Drought Threatens Future of Critically Endangered Antelope Species

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San Diego Zoo Global Rushes to Provide Emergency Aid to Kenyan Sanctuary

The critically endangered hirola antelope is facing an uncertain future today, as a severe drought in northern Kenya threatens its survival. Conservationists and ecologists are concerned that the continued lack of rainfall—already taking a devastating toll on the area’s livestock and wildlife—could decimate this species, which many consider to be the most endangered antelope on the planet.

Rangers at the Ishaqbini Hirola Sanctuary, located on the banks of the Tana River, are reporting a large increase in herbivore deaths within the more than 11-square-mile anti-predator fenced area. The high death rate has prompted Ishaqbini management to make a plea to San Diego Zoo Global and other conservation organizations for assistance to save the hirola antelope, before it’s too late.

This latest emergency plea comes after San Diego Zoo Global provided support to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), and NRT’S conservancy at Ishaqbini, as they moved a group of reticulated giraffes out of the sanctuary in an effort to reduce browsing (leaf-feeding) pressure. A large team of animal care staff, with the aid of a helicopter, successfully relocated 22 giraffes—allowing them to find browse in areas where there is less competition for food.

The current plan by Ishaqbini management is to provide supplementary feedings to the hirola antelope before the drought can more adversely affect their fragile population. While the idea sounds like a simple matter of feeding the animals, this preventative plan requires hay and lucerne pellets to be driven to Ishaqbini’s remote location—making it an expensive endeavor, considering that the food must be delivered from as far away as 279 miles. A team from Ishaqbini and NRT will lead the effort, while San Diego Zoo Global has agreed to fund the program for the next few months.

“With perhaps a sixth of the world’s hirola population—as well as numerous other herbivores—at risk, we were delighted to be able assist Ishaqbini in their vital efforts to save these animals,” said David O’Connor, conservation ecologist at San Diego Zoo Global. “The Northern Rangelands Trust and the Ishaqbini community are leading the fight against hirola extinction, so it was important for us to quickly mobilize our team team and take swift action.”

Conservationists say getting the food to the animals is only part of the solution. The second major hurdle is getting the antelopes to eat the food. “We didn’t know if the hirola would eat lucerne and hay: They are very specific feeders,” said Ian Craig, director of conservation at NRT. “At first, we were skeptical, but we had a responsibility to try.”

Their initial attempt appears to have worked, as preliminary reports show the antelope fed on a batch of hay delivered to the sanctuary. Staff members at Ishaqbini headquarters say there was great relief when the antelope were seen feeding on the hay. Rangers will now place hay and pellets at all water points in the sanctuary, and will continue to monitor the feeding. The hope is to maintain the current status of the hirola, in case drought conditions worsen.

With only an estimated 600 individuals left in their native habitat, the hirola antelope is listed as critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species—making it the most endangered antelope species in the world. The 7,500 acre Ishaqbini Hirola Sanctuary was established by NRT and the community in 2012, specifically to help save the hirola species from the brink of extinction. Conservationists started with a small population of 48 individual antelopes, increasing the number to an estimated 115 antelopes today.

In recent years, San Diego Zoo Global has partnered with NRT on the development of a disease-monitoring strategy to help prevent devastating outbreaks among hirola at Ishaqbini, and the transfer of disease from livestock or other species. The remote sanctuary currently cares for more than 20 percent of the global population of hirola antelope and is considered a success story for community conservation in Africa.

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