Estimates put hirola numbers at just 240. Image: Steve Garvie, Flickr

It looks like a cross between an impala and hartebeest, and you can immediately tell it apart from its antelope kin by its trademark white 'spectacles'. The hirola (Beatragus hunteri) is also critically endangered, its populations a staggering 90% smaller today than just a few decades ago. Estimates say only around 240 individuals survive. 

But the story of hirola conservation looks like it might be edging towards a happy ending. And in this case, wresting a species from extinction's grip would make for a particularly significant victory: the hirola happens to be the sole survivor in its entire genus (Beatragus), which means losing it would rob us not just of a species, but also an entire evolutionary lineage that originated over three million years ago. Without urgent action to protect the antelope, a mammalian genus will go extinct for the first time on mainland Africa in modern human history. 

“Without urgent action to protect the hirola, a mammalian genus will go extinct for the first time on mainland Africa in modern human history. ”

To blame for the hirola's dire state are the usual culprits: drought linked to climate change, unregualted hunting and habitat destruction. Today, surviving herds exist on only a fraction of the hirola's historic range, along the Kenya-Somalia border, where long-running efforts to save the species ratcheted up in 2006 with the establishment of the Ishaqbini Hirola Community Conservancythe world's only hirola sanctuary. Set up by conservation groups, including The Nature Conservancy, in close cooperation with local communities, the 19,000-hectare protected area, buffered from poaching and overgrazing by livestock, has steadily became a haven for rare wildlife.

The antelope rebounded in their new refuge – but so did their predators. With hyenas, lions and leopards helping themselves to a buffet of endangered hirola, a decision was made to set conservancy land aside to contain a viable population behind a predator-proof fence. In August 2012, 48 hirola were successfully relocated into the predator-free sanctuary, and that population has been doing remarkably well: a recent survey showed that in less than three years 34 hirola have been born, bringing the number of antelope protected from poaching and predators in the sanctuary to 78.

“A lot of people may not view 34 births in three years as significant, but with fewer than 240 hirola left in the world we’re talking about the difference between survival and extinction,” says Matthew Brown, the Africa Deputy Director of The Nature Conservancy.  

Conservation groups have chalked up much of the project's success to the close involvement of local communities. “The participation of elders in the translocation operation was invaluable and their first-hand feedback to the community – regaling stories of helicopters manoeuvring through bushes [and] the gentleness of captured hirola – ... will be more powerful in entrenching that the sanctuary indisputably belongs to the community than any ‘conservation awareness’ we can do ourselves,” says Dr Juliet King, the science advisor for Northern Rangelands Trust.

The hirolas' new home has also attracted other residents, inducing giraffes, zebras, lesser kudu, gazelles and ostrich. Elephants have made an appearance as well, with a herd of eight now settled in their new secured habitat.

The project’s long-term goal is to release animals bred within the sanctuary back into the free-ranging population, ultimately building a viable population that is equipped to cope with natural levels of predation and competition. 

Top header image: Steve Garvie, Flickr