10 of Africa's Rarest and most Endangered Mammals - and where to seek them
When the subject of 'Africa's rarest and most endangered mammals' comes up, we tend to think about charismatic flagship species such as the Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) of which the wild population is around 5, 630 and in great danger of decreasing. Or perhaps, Pangolins come to mind, as internationally, all eight Pangolin species are as relentlessly persecuted as the Rhinos are. And sadly, this is happening for very similar - and absolutely pointless - reasons.
Here at Rainbow Tours, our Africa portfolio covers a wonderful selection of countries in which renowned and also, less well- known wildlife hotspots protect a magnificent spectrum of ecosystems and their accompanying wildlife communities.
Grab yourself something to drink and join us on this armchair tour, during which we'll look at ten of Africa's rarest and most threatened mammals. This roundup includes several species which we have sucessfully been enabling our guests to observe in their natural homes - something which we are very much looking forward to achieving once again, as long-haul travel begins to resume.
Disclaimer: do bear in mind that while locating some of these rarities can be relatively straightforward, others are just consistently elusive and can require (sometimes very) hard work. Also, wild animal sightings are nature, which of course can never be guaranteed.
Images: Shutterstock unless otherwise indicated.
1: Hirola (Beatragus hunteri)
Confined to a small area near the Kenya-Somali border, this Critically Endangered antelope is now thought to number less than 500, with perhaps 250 of those being mature individuals, the IUCN Red List states. It is not currently kept in captivity anywhere, but at the readily accessible Tsavo East National Park, there is a translocated herd of some 70 animals.
An action plan to save the Hirola was devised by the proactive Kenya Wildlife Service in conjunction with the Hirola Management Committee and local NGOs. In 2005, four local communities in remote Ijara District established the Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy, which is presided over by Northern Rangelands Trust. By 2014, a 23 km2 predator-proof, fenced sanctuary protecting 3,000 hectares, was constructed at Ishaqbini and there, the founding population of 48 Hirola has been breeding well: by 2016, the number at Ishaqbini was reported to have increased to 97.
Hirola's big sub-orbital glands give them the name of 'Four-eyed antelope'. This one is part of the herd at Tsavo East National Park
Two Perrier's black sifaka at Andrafiamena during one of our Madagascar wildlife tours led by Daniel Austin, who took this photo (October 2018)
2: Perrier's black sifaka (Propithecus perrieri)
Today this charismatic, all-black Sifaka is estimated to number only some 125 mature individuals, with its total population at most being around 400 and declining. This makes it one of the world's rarest and most threatened primates.
None is kept in captivity anywhere, so to see a Perrier's sifaka necessitates visiting either the poorly- protected Analamerana Special Reserve, or the more accessible Andrafiamena-Andavakoera Protected Area not too far away from it.
Respected Malagasy NGO Fanamby is a key player in the management of the dry forest in the Andrafiamena hills, in conjunction with the resident communities. Near Anjahankely village, they've established the lovely Black Lemur Camp, which our clients thoroughly enjoy.
During a recce trip, we managed to locate no less than three of the habituated groups of these incredibly rare lemurs in the space of a morning hike, and that with relative ease.
3: Riverine rabbit (Bunolagus monticularis)
With the unenviable title of one the world's 13 most endangered mammals, the Riverine rabbit is now believed to number perhaps as few as 207 mature individuals (IUCN Red List). Endemic to the Central and Little Karoo, it frequents seasonal riverbeds.
One reason for its extreme rarity is a very slow reproductive rate: unusually for rabbits, a doe will give birth to only one kit a year. Most of the remaining sub-populations inhabit privately-owned farmland, but fortunately the species does occur in two formally- protected areas: of these we recommend scenic Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, the perfect location for nature-lovers keen to explore the Karoo sub-arid ecosystem.
Efforts to save the Riverine rabbit from extinction are being coordinated by the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT): the Riverine Rabbit Project within the EWT's Drylands Conservation Programme, works in the semi-desert region where the rabbits cling onto existence. Apart from efforts directed towards habitat restoration and ongoing monitoring of sub-populations, the project focuses on educating and engaging resident farmers, whose support is crucial.
Africa's only burrowing Lagomorph, the Riverine rabbit has been found at Vaalkloof Nature Reserve and Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, which signals some hope for this mega-rare South African endemic.
