The hirola Restoration Project focuses on rangeland restoration for the critically endangered hirola antelope (Beatragus hunteri) in eastern Kenya. With a global population of fewer than 500 individuals, the hirola is considered the world’s most endangered antelope. Historically hirola occurred in open savannah grassland with <30% tree cover, however, recent satellite imagery indicates a ~ 300% increase in tree cover over the last 27 years. This increase has been associated with elephant extirpation, climate change and overgrazing. Our project is therefore working to protect, restore and promote the establishment of native grasslands in the hirola’s geographic range. We are doing this in partnership with Somali pastoralists to identify (1) tree encroached areas that will respond positively to management interventions, (2) identifying bare sites that can be restored and (3) promoting nature-based solutions for the local communities. Our lessons from testing best restoration strategies indicated that the success of our program will vary depending on the restoration approach, different soil types found here and species used in restoration.
Country or Territory:
Grasslands & Savannas - Tropical
Hirola Conservation Programme
NGO / Nonprofit Organization
Kenya Wildlife Service, Utah State University, International Union for Conservation of Nature, Garissa County Government, Zoological Society of London, National Geographic Society, Columbus Zoo, Phoenix Zoo, Houston Zoo, Whitely Funds for Nature.
Primary Causes of DegradationInvasive Species (native or non-native pests, pathogens or plants)
Scientists have conjectured hirola rangeland degradation be linked to several factors. Between 1985 and 2012 a ~300% increase in invasive tree cover emanating from the extirpation of 5000 elephants have been reported in this region. Other factors such as overgrazing and droughts are suspected to be in part responsible for the continued degradation. These encroaching trees have led to a reduction in the grassland areas (suitable range) to no more than 1,500 km2 within the larger hirola historical range. The changing landscape made it possible and lucrative for the locals to shift from grass-eating cattle production to tree/shrub-eating goat and camel production. However, recent studies suggest that hirola avoid areas with high tree cover, primarily due to food limitation. Thus, if tree encroachment trends continue, recovery of hirola will soon become insurmountable. Habitat loss due to tree encroachment, fragmentation, and degradation is a common issue in many rangelands. Tree encroachment and the other factors mentioned can affect the quality of the soil (nutrients) and pasture availability. Along with other species in southeastern Kenya. Moreover, climate patterns have been changing in this region. Rainfall declined by 6.3mm/year, or ca. 246 mm total between 1970 and 2009 resulting in dry conditions that favor trees over grasses. Together, all of these changes have led to reduced grassland area, which also directly impacts hirola populations, livestock production and threatens local livelihoods in eastern Kenya.
Defining the Reference EcosystemThe reference ecosystem is primarily based on historical information about ecological attributes at the site prior to degradation.
Project overall Goal
The goal of this project is to contribute towards the long-term recovery of the hirola population by addressing the primary threat facing them. The project will restore rangelands for hirola and seek to understand the link between habitat degradation and food quality. Moreover, the project will include capacity development and local Somali pastoralist (community) involvement through education and outreach.
Project specific objectives
The specific objectives of the overall project are:
1) Reduce areas under tree encroachment by clearing 2500 hectares of invasive trees and increase grass cover by reseeding 1000 hectares with native grasses.
2) Establish nutritional and mechanical properties of hirola food (pasture) including forage quality.
3) Promote local involvement through community education and outreach while improving local livelihoods by establishing nature-based income-generating activities.
The project does not have a monitoring plan.
The primary stakeholders of the project are nomadic pastoralists of Somali origin. Before the establishment of the project, we did a survey to determine locally accepted management interventions. Subsequently, we held meeting across 10 villages to sensitize communities and involve them in key activities of our project including manual removal of trees, reseeding and harvesting, and storage of seeds. The key interest of the locals included what would be (i) the future of their historical pastoral lifestyle to which most of the locals leaned towards favoring a system that would support their lifestyle. (ii) they were also concerned about how they will benefit from increased grass, to which the project would ensure inclusion through a planned grazing system. Other concerns included (iii) If they will get employment and other opportunities from these efforts such as nature-based solutions commented towards livelihood development. Overall, the project has since involved over 100 laborers employed as restoration agents and an additional 30 scouts to be responsible for antipoaching efforts. Besides, the project has in place nature-based enterprises such as native grass seed harvesting and hay production that is committed to boosting the locals’ livelihoods. We also run an education and awareness programme based on village meetings, school visits, workshops, public rallies, and cinemas.
