The Roan antelopes of Ruma, two years on

Titus Mitau likes to take visitors to one of the hilly peaks in the Roan Antelope Sanctuary overlooking the rest of Ruma National Park.

As your eyes adjust to the brightness of the sun and you scan the plains below, Mr Mitau proudly points out footprints on the ground, which are evidence that the antelopes you are looking for have been on that hill.

Mr Mitau is a Senior Warden at the park in Homa Bay, and one of his proudest achievements over the past two years is that the conservation of the Roan antelope has borne fruit.

For one, the antelopes are so many that visitors don’t need to wait long to spot several, which was not the case before.

“The biggest achievement for us is the increase in the number of antelopes, as we now have more than 25 at the park,” he said during a recent visit to the sanctuary.

They were only 14 two years ago.

Mr Mitau said that the conservation of the antelopes has been a significant highlight of his 20-year illustrious career working as a game warden at Shimba Hills, Meru and Tsavo national parks.

Efforts to save the Roan antelope kicked off in in January 2021 with the partnership between the M-PESA Foundation, Kenya Wildlife Service and the Northern Rangelands Trust.

The declining number of the antelopes was a major cause for concern and to mitigate this, the Foundation helped set up an 8.6-kilometre boundary fence around the Roan sanctuary at the park to keep predators out as well as limit human encroachment. The erection of the fence also kept predators like hyenas and leopards away.

In May 2021, the Foundation extended its support by donating a mower and a tractor as well as a Suzuki vehicle to assist in park patrols. The car has eased patrolling of the extensive sanctuary and tracking the movement of the antelopes.

Since the start of the project in 2021, the partnership developed strategies to ensure that the endangered species are cared for and increase in number.

Two years on, the KWS have successfully limited predation, which was one of the biggest reasons for the decline of the Roan antelopes. Maintenance of the sanctuary through mowing of the grass and installation of firebreaks has helped because the shorter the grass, the more nutrients for the antelopes, explained Bernard Ogwoka, a Research Scientist at the Ruma National Park.

Firebreaks as well as mowing the lengthy grass in and around the sanctuary have played a big role in preventing wildfires. Establishing a water reticulation system around the sanctuary has seen the installation of water tanks and water troughs, which the antelopes drink from.

The conservation efforts are informed by science.

“We carry out research on habitats and space. We look at food and water quality for the animals. We also collect information using cameras, GPS tracking and ecological research and use the results to better care for the animals,” said Mr Ogwoka.

Mr Ogwoka and his team were instrumental in the translocation of Roan Antelopes from Tanzania to Ruma National Park for breeding, which has been crucial in adding to their numbers. Their research enabled the animals to adapt to their new environment.

Community engagement is a central plank in conservation efforts and over the two years of the partnership, KWS has won over community support.

“We hold frequent barazas in the community and do outreach programmes in the surrounding schools, sensitising them on the importance of wildlife conservation, which extends to the Roan Antelope,” said Mr Mitau.

In the past, the local community viewed the Roan Antelope as a highly prized animal to use in traditional practices, which led to its hunting. However, because of consistent engagement by KWS over the past two years, the antelopes have not been hunted by the local community for cultural purposes.

Mr Mitau said the conservation partnership has led to the direct employment of eight people from the surrounding community who are on a monthly payroll. Their tasks are mainly to monitor the animals, maintain the vegetation around the sanctuary and set up firebreaks. One of the employees is Collins Odhiambo, who is a graduate of Wildlife Management at the Maasai Mara University.

“I am a supervisor at the sanctuary and my main role is to ensure the installation of firebreaks along the boundary fence and in the sanctuary. In addition to that, we monitor possible predation of the antelopes and keep the community engaged to prevent poaching of the animals. I manage a team of five people,” said Mr Odhiambo.

The KWS team employed local staff to erect the boundary fence and install the water project at the sanctuary. Another significant achievement in community involvement was the rehabilitation of a borehole under the Nyatoto Community Water Project in July 2022, which has provided relief to residents.

“We now have easy access to clean water in our village. We used to have to walk more than three kilometres to fetch water from the river. Since the borehole is close to our village, we use the water to tend to our vegetables and for our livestock. More than 50 households are benefitting from this borehole,” said Walter Obuya, chairman of the Nyatoto Community Water Project.

He said the rehabilitation of the borehole has encouraged the community to support conservation efforts and protect the Roan Antelope.

“The efforts by KWS and M-PESA Foundation have empowered us. One of our members known as ‘Mama Park’ is passionate about getting the local community to take care of the wildlife,” added Mr Obuya.

Jennifer Nyakwanda alias “Mama Park” is one of the eight committee members of the Nyatoto Water Project. The committee is responsible for the maintenance of the borehole.

To further boost local support, KWS has appointed community wardens whose role is to create a link between the service and residents around the park. Beatrice Singa is one such warden.

“We have made ourselves available to the community. They report to us if any wildlife destroy their crops or if they spot stray animals. We also facilitate compensation in case any of the animals damage their property. We constantly reach out to residents and the past two years of the Roan project have been fruitful in getting the community on our side,” said Ms Singa.

Ms Singa and her team have also been able to debunk some myths about the wildlife and the park through civic education. One such myth is that starting fires around the park during the dry season brings rain courtesy of the billowing smoke.

However, there are still several challenges facing the conservation efforts. For example, errant baboons and monkeys can be a menace in the community, which can chip away local support and cause resentment among residents living close to the park. To counter this, KWS have 99 community scouts who work in the 120sq-kilometre park to monitor any stray animals.

Overall, the project is making a difference and Mr Mitau is grateful for the partnership with the M-PESA Foundation.

“Conservation is a very costly exercise and having partners on board makes a world of difference,” he said.

He said the conservation of the Roan Antelope is part of a 10-year plan for KWS and this partnership has given them a much-needed boost to achieve their goals. He added that the project has provided them with a platform for sustainability when the three-year partnership ends.

Two years on and there is hope for the endangered Roan Antelope.

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