Rare antelope on the verge of extinction

Tsavo East National Park. The standard gauge railway has been granted rights to pass through the national parks despite protests that it would interfere with wildlife. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

About 2,000 animals remain of the 14,000 in the 1970s, many of them found in Garissa County

The numbered black circles moving steadily on the digital screen could be anything from elements of a video game to a screensaver. But their significance becomes apparent as Mr Abdullahi Ali points to the map that has filled the computer screen as he explains that the circles represent the world’s last few herds of the hirola, a rare antelope species found in Garissa County.

Using Internet-enabled software installed in his laptop, Mr Ali, a scientist at the National Museums of Kenya, can follow the movement of the graceful animals hundreds of kilometres away in Garissa. The black circles represent the herd leaders that are fitted with global positioning system (GPS) tracking collars.


“This could be a significant portion of the remaining herds of this rare antelope worldwide as 75 per cent of its original population is gone,” said Mr Ali, who works in the NMK Department of Conservation Biology.

The hirola, a slender antelope with a white line between its eyes that gives it the appearance of wearing spectacles, is largely unknown beyond the borders of Garissa and parts of neighbouring Somalia.

And there is the risk that future generations may never know it ever existed as it is listed as a “critically endangered” species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The hirola’s presence on the global “red list” has the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) concerned.

“This category is the last stage in the process ultimately leading to the extinction of a species should the factors causing the decline remain,” KWS spokesperson Peter Muya said.

The hirola was previously found on the plains that make up the border between Kenya and Somalia; its status there is largely unknown after more than two decades of instability. KWS estimates that there may be between 600 and 2,000 of the antelopes in Kenya, down from 14,000 in the 1970s.

The hirola is not only the subject of global interest but is also a treasure to Mr Ali’s community in Ishaqbini.

He believes the fate of the rare antelope has not been highlighted as much as it should be and considers the marketing of its Garissa habitat as a tourist destination to be inadequate.

“There is a lot of ignorance on the existence of the hirola in Kenya,” he said.

He believes the growth of human settlement in the area has played a big role in reducing the hirola population.

Experts say that after the government of Somalia collapsed in 1991, an influx of refugees into Kenya disrupted the movement corridor for the hirola.
KWS thinks the situation is more complex.

“Much of the decline seems to have occurred between 1983 and 1985 during a major rinderpest outbreak,” said Mr Muya, referring to the contagious viral disease.


The decommissioning of the Arawale National Reserve, the only protected area dedicated to the hirola, because of weak local support and lack of funds further exposed the antelopes.

If it becomes extinct, the world’s most endangered mammal will be the first known to do so in mainland Africa and the first worldwide since Australia’s Tasmanian wolf in 1936.

However, efforts to save the hirola whose image appears on the Garissa County seal seem to have received less attention than those aimed at saving elephants and rhinos.

According to KWS, there are only about 100 hirola protected in Tsavo East National Park with the rest roaming the plains of Garissa.

Mr Ali, who is leading his community in conserving the rare antelope, says the geographical position of Garissa and insecurity have also discouraged conservationists.