New hope for the hirola

OTULA OWUOR THE Mostly Somali nomadic community in Garissa, the capital of the North Eastern province of Kenya, recently took the Kenya Wildlife Services (Kws) to court in an effort to stop it from translocating the endangered hirola antelope, also called the Hunter's harte-beest, from the region to a new game reserve. Garissa is home to the few remaining hirola antelopes and is located in Kenya's bandit-ridden northeastern region, which borders Somalia.

Kenyan Somalis regard the hirola as a blessing and consider it a curse to kill the antelope. However, the population of hirola in the Arawale Game Reserve near Garissa, which has the world's largest concentration of the animal in its natural habitat, declined from 14,000 in 1976 to 2,000 in 1993. At the beginning of 1996 there were only 350 hirola antelopes remaining, with some of them scattered in the nearby forested Tana river region and in Lamu. The highly migratory hirola has been exterminated in Somalia. This decline has been linked to the emergence of factional wars in the country.

Kws, which had already translocated I I hirolas, wanted to translocate more from the Arawale Game Reserve to the Tsavo National Park in southeastern Kenya, where the rare antelopes can be protected by game rangers.

However, local residents went to court and managed to block the move, saying that it would rob them of their natural heritage and deprive the region of money generated from tourists who come here to see the last surviving hirola herds in their natural habitat. Local residents argue that KWS cannot guarantee that these antelopes will fare better in the Tsavo National Park.

The court in Nairobi ruled that Kws has the duty of merely conserving wildlife and cannot translocate animals from their natural habitat, except with the express consent of the local community or those entitled to the 'fruits of the earth' on which the animals live.
A rap on the knuckles David Western - who took over the management of the Kws from the world famous paleontolo gist- turned- politician, Richard Leakey - was also forced to answer accusations by Mohammed Hyder, one of Kenya's top ecologists and zoologists, about the translocation of hirolas. Hyder argued that the antelopes had the best chance of surviving in their natural habitat where the community had deep-seated beliefs that ensured their survival and said this" would be intensified if the animals saved became Associated with an economic incentive. Translocation to a new habitat was not a guarantee for long-term survival, he argued.

As expected, Western argued that the instability in Somalia is a major factor in the translocation. He said that the population of the I I hirolas, which were translocated to safer parks before the recent court case, had increased to 66 and a further rise could be expected.

Some experts believe that the issue could have been kept out of court had there been appropriate consultation and communication with local leaders in Garissa. The leaders may have agreed to the translocation of the hirola had they been told in detail about the dangers from Somalia, where the rule of the gun prevails. Experiences with community participation in conserving wildlife in the Masailand, which has 90 per cent of Kenya's wildlife, show that the assurance of obtaining some benefits from the move for the local community may have solved the problem.

The court's ruling, nevertheless, opens up a Pandora's box in Kenya. The country has many ranches owned by foreigners, which thrive on animals obtained from game reserves in areas owned by indigenous communities. This is because the foreigners are able to provide better protection to these animals. And though the issue of translocation of hirolas seemed to have simmered off when it became apparent that KWS would not appeal or go to court, Kws still has problems with representatives of local communities who make deals with tour firms or hotel chains for expansion that may be seen as harmful to the ecological balance, conservation and survival of wildlife in the region.

Fortunately, there are moves to ensure that measures taken by leaders of local communities reflect the needs of the majority and not of the mostly self- appointed spokespersons out to con their own people.

Otula Owuor is consulting editor, African Science Communications Service, Nairobi, Kenya