4: Zanzibar Red Colobus (Piliocolobus kirkii)
Endemic to Unguja, the main island in Zanzibar archipelago, this strikingly- coloured monkey's population is estimated at around 5,000 mature individuals. 50% of these live in the Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park, a 55 km² area of which the protection - according to a report in the environmental journal Mongabay (2019) - 'initially met with conflict and resistance'. However, as writer Bart Crezee elaborated, 'the conservation project has now been embraced by local communities because they directly share in half of all tourism revenues'.
Cautiously, it could be proposed therefore, that this example of community-led forest management - in which farmers and community members are shareholders, and thereby benefitting directly from tourism - could well prove to be an exemplary model for many other African conservation sites.
While the reasonably generous revenue-sharing scheme which NGOs CARE and WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) implemented in order to protect Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park's forest has been found to meet all of the UN's 17 SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), additional measures in the way of a carbon sequestration scheme are being considered as pressure on the forest's resources from a fast-growing human population living around it, increases.
Zanzibar red colobus are easily seen in Jozani-Chwaka Bay National Park.
5: Silky Sifaka (Propithecus candidus)
This striking, all-white Sifaka, also pictured at the top of the article (photos courtesy Maxence Bigey) is confined to humid montane rainforests in North-east Madagascar, where the two best sites to seek it are the rugged Marojejy National Park and Anjanaharibe-Sud Special Reserve.
With a population of less than 250 mature individuals today, this Critically Endangered, mostly folivorous lemur is not kept in captivity anywhere and - as is the case with many of Madagascar's mammals - faces multiple threats: slash and burn agriculture; selective, illegal, high-end logging and more recently, cultivation of vanilla inside Marojejy National Park are added to by hunting.
Respected primatologist and conservationist Dr Erik Patel of Lemur Conservation Foundation and his team - who were largely responsible for the success of conservation work in the aforementioned sites - reports that the female sifakas are in estrus for only one day each year, usually December - January-time and that every two years (rarely in consecutive years), they'll give birth to one youngster.
Through the years, we have arranged trips for active wildlife enthusiasts to Marojejy National Park, which has small and basic campsites. All of our clients making it out there thus far, have managed to see the 'Forest Angels', as they are affectionately called.
Two 'Forest Angels' or Silky sifakas, Marojejy National Park (courtesy Maxence Bigey). Visitors to this exquisite protected area must be fit to take it on.
6: Pygmy Hippopotamus (Choeropsis liberiensis)
A 2015 population assessment by the IUCN estimated the remaining wild population of these small and ultra-elusive, rainforest-dwelling hippos at no more than 2,500. While most live in Liberia, there are sub-populations in Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, where it is known to occur at Gola Rainforest National Park and Tiwai Island. Threats facing Pygmy hippos are forest clearance for agriculture; logging; hunting for bushmeat, and war. Fortunately this species breeds well in captivity.
To stand a chance of seeing a Pygmy hippo in Sierra Leone, intrepid mammal-watchers should spend at least 4 nights at Gola Rainforest National Park, where there is basic accommodation. We have in the past, arranged tailor-made trips for adventurous travellers to Gola, albeit mostly for general natural history enthusiasts and birders.
Reports by lucky visitors to Gola who actually succeeded in locating Pygmy hippo, certainly make for engaging reading: these solitary, nocturnal herbivores may be 1.5 - 1.75 meters long; stand 0.7 - 1 meter high and weigh in at 160 - 275 kg, but they are nationally scarce, furtive and the rainforest terrain they inhabit is difficult to explore - think nighttime along rivers in hot, humid jungles where weather is oftentimes inclement...
Pygmy hippo & calf. Attempting to find these nocturnal rainforest-dwelling chubsters is something for very patient and adventurous mammal-watchers only.
7: Ethiopian Wolf (Canis simensis)
These striking russet and white wolves, classifed as Endangered, are believed to number less than 400 today. This includes perhaps 190 mature individuals. The world's rarest canid is restricted to seven enclaves of Afro-alpine habitat in the Ethiopian Highlands, where half the population lives in the spectacularly scenic Bale Mountains National Park. There, the best place to see Ethiopian wolves hunting the abundant resident rodents, is on the Sanetti Plateau, often referred to as the 'Roof of Africa'.
Watching the wolves stalking the likes of endemic Giant mole rats - their favourite prey item - is a truly magical experience which we and many of our clients have had the privilege of enjoying.
Aside from habitat loss, the chief threats facing Ethiopian wolves are outbreaks of rabies, transmitted to the wolves by domestic dogs. These outbreaks have devastated local wolf populations, reports the IUCN/SSC Canid Specialist Group. A vaccination programme proved very effective in terms of saving some of the surviving wolves after past, major outbreaks.
