Hirola are hard to find….and worth a look

Hirola.  Never heard of them?  For those of you haven’t, you are not alone.  

Hirola are the most endangered antelope in the world, endemic to Kenya, but have a bit of a low profile.  No zoo in the world currently has hirola under human care.  Many native Kenyans have never heard of them.  You will not find photos or figurines in tourist gift shops, nor likenesses of hirola alongside high profile species like elephants, rhinos, leopards and lions.  

But they deserve some attention.  Hirola are critically endangered, with fewer than 500 hirola in the world.  They live only in the southeastern corner of Kenya, near the border with Somalia, and are the only living member of their genus (Beatragus hunteri). 

Historically, the decline of hirola was due to disease, drought, poaching, predation and habitat loss.  

While hirola live in an unstable part of the world, a significant subset of the population is protected in a sanctuary devoted to them.  

The Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy is a community run conservancy managed by the Northern Rangelands Trust [NRT], and dedicated to the protection and repopulation of hirola.  Established in 2012 within the native home range of hirola, the population started with a founding group of 48 animals, and has now successfully grown to an estimated 118 – 130 animals.  

Following this success, there are active plans to double the size of the sanctuary.

Amidst challenges over the years, including disease, drought, regional instability, and now a global pandemic, the sanctuary has always and continues to employ local Kenyans as rangers and managers.  

San Diego Zoo Global is a partner with NRT in hirola disease surveillance efforts, in part by supporting and guiding the research of veterinarian Dr. Stephen Chege as a SDZG post doctoral fellow.  A newly hired veterinary technician also works daily, on the ground in the sanctuary, to monitor for signs of disease and regularly collect biological samples. 

Hirola live at the wildlife-livestock-human interface and risk of spillover from domestic species into the hirola population is the driving force behind our disease surveillance efforts.  Our aim is to understand disease risk and put in place measures to prevent loss of hirola to preventable disease.

Ishaqbini is a difficult part of the world to get to.  If you can get there, hirola are shy and elusive, and you still may not manage to see one, or you may just see a tail and hind legs running away from you.  

I have attempted to get a close-up look at hirola on two different trips, by plane, vehicle, motorbike, and on foot.  On the last day of my second trip, I finally had success, spotting both a family group inside the Ishaqbini Sanctuary, and a handsome male just outside the sanctuary perimeter.  I only had a few seconds to snap photos of these beautiful animals looking back at me through their spectacled facial markings.  

Seeing them in person reinforced the unique beauty of this species, and the need to help hirola thrive in the wild.