Haven for the Hirola

Protecting Vital Habitat for the World’s Rarest Antelope

By Lauren Colegrove, ILCW Member (USA)
Previously published by Rainforest Trust

Rainforest Trust collaborates with passionate conservationists around the world who dedicate their lives to protecting threatened species and the habitats they call home. One incredibly inspiring partner is Dr. Abdullahi Ali and his team at the Hirola Conservation Programme, who work in Kenya to safeguard the world’s rarest antelope: the Critically Endangered Hirola.

Abdullahi Ali was born in Garissa County, Kenya, to a family in a pastoral Somali community. His parents were nomads who herded goats and camels, and Ali spent his childhood defending the prized animals from predators such as leopards. Ali’s uncle, who held a prestigious military position after helping prevent a government coup, leveraged his status to support the creation of one of the first schools in the neighboring region. He asked that each family allow at least one child to receive a formal education, and although Ali said that his father was originally opposed to the idea, his mother sent him to the school when he was about 7 years old.
“This was literally the first time I was in a permanent structure and interacted with individuals other than my family members,” Ali said.
Attracting nearly 300 children from neighboring communities, the new school created an atmosphere of stability that allowed Ali to complete his primary education, despite more than two-thirds of the students dropping out due to the transition to the unfamiliar environment. In high school, he had the opportunity to visit Masai Mara Natural Reserve, a 373,120-acre wildlife reserve in Kenya that borders Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Ali witnessed the grand annual migration of wildebeest that takes place between the reserve and Serengeti National Park, and was impressed by the rangers who were the protectors of this massive range.
“I decided right then that I wanted to be a wildlife ranger,” said Ali.
To learn how to safeguard the incredible species that shared his homeland, Ali enrolled in the University of Nairobi to study biology and conservation with a focus on endangered species and the impacts of landscape changes on wildlife (he eventually went on to earn a master’s degree in conservation biology and a Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Wyoming). Following the completion of his undergraduate degree, Ali returned to Garissa County to help establish a sanctuary for migrant giraffes wounded during the Somali Civil War that began in the early 1990s.
In 2005, the Kenya Wildlife Service asked Ali to join the national Hirola management committee tasked with protecting Hirolas, since he was familiar with the territory and had experience with conservation projects. With a historical range almost entirely outside national parks and other protected areas – paired with decades of political turmoil along the Kenya-Somalia border – the conservation of Hirolas has been a longstanding regional challenge and a major priority for the Kenya Wildlife Service. Hirola gathering in a small herd. Photo by HCP.

