By RUPI MANGAT
Above: The gate at Ruma National Park of the roan antelope. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Published: The East African Nation 14 April 2008
Only 40 surviving today – 2020.
If you think that only the African Rhino and elephant are endangered or a target of poachers, you are wrong. There are many other animals threatened with extinction who, unfortunately, are little known and rarely heard of.
Kenya’s roan antelope falls in this category. Today, this subspecies of the roan, Hippotragus equines langheldi, is only found in one tiny area in the world — Ruma National Park in western Kenya. At one time its territory stretched all the way from the Mara grasslands to Ruma. It was also found in other areas such as the Ithanga hills in Thika.
Today, only 56 exist in Ruma. South Africa has been good at looking after their lot, as have the Tanzanians. But what went wrong for the roan in Kenya?
“During colonial times, there was a move to have Lambwe Valley, the site of what was later to become Ruma National Park, opened up as a settlement area. The colonial government drove out the last herds of elephants and rhinos from Lambwe into the Maasai Mara.
“Different communities like the Kisii, Luyia, Kalenjin, Kamba and the Kikuyu were encouraged to settle there,” explains Peter Kenya, a lecturer on environmental studies and community development at the Kenyatta University. Peter has been working on his PhD thesis at Ruma for the past four years.
“After independence, the area was gazetted in 1966 as the Lambwe Valley Game Reserve eventually becoming Ruma National Park in 1983. But there’s been little political goodwill from the local politicians, who are more interested in grabbing the land for themselves, their families and friends,” he says.
The roan is a flagship species of the national park, and is therefore its key attraction. It is a handsome antelope, the size of a horse. It has distinct facial markings — black-rimmed eyes set against white, very much like a traditional African mask. Wearing a coat of russet copper, it really is a noble looking antelope. Both male and female have ringed horns.
In the 1970s, there were more than 300 roan antelopes in the park and on the Kanyamwa escarpment, at the edge of the park. However, by the turn of the millennium, the number had gone down to 100. In 2004, there were 85 and the last census in 2006 showed only 56 roan antelopes.
The roan belongs to the same family as the sable antelope of the coastal Shimba Hills National Reserve, where a herd of roan antelopes was translocated in the 1970s. However, the entire herd perished because it could not adapt to its new habitat. It just goes to show that translocating animals requires meticulous research to ensure their survival.
“There are a number of reasons for this rapid decline,” says Peter Kenya. “The park is surrounded by people and their farms. And both the human population and farming are increasing rapidly.
“Unfortunately, roan meat has been a delicacy among the Luo people since time immemorial. This year, we lost two roan antelopes and two Rothschild giraffes from snares made from vandalising the park fence.”
THE ROTHSCHILD GIRAFFES —another threatened species—were translocated from Soy around Mount Elgon in the 1970s when the area was subdivided for farming. The African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW), —which came into existence due to the Rothschild giraffe and the work of Betty Leslie Melville, which her son Rick Anderson continues— instrumental in raising funds for the translocation and saving the Rothschild from the verge of extinction due to habitat loss.
Today, the Rothschild can be seen in Nakuru National Park, Nairobi National Park, private wildlife sanctuaries and at the home of Betty Melville where the first batch were brought, at the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi. It is also the headquarters of AFEW Kenya.
“Traditionally, the Luo did not hunt the giraffes, but they have discovered that its meat is equally tasty. The roan meat has, of course, always been a favourite. Traditionally, the roan meat had to feature on a Luo wedding menu. It would reflect the hunting skills of the groom and the clan. The skin was used as part of the dressing regalia, for it is very beautifully marked. The horns were used as flutes and the skull together with the horns was nailed to the front of fishing boats as a mascot. So you see, every part of the roan was used,” says Peter Kenya.
The roan antelope horns were used as flutes at the burial of elders. “It was equivalent to a 21-gun salute,” says Kenya.
Ruma National Park is smaller than Nairobi National Park — 120 square kilometres of savannah grassland and acacia forest with swamps. The Lambwe river — which over the years has seen a decrease in the water level and fish — flows through the park.
It’s a beautiful park nevertheless, surrounded by escarpments. The flat terrain makes for easy viewing. There’s tsetse fly in some areas, which causes sleeping sickness in the cattle and humans but modern medical intervention has reduced it, while measures have been taken to control and possibly eradicate the fly.
