Efforts to save the endangered roan antelope from extinction

Roan antelopes at Ruma National Park in Homa Bay County.

Photo credit: Courtesy: Kenya Wildlife Service

It has been more than one year since the government launched a national recovery and action plan to save the endangered roan antelope from extinction in Kenya.

But there has been little progress in the 10-year plan that aims at increasing their numbers in Ruma National Park in Homa Bay County.

Work is underway to create a sanctuary for the animals within the park as challenges such as predators, wildfire and poaching remain major threats that could wipe out the rare animal.

In the 1970s, more than 200 roan antelopes were counted in Kenya.

Their numbers were even higher before then and they occupied different habitats across the country, from central to the western regions.

Today, however, there are only 15 roan antelopes and they are only found in Ruma National Park.

The roan antelope faces a lot of natural and manmade challenges in different countries across the African savanna.

To save and increase their population, the government, through the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, launched a 10-year national recovery and action plan within the park.

But 15 months after Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala and Homa Bay Governor Cyprian Awiti launched the plan, little has changed in the park.

Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers in Ruma are, however, optimistic that new interventions introduced by the government and well-wishers to save the animal from extinction will bear fruit.

Ruma acting Senior Warden Titus Mitau said that some roan antelopes gave birth to calves. It signalled a new chapter in efforts to increase their numbers.

But as nature would have it, the young mammals were killed by predators.

Exposing them to predators

Young herbivores are being preyed upon mainly by hyenas and leopards.

In nature, roan mothers keep their young away from their herds for about six weeks after birth, thereby exposing them to predators.

Pythons are suspected to prey on the antelopes too.

It therefore means that the roan antelope may be wiped out by predators because their population exceeds the herbivores.

“One of the plans to save the animal is to establish a predator-free sanctuary where the roan antelope can graze freely,” Mr Mitau said.

“We have already built two water points within the animal’s habitat. Water will be supplied from a borehole and it will reduce the distance the animal has to travel in search of water.”

The roan antelope has a gestation period of nine months.

Calves remain secluded for six weeks. This is the time they are hunted by predators and killed. A herd is made up of between five and 15 animals.

The 200 roan antelopes that existed in the 1970s were distributed in areas like Mt Elgon, Ruma (formerly Lambwe Valley) Cherangany Hills, Ithanga Hills in Kiambu County, and around Chyulu Hills.

The population decline is attributed to habitat loss and drought. The animal drinks water at least twice a day.

In most countries, the animal lives in protected areas because of its decreasing numbers.

To save the 15 roan antelopes in Kenya, KWS wants to create a buffer zone around them.

In Ruma, work is underway to establish a sanctuary where the animal will be free from predators, humans and other elements that may threaten its life.

KWS is also putting up a fence to control the movement of other animals in the sanctuary. The fence will block predators and prevent poachers from killing the antelopes.

“Once complete, all animals that threaten the lives of the antelopes will be moved out and all roan antelopes enclosed within the protected area that covers five square kilometres,” Mr Mitau said.

Tourism and wildlife Cabinet Secreatry Najib Balala and Homa Bay Governro Cyprian Awiti during the launch of a strategic plan for the recovery of the endangered roan antelope at Ruma National Park in Homa Bay County on March 3, 2020. 

Photo credit: George Odiwuor | Nation Media Group

KWS has procured gadgets that will be used to monitor the growth of the animal in the sanctuary.

Recently, the M-Pesa Foundation donated money to the project.

Mr Mitau said KWS bought a vehicle, cameras and computers that scientists will use to monitor the antelope.

Another threat the animal faced is wildfires.

The area around Ruma National Park is densely population.

A majority of people are farmers who hold the traditional belief that rain comes from smoke.

Every planting season, therefore, some farmers set fire to vegetation around their homes with the belief that the rising smoke will bring rain.

In most cases, fire spreads across the fence into the park and kills crawling animals like snakes and young herbivores that cannot outrun the fire.

Fire also reduces feed for herbivores and destroys the habitat for some birds.

In March this year, fire consumed vegetation in five square kilometres.

Part of the money from the M-Pesa Foundation was used to hire 17 members of the community to clear vegetation around the park to create fire breaks.

Does not like tall grass

“Fire normally spreads from farms across the fence to the park. To prevent similar incidents, we have cleared vegetation in areas that are prone to wildfire to prevent the fire from spreading. We have deployed a tractor that the community workers use to do the work,” Mr Mitau said.

“The tractor is also used to cut grass in the sanctuary where the roan antelope will be. Scientists told us that the animal does not like tall grass.”

Alongside predation and fire, poaching is also a major threat not only to the antelope in the park but also to other animals like rhinos.

Mr Mitau reported that rangers had not encountered poachers in the park recently, but the appetite that locals have for bush meat is still a threat.

Some community members around the park are known for killing animals for traditional values.

Horns from herbivores are used for musical instruments and skin for burial ceremonies.

Although these rituals have been eroded by contemporary lifestyles, Mr Mitau said they cannot rule out the possibility that people would kill the animals.

Ruma is highly accessible to poachers because of public roads and footpaths that cut across animal habitats from Nyatoto to Nyadenda.

This encourages unrestricted access to the park by vehicles, motorcycles and pedestrians.

High vantage points adjacent to the park also allow poachers to monitor wildlife and the activities of KWS personnel.

In addition to this, there is not enough patrolling and monitoring by KWS rangers.

Poachers can therefore use these loopholes to kill animals.

“We are always on the lookout for anyone who intends to hunt the animals,” Mr Mitau said.

When Mr Balala visited the park on World Wildlife Day in March, he cited disease outbreaks, drought, competition with other grazers, mineral deficiency, inbreeding depression as among the issues affecting the growth of the roan antelope and other animals in Ruma.

KWS announced plans to introduce new roan antelopes to the park.

Mr Mitau said the government was planning to bring some animals from Uganda to Ruma as he called on residents to support the expansion of the park.

“The number of tourists visiting the park is very low. In the past, the majority of visitors were foreigners whose travel to the country was affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Kenyans should embrace the park,” the ranger said.

The Homa Bay County government, which uses the roan antelope as one of the features on its emblems, also encouraged residents to visit the park.

Tourism Chief Officer Moses Buririr said visiting the park will promote local tourism.

“Homa Bay County has a wide range of unique features that residents can explore. The park is one of them,” he said.