None is kept in captivity at this point, so this distinctive Ethiopian icon faces an uncertain future.
King of the Mountain: Ethiopian wolf in its Afro-alpine home, Bale Mountain National Park.
8: Blue-eyed (Sclater's) Lemur (Eulemur flavifrons)
This Critically Endangered lemur is thought to number less than 1,000 individuals in the wild and is restricted to a small area of dry forest habitat in a remote part of north-western Madagascar. Aside from humans, it is the only primate to have blue eyes. Strongly sexually dichromatic, the male is black and the females a light brown.
This lemur is severely threatened due habitat fragmentation and hunting: during one survey, researchers located an astonishing 570 traps per square kilometer within its range (Andrianjakarivelo, 2004). Protection at the remote Sahamalaza Reserve is virtually nonexistent.
We have arranged for past clients to see Blue-eyed lemurs at Sahamalaza, which is best reached from Nosy Saba just offshore.
Blue-eyed lemurs are represented in captivity at a number of Zoological Gardens including Bristol Zoo.
This male Blue-eyed lemur was photographed at Sahamalaza Reserve by Rainbow Tours client Jon Dixon.
9: Tana River Red Colobus (Piliocolobus rufomitratus)
OK so here's one which we ourselves haven't (yet) seen, and which for safety reasons, we can't (yet) arrange for our clients to seek. This Critically Endangered species of Red colobus monkey is confined to forests along a 60-km stretch of the lower Tana River in northeast Kenya. It is one of the world's most threatened primates, sharing a very narrow range with another equally endangered primate, the Tana River mangabey (Cercocebus galeritus).
According to the IUCN, its current population is no more than 1,000 individuals and is decreasing due to a combination of threats, including war and forest clearance for agriculture and urban development.
While the Tana River Primate National Reserve (TRPNR) - about 160km from Malindi - is essentially no more, hard-core mammal-watchers do still undertake the adventurous journey to the species' main locality, where at best there are rudimentary facilities.
Unfortunately this Colobus's range lies in a politically unstable area where conservation activity, although persisting, is low-level. (Geographically, its not too far away from the site where the Hirola antelopes also included in this roundup, are found).
Unregulated and poorly- organised exploitation of natural resources continues so its future appears to be uncertain, unless some protective measures are implemented in conjunction with resident communities, with a view to safeguarding those forests along the Lower Tana River.
Tana River red colobus by Michal Sloviak, Inaturalist (Wikimedia commons)
10: Mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei)
And last but not least, a bittersweet*** end to our roundup: the remaining 1,065 Mountain gorillas in the Afro-montane forests of Uganda, Rwanda and DRC are the subject of one of Africa's best-known conservation success stories.
We have long been taking our clients to track some of the 44-odd habituated family groups. And in pre-covid times, Gorilla tourism certainly was an economic powerhouse which raked in millions of dollars annually, giving governments and resident communities powerful incentive to protect the Gorillas and conserve their forest homes.
Tourism contributed substantially to the Ugandan and Rwandan economies: in Uganda, Gorilla tourism accounted for 60% of the Uganda Wildlife Authority’s revenue through the last few years, according to the Gorilla Agreement. The Gorilla Agreement - which has members in all ten countries where Gorillas exist - and which functions as an instrument of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) - also revealed that in 2017, Rwanda's parks received 94,000 visitors, which generated US$18.7 million in revenue.
So certainly, pre-covid19, Gorilla tourism was rocking, and as was the case with nature-based tourism across the African continent and on its associated islands, it ground to an abrupt halt during the last 18 months. We are however optimistic, that in the next couple of years, ecotourism will again become the significant revenue earner that it historically has been for our host countries.
Making that eye-to-brain connection with Mountain gorillas - or indeed with any of the extreme rarities profiled in this blog - is a wonderful experience we enjoy facilitating for our guests.
*** I used the word 'bittersweet' earlier, because although intensive conservation measures have been a tremendous success for the preservation of Mountain gorillas, the parks where they live are in some of tropical Africa's most densely- populated regions: around the periphery of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda for example, there are upwards of 300 people per square kilometer. The situation around Rwanda's Parc National des Volcans, is very similar. It follows that there is an urgent need to locate more land with viable tracts of habitat, while the Mountain gorilla numbers slowly continue to build up in the existing national parks where they find sanctuary.