his family’s 40,000-acre cattle ranch, into a rhino sanctuary and helped found the Northern Rangelands Trust, an umbrella organization of 15 community-based conservancies, including this one.

“This town is growing from a small village,” Omar Tawane, regional coordinator for the Northern Rangelands Trust, explains above the engine noise of his truck. 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.

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. 

“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, and Nur, the chairman of the local peace committee, are eager to distinguish their peaceful Sunni Muslim community from the media stereotype of lawless, warlord-ruled Somalis elsewhere in the Horn of Africa.

As we talk, a picture emerges of these pastoralists’ attitudes toward wildlife. There’s little poaching by local Somalis; for cultural reasons, eating game is frowned upon.  

Tawane explains that when you see hirola, it means grazing conditions for livestock are good. In fact, these timid animals often follow pastoralists and their herds, a centuries-old 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, he 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.

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

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-year-old evolutionary lineage, the once widespread genus Beatragus, of which the hirola is now the sole representative.

There may be no more than 300 of these antelopes left. By 1996, the hirola population had declined to some 1,500 individuals, leading to the formation of a task force headed by the Kenya Wildlife Service, to capture and transfer three dozen hirola to Tsavo East National Park, the second such attempt. The intervention became a political issue, prompting the KWS to open an office in Masalani, signaling commitment to conserving the hirola in its original habitat.

“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. Craig didn’t seek out this project; he stumbled across it on a 2006 trip to the Tana River. 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, had been added to the Northern Rangelands Trust’s roster.  

Setting aside land to protect the hirola proved “challenging, difficult to digest,” Tawane tells me. The Somali 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: 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.”

Current thinking is to then 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.  But Craig’s not dwelling on that right now. The sanctuary has yet to be built.

“He’s a candidate for the sanctuary,” Craig says, rolling the Landrover to a stop. 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. Heavily ringed at their base, they curve back and then forward; viewed from the front they form a perfect lyre-shape. 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.

Yet the more I observe the hirola, the less odd it looks. 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.” Banks says the Nature Conservancy has committed to raising $800,000 to cover initial expenditures — i.e., the sanctuary. 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 the male hirola head 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.  But 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. 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.

*****

*****

John Frederick Walker has written on conservation issues for Africa Geographic, The Smart Set, The Washington Post, and other publications and is the author of A Certain Curve of Horn and Ivory's Ghosts.

[Image courtesy of Kenneth Coe]

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