Hartebeests—the narrow-faced, savanna-adapted and unusual-looking African antelope that are native to more than 25 African countries—are on a downhill population slide. The African Wildlife Foundation estimates that there are about 360,000 of them left in eight to 10 recognized subspecies, one of which is entirely extinct.
In Kenya, particularly, hartebeest numbers are decreasing, threatening extinction. Two major subspecies—Coke’s and Lelwel’s hartebeests—are disappearing as a result of lungworm disease, erratic rainfall due to climate change, habitat destruction, human hunting and predation by other animals. The crossbreeding of Coke’s and Lelwel’s hartebeests in Kenya has produced Jackson’s hartebeests, whose numbers are also declining.
Luckily, researchers have now come up with a simple measure that Kenyan farmers can implement to slow this downward trend.
Hartebeests hanging on
Overall, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies hartebeests as a species of least concern, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Hartebeests have become extinct in Algeria, Egypt, Lesotho, Libya, Morocco, Somalia and Tunisia, although they have been introduced into Swaziland and Zimbabwe.
Lelwel’s hartebeests are categorized as endangered, and the conservation status of Coke’s hartebeests falls under the least concern category, with population numbers decreasing. Tora hartebeests are critically endangered, meaning that they face a very high risk of extinction. Bubal hartebeests, which were mostly found north of the Sahara Desert, were declared extinct in 1994 by the IUCN. Jackson’s hartebeest populations are dwindling, partially due to lion predation.
In central Kenya’s Laikipia County at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, which is managed for both wildlife conservation and cattle ranching, Jackson’s hartebeests have declined by more than 80 percent in the past 15 years. But recent research shows that these endangered African antelope—and the lions that prey on them—could benefit from a simple cattle ranching practice: placing corrals away from where Jackson’s hartebeests tend to gather, which would likely allow the antelope species to increase. Abandoned corrals result in glades that draw zebras, who in turn attract lions that focus on them rather than on the hartebeests.
In past decades, cattle ranchers in Kenya poisoned or shot lions in order to protect their herds. But as they began to increasingly recognize that tourism resulting from abundant wildlife populations could help them sustain their livestock operations in drought years and in other lean times, they became more tolerant of the top predators. In the late 1980s, with support from local residents, lions were successfully reintroduced to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy and elsewhere in central Kenya.
Unfortunately, Jackson’s hartebeests have been in significant decline in Kenya’s Laikipia County since the reintroduction of lions. That’s primarily because hartebeests share savanna habitat with zebras, the primary prey of the approximately 70 lions comprising five prides in the conservancy. Secondary prey, such as hartebeests, often suffer significant population declines when large carnivores are restored to an ecosystem after a long absence.
This decline in hartebeest numbers has led some cattle ranch managers to consider reimplementing lethal control of lions.
Cattle corralled strategically
Scientists have come up with an alternative, less deadly option. In a study that involved capturing and placing GPS collars on lions in five different prides representing 70 individuals, identifying and tracking 179 hartebeests, and analyzing 246 sites where lions killed animals, the researchers discovered that cattle ranchers hold the key to maintaining both hartebeest and lion populations.
In an April 2019 article published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, the researchers reported that abandoned cattle corrals create nutrient hot spots, called glades, that attract zebras and, therefore, lions—but, significantly, not hartebeests. In addition, the researchers demonstrated that the survival of hartebeests increased with increasing distance from glades.
By having ranch managers place cattle corrals away from hartebeests, antelope populations are offered the time and space to increase, with the lions predominantly focused on the zebras that congregate in the resulting glades. This reduces hartebeest encounters with hunting lions in areas of high zebra densities. Strategic placement of glades, therefore, offers a promising approach to creating refuges for hartebeests and even, perhaps, other species of secondary prey.
More and more, research is showing us that we can live with predators peacefully, for their benefit and for ours.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,