The hirola, or Hunter's hartebeest, is a critically endangered species - (?Brent Huffman [at the Gladys Porter Zoo])

Hunter's hartebeest was named and described by P.L. Sclater in 1889. This antelope has recently become very rare, with current censuses reporting fewer than 400 individuals. Only one hirola exists in captivity: an aging female at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas.

Hunter's hartebeest occupies a unique taxonomical position, with some authors classifying it as a mere subspecies of topi, while others place it in a separate genus Beatragus. More often, however, the hirola is placed in the subgenus Beatragus, which both allies it with the topi and accentuates its uniqueness. This species is thought to be the evolutionary link between true hartebeests and the sassabies (genus Damaliscus).

As such it is a relic species, and only exists today (barely) due to its unique habitat requirements. Another name for this antelope is the "four-eyed antelope", due to its pronounced, dark-coloured preorbital glands, which are enlarged when excited.

Damalis (Greek) a young cow, a heifer; -iscus (Latin) diminutive suffix. H. C. V. Hunter (1861-1934), a big game hunter and zoologist, discovered this antelope in 1888 about 240 km / 150 miles up the Tana River in Kenya.

The hirola weighs between 75 - 160 kg (165 - 350 lb). It is found in a seasonally arid region of grassy plains between dry acacia bush and coastal forest. The hirola is most active in the morning and early evening and feeds mostly on grasses. It is able to go without water.

Female hirola with young form groups of between 5 - 40, often including a single territorial male. All-male groups are common.

Since the 1960’s the hirola has occupied a restricted range along the border of Kenya and Somalia, although in 1997 it was considered possibly to have become extinct in Somalia. Its numbers increased from about 1000 in the early 1960’s to 14,000 in the early 1970’s.

It then underwent two drastic declines, from 14,000 down to about 2000 from 1976 - 1978 and from 2000 to 300 in 1995.

The cause of the hirola’s first decline is not known. The second decline is attributed to a reduction in its habitat, Somalian poachers and increased competition with domestic livestock.

Some..... History?

By 1963 it already had a very restricted range along the border of Kenya and Somalia, but its numbers were not believed to be shrinking, since it was not subject to serious poaching and man’s existing use of its habitat (pastoralism) was not considered to conflict with its needs (Grimwood 1964).

In 1972-3 it was still confined to a strip of land between the Tana and Juba Rivers in Kenya and Somalia (mostly in Kenya), but its range was thought to have increased over the previous 50 years and its numbers had increased markedly compared to the 1960’s.

As of 1977, its range in Kenya was thought to cover about 12,000 sq km (4600 sq mi) and its range in Somalia 2-3000 sq km (770 - 1200 sq mi), and its population was considered healthy (Bunderson 1977). However, between 1976 and 1978 it experienced a drastic decline in numbers. Around 1995 it experienced a further drastic decline. In 1995 it occurred in the wild in a 23,000 sq km area in northeast Kenya and southwest Somalia.

Threats/Reasons for Decline:

The causes of the hirola’s drastic decline from 1976 to 1978 are unknown, although competition with domestic cattle had been suggested. Its decline in the middle 1990’s was thought to be due to a reduction in its habitat, Somalian poachers and increased competition with domestic livestock.

What about now?

The Hirola Antelope, found only in the Garissa and Tana River districts of Kenya, is critically endangered. Only a small population of perhaps 1500-2000 individuals remains, despite efforts in the past to transplant populations to other areas such as the Tsavo East National Park. In-situ conservation is now seen as the species’ best hope for survival.