Explained by Ali Abdullahi, conservation ecologist
Ali has been an impacter on the Milkywire platform since 2019, working with wildlife along the Kenyan/Somali border. Unfortunately, his vital work in this region was made significantly harder following a severe drought that broke out last month, in late 2021, so we thought now would be a good time to help you get to know more about the man who’s dedicated his life to protecting wildlife.
Ali is a conservation ecologist and founder of the Hirola Conservation Programme (HCP). HCP is dedicated to protecting the Critically Endangered hirola. These are a kind of antelope, often called the four-eyed antelope because of the markings around their eyes. However, genetically they are different from all other species of antelope. Therefore, losing them would be catastrophic as we would not only lose a species but an entire genus. Unfortunately, there are only about 250 mature individuals left in the world.
My parents were nomadic people living in the bush in rural Kenya. When I was four, I wandered off from our home and got lost. I was alone in the bush for two days before I eventually ended up at a different village where they took care of me for a month, before finally finding my parents again. So I’ve basically been an explorer from a really early age!
Growing up in the bush, I witnessed the close relationship between humans and wildlife. I saw how they benefit from each other, but also how conflicts between humans and nature arise. Even though I’ve always had a strong attachment to nature, my interest in wild animals only developed after visiting the Masai Mara during a school trip and discovering the diversity of life there. It was a defining moment for me.
My work with hirola was not something I was searching for; it found me. I grew up along the Kenyan/Somali border, which is the home of the hirola. Conservation efforts have been in place here since the 1960s, but they’ve been a mixed success. People have always run initiatives from outside of the region, so the local connection has been missing. You really need to work with the local communities to implement successful conservation projects. In 2005 after finishing my undergraduate studies, the Kenyan Wildlife Service contacted me to spearhead the hirola project, and I’ve worked with the hirola ever since.
With only around 250 mature individuals remaining, the unique hirola antelope face numerous problems, mostly related to habitat loss and human-induced threats. For example, climate change has had a severe impact on the horn of Africa, and Somalia has been suffering from severe droughts that are impacting people and wildlife alike.
For hirola, the main problem is a lack of grass. The area where they live used to have over 5000 elephants who functioned as “natural gardeners” by consuming trees, ensuring a healthy distribution of trees and grass. Over the past few years, the elephant population has decreased due to climate change and poaching, and the result is the grassland disappears too. Because the grass can’t compete with trees for nutrients in the soil, what used to be a savannah has turned into a forest, which completely alters the habitat for animals that are dependent on grass. A recent analysis of long-term satellite imagery across the hirola’s native range revealed a near 300 % increase in tree cover over the last 27 years.
We’re working on a multi-angle approach to conserving the hirola and giraffes. We’re collecting data through radio collars that allow us to track the movements of the animals and study their behavior. We’re creating grass islands in areas where they reside that livestock can’t access, and we’re trying to fertilize the soil around them so that the grass can potentially spread.
We are also cutting down trees. It’s not because we don’t see the importance of them, but because they’re completely taking over the savannah, impoverishing the soil or this previously biodiverse hotspot. As paradoxical as it sounds, the trees here are damaging the ecosystem that many of these species depend on, and without the elephants here, we need to control the tree cover. This sort of knowledge is difficult for organizations not based in the region to understand.
Milkywire gives us hope. We often rely on small grants, so we struggle to hire the staff we need and ensure the safety and security of their jobs. In addition, we often don’t have the money to buy expensive but necessary equipment for our key projects, i.e., tractors for habitat restoration and building ranger posts. It is also hard to find funding for infrastructure for the project and salaries for personnel. All donations are appreciated, but smaller, recurring donations really help us plan long-term so that we can focus on the wildlife rather than our organization’s existence.
You can help support the work of Ali and the Hirola Conservation Programme directly. Find out more about HCP on Ali’s impacter page, and help fund the fight against hirola extinction.
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