How this project eliminated existing threats to the ecosystem:
The hirola rangeland has been associated with a nearly 300% increase in tree cover and a 75% reduction in grass cover. Currently, we are actively reducing invasive tree cover by manually cutting and thinning down bushes to achieve a desirable hirola habitat of grassland with less than 30% tree cover.
How this project reinstated appropriate physical conditions (e.g. hydrology, substrate)",:
During the first year of our restoration, we tested the condition necessary for the reestablishments of grass rangeland across the different soil types in hirola rangeland. The results of these studies are yet to be published, however, in soil types deficient in minerals, we employ the use of locally available livestock manure to boost fertility, and in those that soil is deficient of aeration due to soil capping, we use tilling to stimulate aeration. Most of the physical conditions in this ecosystem were acceptably met to facilitate restoration
How this project achieved a desirable species composition:
We selected four species based on case history for grasses that perform well across the different soil types in the region to be used for restoration. These grass species are also the leading food for hirola. Similarly, the soil seed bank offers another array of species that will complement the selected species to enable us to achieve the desired species composition
How this project reinstated structural diversity (e.g. strata, faunal food webs, spatial habitat diversity):
We rolled out landscape-level restoration across different soil types within hirola rangeland (loam, black cotton, and red sandy soil) and in consideration of places with high hirola concentration. Upon achieving the desire consistency and persistence in our reestablished grasses in the restoration islands, we will move ahead to test the response of large herbivores towards restored areas. We hope to influence the population of herbivores with increased food availability particularly the population of hirola.
How this project recovered ecosystem functionality (e.g. nutrient cycling, plant-animal interactions, normal stressors):
Alongside habitat restoration designed to improving soil seedbank, we run an antipoaching programme to guard elephants that are instrumental to the maintaining of grasslands. Hirola habitat degradation has been strongly linked to the extirpation of elephants from hirola rangeland. Together, these initiatives will ensure the long-term sustainability of our project. Further, we have initiated planned grazing to minimize grazing pressure that contributes to degradation. Together with the increased availability of a variety of food through restored grassland, we hope to reduce environmental stressors.
How this project reestablished external exchanges with the surrounding landscape (e.g. migration, gene flow, hydrology):
Most of the hirola occur within communally owned land outside formally protected areas. Besides, habitat restoration we have actively been pursuing the formation of community protected areas within hirola concentration areas and protection of potential corridors to all the different population interact and maintain connectivity. We are also protecting riverine flood plains that offer grasses during prolonged drought along the Tana and river channels which is a critical source of water during prolonged droughts.
Activities were undertaken to address any socio-economic aspects of the project:
The majority of the locals are nomadic pastoralists of Somali origin, this project in itself has a knock-on benefit to their livelihood by increasing access to pasture. Moreover, our project has a goal to support and improve the local livelihoods through alternative nature-based economic activities. This includes native grass seed farming to be sold to restoration projects all over the region, Improved livestock production through, hay production and sale, and beekeeping among others.
Ecological Outcomes Achieved
Eliminate existing threats to the ecosystem:
Although the process is slow, our initiative to manually remove invasive tree species has been effective. So far, we have managed to clear 494.2 acres (200 hectares) of invasive Acacia reficiens within a year in the core hirola concentration areas. For the next three years, we hope to reclaim 2500 hectares of land from invasive tree species.
Reinstate appropriate physical conditions",:
During the first year of our restoration project, we tested the conditions favorable for the restoration of grasslands. The results of the study indicated that the soil physical conditions were within acceptable limits to allow for the restoration of grasslands.
Achieve a desirable species composition:
To achieve desirable specie composition, we combined manual removal of undesired invasive Acacia reficiens and reseeding the rangeland with desired grass species identified from case history to perform well in the region and to be the leading food for hirola. To complement this, we have provided favorable conditions for seedbank to reestablish other desired species that were initially limited by tree cover.
