Turning the tide for endangered hartebeest

Tuesday, April 14th, 2020 00:00 |
A femaleJackson’s hartebeest licks her offspring at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Photo/PD/Clifford Akumu

Efforts to save the Kongoni are underway at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy after  increased concerns over their dwindling numbers, which has been blamed on predation. 

Clifford Akumu

In the tall-grass woodland of the Laikipia region in Central Kenya lies Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Here, two Jackson’s hartebeest lean on each other and occasionally lock horns playfully oblivious of their fate in the wild.

Another herd, few metres away, is immersed in the nutritious grass, only occasionally distracted by the sound of a van.

The area, characterised by whistling thorns and Euclea Divinorum trees, has long been home to the Jackson’s hartebeest, an endemic subspecies of the hartebeest — a large type of antelope known locally as Kongoni

Kenya is home to Coke’s and Lewel’s hartebeest species, which have cross-bred to produce Jackson’s hartebeest.

The numbers of these high shouldered, long-legged, short-necked animals are on the decline.

Habitat destruction, hunting, predatory patterns, diseases and parasites are the biggest threat to various hartebeest species, according to experts.

Globally, the population of Jackson’s species is not known, but in Laikipia their numbers are estimated to be between 700-1000.

Took a while

Ol Pejeta Conservancy is one of the few facilities in Kenya that arguably enjoys a stronger commitment to endangered species and offers perhaps an even brighter recovery future for the Jackson’s hartebeest.

The conservancy hosts an estimated 180 species, about 27 per cent of the area’s population.

However, the population has been drastically reducing, with researchers now calling for urgent intervention measures.

“It is true that hartebeest populations are reducing not only in Kenya, but also in other countries where sub-populations are extant,” says Benard Gituku, Deputy Manager, Ecological Monitoring at Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Gituku and his team are racing against time to turn the tide on Jackson’s hartebeest conservation and pull it from further decline. 

Benard Gituku, Deputy Manager Ecological Monitoring at Ol Pejeta. Photo/PD/Clifford Akumu

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list ranks Coke’s hartebeest as being of least concern. The numbers are decreasing while the Lewel hartebeest is categorised as endangered.

Other sub-species of hartebeests like Bubal, majorly found north of Sahara desert, was declared extinct in 1994 by the IUCN while the Tora hartebeest has been classified under critically endangered species, meaning it faces very high risk of extinction.

But even with these warnings, it took a while for the conservation message to catch on in Mount Kenya region.

“Jackson’s hartebeest could be found anywhere across Laikipia years ago,” says Gituku. But that has changed.

The IUCN further reports that nearly 70 per cent of antelope species are classified as ‘near threatened’ or ‘least concern’.

Predator-free enclosures

Hartebeest, which were formerly widespread in Africa, is now extinct in Egypt, Lesotho, Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Somalia and Tunisia, but has been introduced into Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

To boost the numbers of Jackson’s species, which Gituku notes “...Is believed to be a charismatic species in the Laikipia Ewaso Ecosystem and not found anywhere else in the country,” the conservancy has taken various measures, such as allocating 2,500 acres of ‘predator free enclosures’ where the species has a chance to breed naturally and grow their numbers. 

Close monitoring ensures every birth is detected and calf survival tracked to establish the rate of recruitment and hence population growth. 

Predators in the conservancy are also under round-the-clock surveillance to determine their impact on the hartebeest population.

“A significant proportion of the hartebeest are within predator proof enclosures, therefore, the survival of their young ones is, at least, guaranteed,” says Gituku. 

Years of monitoring indicate a progressive drop in their population outside the enclosure.

A 2017 Study appearing in the Journal of Mammalogy dubbed Lion’s Influence The Decline And Habitat Shift Of Hartebeest In Semiarid Savanna, blamed the decline on lion and hyena predation.

Although instilling a sense of stewardship regarding hartebeest conservation among locals is key, one of the hurdles of saving the species is finding a balance between predator numbers, prevalence of diseases and livestock densities, notes Samuel Mutisya, head of conservation at Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

The next few years will likely prove critical for the survival of Jackson’s hartebeest species in Laikipia region. What the locals, conservationists, officials do or don’t do will determine these grazers’ future.

“At this juncture, it’s our action to tame the decline of these species,” adds Gituku.

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