Kenya has over 400 recorded mammal species. This is the second highest mammal density of any country in Africa, first being the Democratic Republic of Congo, and tenth in the world. With such a huge number of mammal species, a few are certain to be endemic.
An endemic species is one whose habitat is unique to a defined geographical location, such as a country, an island or a defined zone of analysis. Endemism is different from indigenous or native species in that the latter is also found elsewhere. Endemic species run a high risk of extinction due to changes in their confined habitats, particularly due to hunting and habitat destruction.
With tourism being a major foreign exchange earner in Kenya, it is important that the country preserves and maintains its rich biodiversity, as this is the main facet that attracts tourists. Through visiting some of these isolated habitats, economic incentive is provided for their protection and revenue can be used to continue supporting conservation efforts.
Here we highlighted the plight of three endemic and endangered mammal species in Kenya:
One of the world’s rarest and most Endangered antelope, the hirola is endemic to north-east Kenya and south-west Somalia. The Somalian population is believed to be extinct.
The hirola is slender with a sandy-coloured coat. Male hirolas however turn a shade of grey as they age. The have an elongated face, long legs and a short neck. A white line, or chevron, passes from one eye to the other across the forehead, giving the hirola a bespectacled appearance.
Hirolas are well adapted to a hot, arid plains habitat that is characterised by short grass and dry acacia bush. They use their large molars to chew the coarse grass. The hirola can go for long periods without drinking water, and survives drought by storing extra fat in its body. Hirolas feed mostly at dawn and dusk.
Their range, a restricted area of approximately 7,600 km² along the border of Kenya and Somalia, is well outside any official or gazetted national parks, thus increasing their vulnerability – especially to hunting and habitat encroachment. Once common throughout East Africa, the species has suffered a devastating decline in the last 30 years, with numbers plummeting from around 14,000 in the 1970s to an estimated less than 500 today.
The mountain bongo
Bongos are definitely one of the most unique, colourful and spectacular antelopes in the planet, immediately recognised by their striking reddish chestnut coat with black markings, conspicuous white stripes and long spiralling horns.
Their main habitat is the tropical rain forests of Central and West Africa. However, a small isolated population and critically endangered subspecies – the mountain bongo inhabits the forests of central Kenya. The mountain bongos are larger than their western counterparts and have a more vibrant colour.
The mountain bongo was once numerous in the forested zones of Mount Kenya, the Aberdares, Mau, Cherengani Hills and Mount Elgon. Their numbers have declined dramatically over the past 40 years and now confined to isolated populations in patches of forest on Mt. Kenya, and the Aberdares. Mountain bongos are classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
The decline has been caused by a combination of several factors mainly loss of habitat, hunting and livestock-mediated diseases. Because of its beauty and relative scarcity, the mountain bongo was long viewed as a prized trophy by hunters. Their population in zoos far exceeds that in the wild.
The Kenyan Wildlife Service, in conjunction with conservation organisations, have formulated a number of strategies for the species, among which include conducting regular surveillance and security patrols for the remaining wild mountain bongos. A robust captive population of 526 individuals (as of December 2003) flourishes in several locations around the world, and a collaborative project known as the Bongo Repatriation Programme is being used to re-establish a viable wild population in Mount Kenya and the Aberdares.
Currently the status of mountain bongos in the wild is still uncertain with their population still small, fragmented and vulnerable to extinction.
The Tana River mangabey
The Tana River mangabey is a medium-sized monkey characterised by a long tail and a yellowish-brown coat. It has a conspicuous crest on its crown and white eyelids that stand out conspicuously against its jet black face.
The species is highly endangered and is endemic to a fragmented riverine forest mosaic along the lower Tana River in the coast region of Kenya. These forests are naturally fragmented due to the meandering course of the river and its fluctuating water levels.
Mangabeys are highly dependent on the forest for their survival. Much of their diet is composed of plant material from the canopy or sub-canopy of the forest. The forest has over the years been degraded through unsustainable forest clearing (an estimated 50% of the original forest has been lost in the last 20 years) and resource extraction (felling of trees for canoe construction, wild honey collection, and palm fronds used for thatching and mats) resulting in a rapid decline of the species.
Tana River mangabeys are ranked as one of the world’s 25 most threatened primates. Currently there are an estimated 1,000 – 1,200 individuals remaining in the wild.
Habitat destruction continues to be the main cause of the Tana River mangabey decline and an effective conservation approach is desperately needed. Past conservation efforts have not been successful.
Solutions must be found for the problem of forest clearing, and the harvesting of forest products must be better managed, if there is any chance of protecting the habitat of this critically endangered primate and forestalling its otherwise imminent extinction.