What is so Important about Hartebeest in Laikipia District?
Hartebeest once ranged over much of Africa but have significantly declined in numbers and range over the past few decades. Today, they persist in small populations in West Africa, East Africa and sporadically in some protected areas in South Africa. The decline was precipitated by several factors including predation in Laikipia District. There are seven recognised sub-species of hartebeest in Africa today. Kenya is home to two of these sub-species, namely: Coke’s (A.b. cokei) that is confined to southern Kenya and northern Tanzania; and Lelwel (A.b. lelwel) that was once distributed between central Kenya and the Central African Republic. Within Kenya, hartebeest with Lelwel affinities are only found in two places: (1) Ruma National Park, where only a few dozen animals remain. This population is in decline due to very low genetic variation; and (2) a population of approximately 1,000 individuals in Laikipia District, with about 75% of this population in Solio Ranch. This Laikipia population has been shown to be genetically diverse.
Past research has suggested various strategies for conserving remaining populations of hartebeest, the most preferred being to conserve the evolutionary products of hybridization. The population of Lelwel hartebeest in Laikipia is of high strategic importance for the conservation and continued survival of the entire subspecies. This population is the largest of three distinct populations of A. buselaphus lelwel remaining in Kenya, the remainder having been extirpated by human population growth, habitat loss and land use change. Further, the population is one of the flagship species of the District. However, as for other hartebeest populations, the Laikipia population has proven sensitive to both biotic and abiotic pressures and has declined more rapidly over the past two decades than any other mammal in the landscape. Numbers in the District have dropped by about 78% since 1991, with a total of 6,411 animals estimated in the March 2008 dry season sample wildlife and livestock count of the area. Following a non-linear trend, it is estimated that this population may reduce to 200 individuals by 2017, thus becoming highly susceptible to forces affecting small populations, with possible extinction in the near future. Urgent management intervention measures to enhance the continued survival of this key population are required.