By Dr. Juliet King
Over the course of six days in August, a capture team led by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) successfully air-lifted 24 hirola into a new predator-proof sanctuary. With 12 hirola already inside and 12 herded in through a gap in the fence, the Ishaqbini community’s sanctuary began with a total of 48 hirola.
As I write, we have had no hirola mortalities during the capture, at the holding pens, or in the sanctuary. The success of the complicated capture operation is a testament to the professionalism of the teams involved: KWS, Ol Pejeta Conservancy and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.
To my knowledge, this sanctuary is the first of its kind — a 6,770-acre fenced piece of land set aside by a community for the purpose of conserving a critically endangered species.
Safely removing predators from the sanctuary proved to be the most onerous task. Cheetah capture involved eight-hour days of tracking, with helicopter chases to flush them from the bush to be darted or, in the case of three cubs, caught by hand!
With the majority of predators removed, plans to capture the few remaining underway and the electrified fence complete, the hirola should regroup in small herds in time for the pregnant females to birth their calves.
A team of rangers now monitors this population — identifying individuals using ear tags — and the sanctuary’s impact on hirola conservation will likely be seen within a few years.
Ian Craig of Northern Rangelands Tust aptly managed the dynamics of hirola, fence, predators, water, capture and community to drive this complex project to a successful outcome. This incredible achievement was made possible by the enormous effort and commitment of the Hara, Korissa and Kotile communities.
And thanks to a global community of supporters, Ishaqbini has the infrastructure, equipment and personnel in place to independently manage the sanctuary — and now 10% of the world’s remaining hirola.
The participation of Ishaqbini’s elders in the capture operation was invaluable, and their stories remain alive. Helicopters maneuvering. The gentleness of captured hirola. “A magical elder with red eyes and holes in his ears who grows the tail of a hyena and mimics their calls in order to catch them.”
These stories they continue to share will be more powerful in entrenching that the sanctuary indisputably belongs to the community than any “conservation awareness” we could ever do ourselves.
Dr. Juliet King is research and monitoring manager for Kenya’s Northern Rangelands Trust. She is a key contributor to efforts to establish the Ishaqbini community’s new predator-proof sanctuary for the hirola, the world’s most endangered antelope.