Apart from that, the park offers a rich gallery of wildlife like the Oribi, a small antelope not usually seen in other areas, the waterbuck and a rich collection of both migrant and resident birds.
“At one time, the park also had the Uganda cob, which disappeared around the middle of last century,” says Peter Kenya. The Uganda cob is another interesting animal that migrates in thousands from the southern Sudan swamps into Uganda in a spectacle reminiscent of the wildebeest migration of the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem.
“The community wardens try to work with the people to raise awareness about the roan and its benefits through tourism and community projects. For example, the government, through, KWS has built schools and health centres outside the park, and watering points both in and out of the park.”
But the local people have more pressing issues at the moment. With the increasing population and many mouths to feed, the demand for land is high. As they are subsistence farmers, when the rains fail, and the crops fail, food becomes a priority. Hunting compensates for loss of agriculture.
DESPITE ITS BEING HOME to an endemic species like the handsome roan, Ruma attracts few visitors, the main reason being the road. The infrastructure within the park, however, is very good. Still the park and its rare animals receive little public attention.
“You know, two roan herds were victims of the 2007 presidential election,” continues Peter Kenya. Seeing my surprised expression, he explains.
“A farmer was clearing land bordering the park by burning the cleared trees and grasses. A group of people from a certain community set upon him forcing him to flee. The fire, left unattended, spread to the park.
“The rangers are from various communities. Many had taken time off for safety reasons and so the park was understaffed.
“The fire lasted the whole day but was put out through the intervention of the park warden, Margaret Moose, the local district officer and the chief who mobilised people to help. Some of the animals were burnt alive. Others fled out of the park and straight into the people’s farms, where they became easy prey.”
It was a classic case of jumping from the frying pan into the fire. The local people, realising that this is an easy way of hunting, have since deliberately started setting fires. Recently, two arsonists were arrested.
“The roan is also a very easy animal to hunt. It does not run when cornered. Instead it stands its ground, which gives the hunter ample time to shoot it. At night, it’s also easy to hunt, as the poachers use torches to blind the roan and then set the dogs on it, as it stands immobilised in the glare of the torch,” he adds.
Unfortunately, it’s also suspected that some rangers are involved in the bushmeat trade.
“It’s a very serious situation in Ruma. There are only three roan herds remaining. In terms of breeding, that’s not a healthy number,” explains Peter Kenya.
A species is usually seen as being on its last legs when population numbers fall below a certain level.
“There are some measures that can be taken,” continues Peter.
“One would be to have a roan sanctuary within the park under 24-hour vigilance just like the rhino sanctuary in Tsavo West and others. Another option would be to bring in breeding stock from Tanzania.”
However, the concern here would be that our pure breed would then become a hybrid. For the purists, this does not bode.
On the other hand, the few remaining roan in Ruma through inbreeding , could produce weaker stock, even deformed offsprings.
According to Peter Kenya, Ruma National Park has suffered because of the institutional neglect of western Kenya.
“There’s been very little research in the park — one study was carried out in 1970 by a man called Olsop and then another in 1996.
“It’s a very easy park to fence and protect,” explains Peter. “But what’s been done is a lousy job.” The hills form a natural boundary so fencing along the contours is easy.
Ruma was first gazetted as Lambwe Valley Game Reserve in 1966, primarily to safeguard the roan. In 1983, it received full protection as Ruma National Park. But this was only after 108 square kilometres were grabbed from the park.
Even worse, in 1989, the government wanted to degazzette the park. “It just goes to show that the government was not interested in saving the roan or the park. The local Member of Parliament was more interested in the land. Even today, the local authorities have shown little interest.
“I was involved in drawing up the master plan for Ruma,” Peter Kenya explains his involvement and how he came to be concerned about the plight of the roan. “I was working for the Wildlife Management and Conservation Department, then under the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, before Kenya Wildlife Service was set up as a parastatal with more direct control.
“We mobilised the international community over the fate of the roan. It was interesting to see that people like the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, Queen Margaret of the Netherlands and others writing to the president then. He finally succumbed to international pressure and the threat of degazzetement was laid to rest in 1989.”
Oribi Guest House (should be renamed Roan).
400 km west of Nairobi near shores of Lake Victoria.