Colored sandy brown with white spectacle-like markings around their eyes and impressive spiral horns, Hirolas are some of the most imperiled antelopes in Africa and are assessed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). These medium sized antelopes found in northeast Kenya and southwest Somalia are threatened primarily by habitat loss due to range degradation. They are also vulnerable to poaching, drought, disease and competition with livestock for resources, and there has been a drastic population decline of almost 90 percent since 1980.
The Hirola is also the last species in the genus Beatragus, and, “The loss of the Hirola would be the first extinction of a mammalian genus on mainland Africa in modern human history,” according to the IUCN.
Hirola are considered to be “refugee species” since they have limited access to optimal habitat and are restricted to less than five percent of their historical geographic range, and there are estimated to be only a few hundred of these antelopes left– an amount that Ali refuses to accept.
Ali decided to begin his own initiative to focus on saving the antelope species in his home county of Garissa and eventually received funding to establish the Hirola Conservation Programme (HCP). Ali’s current conservation and research sites are over 300 miles from Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, in a remote area along the Kenya-Somalia border. He stays in a small tented campsite with field assistants, in a region where the primary diet of local residents consists of livestock meat, such as from goats.
“For those of us who are vegetarians, this is not a recommended holiday destination,” noted Ali.
There are no paved roads in the area, and getting stuck in the mud is common. Rainfall can be erratic and sometimes leads to disruptions in the road networks; when it is not the rainy season, the region can face extensive droughts that dry up the water holes on which local wildlife depend. When the amount of accessible water is limited, human and wildlife conflicts can arise; in the village of Gedilun in Garissa County, there were two reports in October 2016 of buffaloes attacking people as they were going to a water hole.
While local communities rely predominantly on herded livestock for food, migrants from other regions sometimes come into the area to poach animals such as Hirola. Ali said local Somali clans do not hunt the Hirola for two main reasons: they are sympathetic to its shy nature, and because these antelopes are dependent on grasslands their presence in an area indicates positive ecosystem health.
“When [local clans] see them, they think that livestock will do well and that there will be many births and abundant food,” said Ali. “In this way, the Hirola is a good omen for the land.”
Hirola are so valued by community members that when there was an effort to relocate the species from the locally-managed Arawale National Reserve near Garissa to Tsavo East National Park in southern Kenya (outside the Hirola’s geographic range), local political leaders filed a lawsuit against their further removal. Since then, Arawale National Reserve has been dissolved, as it is no longer financially supported by the government. Instead of focusing on relocation efforts, HCP aims to safeguard Hirolas in their natural range by protecting and restoring their habitat.
With the support of Rainforest Trust, HCP is in the process of creating two new wildlife conservancies that together will protect over 1.2 million acres, establishing the largest conservation area in northeastern Kenya. These new conservancies will not only safeguard the Hirolas that currently call this region home, but will also help the species recover by re-establishing a free-ranging population between protected areas. Other African wildlife that will benefit from this refuge include Giraffes, Grevy’s Zebras, Elephants, African Wild Dogs, Lions, Cheetahs and several antelope species.
“I have had the pleasure of knowing Abdullahi Ali since 2012, when he was conducting his doctoral research on the Hirola,” said Dr. Sally Lahm, Rainforest Trust’s Africa Conservation Officer.
“Ali’s background as an ethnic Somali, and devotion to the protection of this species and many others in eastern Kenya, offer him the unique opportunity to conserve the region’s natural resources for wildlife and local people.”
While the creation of protected areas is backed by international organizations, HCP understands that it will not be sustainable without local support. According to the nonprofit’s website, “Conservation as a form of land use is new to Somali communities along the Kenya-Somalia border, who for centuries practiced pastoralism in isolation.”
Although Somali herders spend the majority of their time in rangelands shared with wildlife, they are rarely involved in the management and decision processes regarding regional conservation, according to the HCP website.
To incorporate the knowledge of those most familiar with the areas to be protected, HCP created a network of herders, conservation groups and local scouts called “Herders for Hirola”. Founded in 2012, the network originally had 20 herders who received training on basic conservation practices, ecology, security issues and how to best communicate the value of wildlife through community outreach. Herders are trained to use global positioning systems (GPS) to collect data, which allows HCP to map sightings of Hirola and other species throughout the range as well as track incidents of human-wildlife conflicts. During distance sampling, patrols are sometimes conducted on camelback, as trucks often have difficulties navigating the unpaved terrain.
By leveraging conservation innovations such as the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) and CyberTracker softwares, HCP can measure wildlife enforcement patrols and evaluate the effectiveness of anti-poaching efforts. Using technologies such as these allows the nonprofit organization to combine reports from local informants with analyzed data to share information with authorities and other conservation groups for long-term habitat management.
Like these tools that marry traditional knowledge with ever-advancing technologies, Ali is a bridge between grassroot conservation efforts and the international conservation community to effectively protect the region’s at-risk wildlife.
“Rainforest Trust’s support has lifted the profile of what I’m doing, and is helping make a difference and giving greater hope and expectation that we can save the species,” explained Ali. “Additionally, strengthening a locally driven conservation program provides a new win-win for locals and the Hirola.”
“I’m excited for a new protected area,” said the passionate conservationist about the upcoming establishment of two additional wildlife conservancies in Kenya.
“It all makes my face brighten up.”