San Diego Zoo to the Rescue in Ishaqbini

A victim of the drought in Ishaqbini

A victim of the drought in Ishaqbini

San Diego Zoo supports emergency drought response for wildlife in the Ishaqbini Hirola Sanctuary

Kenya is currently at an early stage of a severe drought. It is affecting most of the north, and the consequences are already taking a devastating toll on livestock and wildlife. Ishaqbini Hirola Sanctuary, on the banks of the Tana River, would normally receive reliable rainfall at this time of year, but the drought now threatens the survival of the most endangered antelope on the planet.  

The body condition of this warthog is desperate

The body condition of this warthog is desperate

Over the past few weeks, Ishaqbini rangers have reported deaths of a large number of lesser kudu, buffalo and giraffe within the 3,000-hectare fenced Sanctuary. While there is plenty of water at the water points, the nutritional value of the grass and browse is extremely poor, and is unable to support the present number of herbivores.

Lucerne pellets ready for distribution

Lucerne pellets ready for distribution

In an effort to reduce browsing pressure, KWS, NRT and Ishaqbini Conservancy made an attempt to move some giraffe out of the Sanctuary in early November, with support from San Diego Zoo. Using a large team of people and a helicopter, 22 giraffe (out of 130) were successfully moved out. It is hoped they will be able to find alternative browse in areas not so heavily under pressure.

Abdi lays down hay at the main water hole

Abdi lays down hay at the main water hole

Ishaqbini Sanctuary was established in 2012 to specifically save the critically endangered hirola antelope from extinction. Over the past 4 years, the population has grown by around 60% - to an estimated 115 hirola from a starter population of just 48. This now represents approximately 20-25% of the global population, and is a success story for community conservation in Africa.

The rangers have been monitoring the body condition of the hirola closely. At present, the adverse effects of the drought have not been seen in the hirola themselves, but given the death rate of other herbivores in the Sanctuary, Ishaqbini management want to take preventative measures before it is too late.

But supplementary feeding – the only viable option at this stage – is expensive considering Ishaqbini’s remote location. Hay and lucerne pellets would have to be driven in from as far as 450 kilometres away. Ishaqbini and NRT appealed to San Deigo Zoo once again for support, and they came to the rescue – agreeing to fund a supplementary feeding programme for the next few months at least.

You can take hay to the hirola, but you can’t make them eat it.

“We don’t even know if the hirola will eat lucerne and hay, they are very specific feeders” said Ian Craig, NRT’s Director of Conservation, in early November. “But we have a responsibility to try”. In a tense trial period, the Ishaqbini rangers put hay out near one of the main water points, and set up a camera trap to monitor the reaction.

When the footage came back to Ishaqbini HQ, there was jubilation all round. The hirola were seen feeding on the hay. “I’m so happy, this is such great news. The hirola will be OK” said Abdi, the manager.

The rangers will now place hay and pellets at all the water points in the Sanctuary, and continue to monitor the feeding. The hope is that the body condition of the hirola can be maintained in case the rains fail completely, and that the supplementary feed will see them through this difficult time.