The Road to Hirola

The journey begins in the pitch dark. Hyenas call in the distance as I climb into the vehicle. More than fifteen hours of driving lie ahead. I’m crammed into the middle seat in the front of a Land Cruiser, so the gearshift hits my knee in second gear (and we spend a lot of time in second gear). The heat is amazing, and the hours bounce by on gouged, crumbling roads punctuated by speed bumps and police checkpoints. Did I mention the two-hour detour after a wrong turn in the pre-dawn twilight?

Amazingly, the day passes in a bright flash.

I’m in Kenya, and everything I see out the window is absolutely new, absorbing, and often surprising. Stoic donkeys laden with plastic barrels of water, walking unaccompanied along well-worn paths; a flock of multicolored chickens transported on the roof of a white van; round cattle bomas fenced with sharp-thorned acacia branches; bundles of fish tied with string, swinging from a speeding car’s radio antenna.

Fieldwork is all about being hands-on, being on the ground where the action is happening, gathering real world data.

But it’s also about the journey. Wherever we work, it takes time to get there.

Our destination is a special place that very few people get to visit: the Ishaqbini Hirola Community Conservancy, home to one of the last remaining populations of critically endangered hirola antelope. I’m headed there to see colleagues from Ishaqbini and the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) research team. They’re planning several days of wildlife population surveys, habitat assessments, and hirola counts, in order to assess how the hirola—and the conservancy as a whole—are faring after many months of severe and devastating drought.

My job on this trip is to meet with conservancy rangers to provide training about wildlife disease. I’m working with the team to help establish a disease surveillance program to make sure we detect any illness as early as possible, in time for intervention. This includes monitoring the health of other wildlife species and also livestock grazed by pastoralist farmers in the land around the conservation area. Luckily, the rangers are extremely knowledgeable, and the health of cattle, sheep, and goats is supported by a vaccination program and an experienced NRT livestock veterinarian.

Last time I visited, I flew to Ishaqbini in a small plane. This time, I’m glad I decided to drive; I can now genuinely appreciate the Conservancy’s isolation and the challenges that brings.

We finally arrive at camp just before dark, set up tents, and eat a huge meal cooked on the fire. The team jokes and laughs in a mixture of Swahili, Somali, and English. That night I lie on my bedroll listening with a thrill to hyenas calling. These “whoops” are much closer than the calls I heard this morning, but nobody else seems worried, so eventually, I drift off to sleep. The next morning the work will begin, and I keep my fingers crossed we’ll see the elusive hirola soon.