Reinstate structural diversity:
The project is yet to establish how our initiative has affected both flora and fauna in the focus areas
Recover ecosystem functionality:
Our approach does not only include the restoration of grasslands but also, we seek to maintain the grasslands by protecting elephants that are responsible for the maintenance of open grasslands. The initial decline of hirola has been identified to the local extirpation of elephants in the rangeland presumably due to poaching pressure. Recently the elephants have started recolonizing the rangeland and we are keen on maintaining a healthy population that will further help in maintaining the rangeland. Similarly, by reseeding we are promoting seedbank that has been depleted over the years as a result of prolonged degradation.
Reestablish external exchanges with the surrounding landscape:
Factors limiting recovery of the ecosystem:
Invasive tree species is a widespread factor that limits the recovery of grasslands, similarly, the region has been associated with overstocking that contributes to degradations. Climate change has also been suspected to play a critical role with variable rainfall and prolonged droughts becoming more common.
Socio-Economic & Community Outcomes Achieved
Economic vitality and local livelihoods:
Our initiative is hinged on community participation. Through manual removal of invasive tree species, the project offers jobs to over 100 laborers each year to help in the project. Furthermore, the project has a provision to improve the local livelihoods whose support and goodwill are key to the success of the project. Our project explores nature-based enterprises such as native grass seed harvesting, beekeeping, hay production, etc. to provide alternative income generation activities for them.
Provision of basic necessities such as food, water, timber, fiber, fuel, etc.:
Although the project does not directly offer food to the locals, the project supports their basic pastoral livelihoods to achieve a win-win situation provision of pasture. The byproducts of the project such as cleared invasive tree species can be used by local for timber and fuel.
Cultural dimensions such as recreational, aesthetic and/or spiritual:
The locals in this region ascribe to hirola being a near-mythical creature and are in support of its restoration. Similarly, the hirola is a flagship species in this region and it is the symbolic animal on the county government logo.
Regulation of climate, floods, disease, erosion, water quality, etc.:
Our region is low lying and often affected by floods from the river Tana, sheet erosion is also common during prolonged droughts. Our initiative to restore grasses potentially helps reduce these phenomena. Further, through case history, we run a one health programme to vaccinate livestock this is coupled with planned grazing.
Has the project had any negative consequences for surrounding communities or given rise to new socio-economic or political challenges?:
Key Lessons Learned
The first year of our project involved testing the conditions necessary to reestablish grasslands. The study that is yet to be published included seedbank study and testing different restoration approaches. We found restoration based on different soil types within hirola rangeland, the species of grass used for restoration, seasonality and the restoration approach. The study has since been used to effect landscape-level restoration through restoration islands designed to utilizer scares resources in arid and semiarid areas.
The landscape changes have been associated with elephant extirpation, overgrazing, fire suppression and climate variability in the region, as such, we have coupled habitat restoration with planned grazing to reduce the pressure overgrazing brought by over a million heads of livestock. Further, Elephants recently began to recolonize the region, thus we initiated a community-based antipoaching effort to maintain a healthy elephant population that will be instrumental in the maintenance of open habitats. These activities are bestowed on the community conservation area we helped to establish and managed by the local community.
Sources and Amounts of Funding
Name: Columbus Zoo
Date of funding (start and end dates): May 2018 – May 2018
Name: Phoenix Zoo
Date of funding (start and end dates): April 2018 – April 2019
Name: Houston Zoo
Date of funding (start and end dates): April 2018 – April 2019
Name: Whitely Funds for Nature
Date of funding (start and end dates): April 2020 – ongoing
Name: National Geographic Society
Date of funding (start and end dates): November 2018 – November 2020
Name: Zoological Society of London
Date of funding (start and end dates): 2018 – 2020
Association of Zoos and Aquariums
Date of funding (start and end dates): 2019 – 2021
Hirola Conservation Programme website https://www.hirolaconservation.org/
Youtube videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ysgzd2izEsg
Dr. Abdullahi H. Ali
Hirola Conservation Programme