Africa’s most endangered large mammal species isn’t the majestic mountain gorilla or the stately black rhino.
It’s the hirola, pronounced “hee-ROH-la,” a tawny brown antelope with spiraled, curved horns and a long, skinny snout whose facial markings make it look like it wears eyeglasses.
With just over 400 individual creatures living in a small section of northeastern Kenya, the hirola is not only more threatened than Africa’s most famous species, it is also the world's most endangered antelope species.
But outside the narrow strip of sandy, thorny wilderness along Kenya’s volatile border with Somalia, few know the hirola exist at all – or of the need to conserve them.
“It’s not a big charismatic animal that drives tourism, so people don’t know about it,” says hirola expert Abdullahi Ali, a Kenyan ecologist and doctoral candidate at the University of Wyoming. “But it’s beautiful, it’s elegant.”
Yet it seems to many conservationists that coming generations will never know about the hirola (Beatragus hunteri).
Some of the forces that have pushed the antelope to the verge of extinction include environmental disasters, the war in Somalia, as well as habitat loss and poaching.
The hirola is the only remaining species of an ancient antelope genus, and fewer than 500 survive today, down from 15,000 in the mid-1970s.
Mr. Ali, born in northeastern Kenya to nomadic parents, hopes to change the species' prospects before it’s too late.
He’s set up a community conservancy employing local rangers, who use radio-collaring devices on nine animals that are in seven different herds to keep track of them; and he aims to use his PhD research to establish a permanent hirola reserve.
“If we lose the hirola we are not going to lose just a species, we are losing an entire genus with all that evolutionary history,” says Ali. “The entire world will lose that genetic pool, not only Kenya."
Despite being so rare, hirola aren’t hard to find in Ali’s 15-square mile sanctuary at the Ishaqbini Community Conservancy, where 66 hirola individuals are protected.
The landscape here is storybook Africa with acacia trees and burning orange sunsets. The area around the sanctuary teems with other wildlife, like kudu, oryx, topi, and giraffe, as well as two endemic monkey species, plus lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, and endangered wild dogs.
One afternoon on a recent walk, Ali spots a herd of one male and four female hirola.
“In the 1970s people who had been here had recorded 300 hirola together in one group,” Ali says, peering through binoculars. “The largest group we have seen is 20.”
That decline is the result of a dizzying series of bad policies and circumstance.
In the 1980s, Kenya’s government decommissioned the Arawale Reserve, the country’s only protected area for hirola.
Meanwhile, “villagization” policies settling nomads in towns resulted in livestock populations increasing four-fold in two decades. High livestock densities are attributed to a cattle virus in 1983 that killed around 90 percent of the hirola in just two years.
Then the hirola habitat collapsed.
As cattle depleted grass and water, fire suppression laws and elephant poaching allowed thick, thorny trees to overtake as much as 95 percent of the hirola’s open grasslands. Previously, burns and hungry elephants kept encroaching vegetation at bay.
Then, even worse, war broke out in Somalia in 1991; hirola are now presumed extinct there. Hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees, many starving, fled to Kenya and began hunting the remaining hirola for food. It didn't help that hirola are considered one of the most delicious wild game.
Even today awareness and funds are limited because Al Shabab, the Somali Al Qaeda proxy, carries out sporadic attacks and kidnappings in northeastern Kenya, scaring away tourists and researchers.
If something is not done, “We are predicting that this species will dwindle to less than 20 individuals in the next 50 years, and be extinct in a 100 years,” Ali says
Still, he is optimistic. Since 2012, 26 calves have been born in the sanctuary, with only one dying, the best track record of any previous hirola conservation program.
Ali’s next step is to reestablish the defunct Arawale Reserve.
He says he’ll need outside funding, and, crucially, support from his Somali cattle-herding kin.
“One of the reasons that makes hirola special is that they occur completely outside formal protected areas and only in communal areas,” Ali says. “So their long term survival hinges on our ability to instill tolerance and cooperation among local communities.”
Ali’s plan is to “use livestock to conserve wildlife,” a concept that’s worked elsewhere in Kenya.
The idea is to let cattle roam widely in conservation areas. The livestock improve the landscape by fertilizing the soil, but stay on the move to avoid depleting grasses.
Today, fortunately, some locals already favor hirola conservation. Many see hirola as an indicator of healthy range lands for cattle. Others say that the more antelope there are for lions to eat, the fewer attacks on cows.
“If the hirola is very many, the livestock will be very many and there will be lots of milk,” says Hassan Sheikh, an elder and pastoralist.
Indeed, locals are fiercely proud of the hirola, viewing it as a symbol of their identity and featuring it on county seals. They revere it so much that in 1996 they sued Kenya’s government, and won, to block conservation plans that would have translocated hirola elsewhere.
“The animals belong to us,” says Sheikh. “Our children should benefit from them.”
Despite Western travel warnings against northeastern Kenya, many hope hirola tourism could bring jobs.
Ali employs 30 local rangers and trackers in and out of the Ishaqbini Conservancy. One is a former poacher named Mohamed, who used to hunt hirola for food while tracking elephants.
“Hirola meat is so sweet that if you tried it you will be tempted to go hunt it yourself,” he laughs. “But now we know about this species and that it is restricted to this district, so it’s become special to us.”