The hirola is hardly a head-turner. If you chanced upon a photo of one while paging through a wildlife magazine, you'd likely mistake the sandy brown buck for an impala or a hartebeest, and pay little attention to it. And yet this unassuming antelope, with its thin face and distinctive white "spectacles", is at the centre of a conservation effort shaping up to be one of the most successful in recent history.

The story of the hirola (Beatragus hunteri) is a sombre one. Over the last three decades, populations have plummeted by a staggering 90%, with the usual culprits – drought, habitat destruction and poaching – responsible for the grave situation. Surviving herds, which total perhaps just 600 individuals, exist on only a fraction of the hirola's historic range, along the Kenya-Somalia border. And it is somewhere here, in a 19,000-hectare protected area, that the hirola's story begins to take a turn for the better.

Set up in 2006 by conservation groups, including The Nature Conservancy, and in close cooperation with local communities, the Ishaqbini Hirola Community Conservancy is the world's only hirola sanctuary, and the antelope population here is thriving.

When the sanctuary was first established, it quickly became a haven for all species, predator and prey alike. While an influx of hyenas, lions and leopards bodes well for conservation efforts, it hardly helped the critically endangered hirolas, who were under enough pressure without the additional risk of getting eaten.

The Abdullah Somali community who run the conservancy responded by rounding up a few healthy hirolas (48 of them) and secured the herd behind a predator-proof fence, where they could roam free without the risk of imminent death.

The plan worked. The initial population of 48 hirolas has more than doubled in just three and a half years, and the sanctuary can now boast about a population in the triple figures. 

They've done it! Ishaqbini-Hirola Community Conservancy have reached a population of 100 hirola in the Sanctuary - from a founder population of just 48 in 2012. What an amazing achievement! #100hirola

Posted by Northern Rangelands Trust on Friday, 25 March 2016


“The 50% increase in hirola numbers epitomises the opportunity and strength of the growing community conservation movement across Kenya,” says Ian Craig, Director of Conservation at the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT). 

But why all the fuss over an antelope that few have ever heard of? Sure, the hirola may lack the charisma and grace of a kudu or the impressive curved horns of the sable (and, yes, in some Kenyan communities the docile hirola is known as the "stupid antelope"), but what it lacks in good looks it makes up for in uniqueness.

Baby Hirola 2016 03 31
A young hirola calf born at the conservancy this year. Image: Ishaqbini-Hirola Community Conservancy/Facebook

The hirola is the sole survivor of its entire genus, so taxonomically speaking, the stupid antelope is actually a pretty big deal. “As the sole representative of its group, the loss of the hirola would be the first extinction of a mammalian genus on mainland Africa in more than 100 years,” explains Cath Lawson from the Zoological Society of London's EDGE Programme.

For Craig, the future of rare species like the hirola, and Africa's wildlife in general, lies in the hands of local communities. "Kenya’s community conservancies are widely recognised across the world as one of the most innovative models in Africa, empowering people to make informed decisions about management of their land whilst benefiting from wildlife and accessing new and alternative income,” he says.

And thanks to the hard work of the Somali pastoralists who live alongside the hirolas, it looks like their story may just have a happy ending.


Header image: Steve Garvie