Dr. Ali Abdullahi, the Director of Hirola Conservation Programme, discusses conservation efforts in northeastern Kenya to protect the Hirola – the most critically endangered antelope in the world.
Ali, how did you first become involved in conservation?
Both of my parents were nomads, and where they moved around, there were no schools. However, there was an uncle of mine who was in the military and built a school in the neighboring region. He requested the parents to voluntarily send a single child per household to the school. Although my father was opposed to the idea, my mom agreed and sent me to school when I was 7 or 8 years old. That was literally the first time I was in a permanent structure and interacted with individuals outside my family members. The new school attracted nearly 300 kids from the neighboring communities. It was no longer nomadic but a sedentary and diverse culture.
I completed my primary education after eight years, but half the kids dropped out. A few of us went on to high school. During this time, I had the opportunity to go on a school trip and visited the Masai Mara. I witnessed the great wildebeest migration, and was impressed by the rangers who looked after the park. I decided right then that I wanted to be a wildlife ranger.
Tell us more about the Hirola and why this area is so important for the species. What other species are found there?
When I finished my degree, there had already been several past attempts to save Hirola from extinction. Some of these involved moving Hirola from elsewhere and relocating them to areas outside their natural range. These efforts were led by people based overseas or in Nairobi and were restricted to opportunistic field visits and intuition-driven strategies that often encountered obstacles. Most conservationists didn’t understand how remote this place is. They were shocked.
When the Kenya Wildlife Service realized they needed a local person, passionate about conservation to lead Hirola conservation, they chose me in the year 2005. That is how the Hirola first got my attention. Before that, I had been involved in a project working to establish a protected area in Garissa for migrant giraffes wounded from the war in Somalia. But then I realized the Hirola’s situation was more dire.
Since then I’ve been fully focusing on Hirola conservation. It was at this point in time that I envisioned multiple pathways necessary to save Hirola from extinction. I realized there was very limited knowledge about the species and many past conservation failures. At first, I wasn’t sure where to begin. For perspective, Black Rhino and African Painted Dogs —two globally endangered, high profile African mammals—each are estimated to number around ten times the global population size of Hirola. Given the low numbers, my biggest confusion was how to help the species. Should we start protecting them, research them better, protect their habitat? I thought raising awareness of the species locally and internationally was easiest to do. Once I started, I got support from all over to tackle the rest of the issues. The message was clear: do something to save this species and we will help you.
The landscape the Hirola lives in is also full of many other species. Animals like giraffes, Lesser Kudu, Gerenuks, Dik-diks, Topi and Elands are all seen. There are also many large carnivores like leopards, cheetahs, lions, and hyenas. With such a diverse suite of large mammals, it should be declared a protected area. So I’m excited we’re finally working to make it into one.
What are some of the greatest threats to the species and ways you are working to overcome them?
Since Hirola numbers are so low, combatting predation is a short-term goal. The long-term goal is to restore habitat. This is because the historical Hirola range experienced massive tree encroachment over the last three decades resulting from elephant poaching, overgrazing and fire suppression. If we bring back elephants and stabilize cattle density, we suspect the system will come back to benefit the species producing a better mosaic of grassland and trees.
Poaching is a threat. Local communities don’t hunt for bush meat, but migrants from elsewhere do come into the area to poach. Sometimes we’ve had incidents of young village boys just spearing Hirola to test their skills, and people don’t know because they are unware of the status of the Hirola. Since the remaining Hirola are so few, the survival of a single individual matters.
How do the local clans and community elders view your conservation efforts? Is this community-based?
Most local people don’t know what conservation is. It is a new idea; something that evolved from somewhere else and often wrongly associated with outsiders. We’re trying to sell it, but it’s hard for local people to get onboard unless they see a tangible and sustainable benefit. Seeing is believing.
When one family benefits, it can change attitudes. Once you employ one individual, it’s like you’ve supported the whole family. Employing families and neighbors makes it real and community supported. The people here want to see progress and change, but it must be tangible. When I sit down and tell them this could be a potential tourist site one day, they can’t imagine it. It takes time.
I understand that some of the local Somali clans have a unique relationship to the Hirola and view them as almost mystical. Can you tell us a little more about that?
They think that the presence of Hirola in the land is an indicator of ecosystem health. When they see them, they think the livestock will do well and that there will be many births and abundant food. In this way, the Hirola is a good omen for the land. People also say it is a very shy, polite species – not worth killing it and taboo. It is believed they are good for the land and good for people.
The local Somali clans are also proud of the Hirola as their own. They protested the government from taking the Hirola to Tsavo National Park and won in the courts. The community said it should be protected here or nowhere. By taking this species and introducing it to Tsavo, it denies benefits to the community here.
You just completed your PhD at the University of Wyoming. What is next for you? How do you envision your Hirola conservation efforts 10 years from now?
My entire effort is just dedicated to conserving Hirola and restoring its habitat. I’ve already devoted a lot of effort to do it. The next step is to increase numbers and habitat for Hirola, and to effectively integrate the communities into the conservation effort to save the species. Next I’ll be going back to Kenya, and working with an experienced partner from the University of Utah on rangeland restoration. The researcher’s expertise is in restoration and wildlife-habitat interactions in the American West and in Africa. I want to incorporate lessons from that work into our Hirola range restoration efforts in Kenya.
In ten years, I want to see the Hirola population increase to at least 3,000 to 4,000 individuals, and see several hectares of land preserved for the species. If I see that happen, I could hand the reigns over to the next generation of conservationists. Conservation is hard work, but I know exactly what I need to do.
What makes you excited about this partnership with Rainforest Trust?
This is probably the biggest support I’ve received in the last 10 years. Rainforest Trust’s support has lifted the profile of what I’m doing. Already several organizations are saying congratulations on getting Rainforest Trust support. It is helping make a difference and giving greater hope and expectation that we can save the species. Additionally, strengthening a locally driven conservation program provides a new win-win situation for locals and the Hirola.
Rainforest Trust support is also helping bring in more skilled people and collaboration from outside to help local scientists like me. In addition, I have no doubt that this partnership will provide networking opportunities for us where we could learn from other projects. I’m excited for a new protected area. It all makes my face brighten up.
Header photo: For over a decade, Ali Abdullahi, Director of the Hirola Conservation Programme, has been fighting to protect the Hirola – the world’s most endangered antelope. Photo by Hirola Conservation Programme.