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Saving the Hirola Antelope
UW graduate student Abdullahi Ali works in Kenya to help save the world’s most endangered antelope.
By Micaela Myers
The University of Wyoming attracts students from 94 countries, including Kenya. One of those students is Abdullahi Ali, who received his undergraduate degree and master’s degree from the University of Nairobi. For his doctorate in ecology, Ali’s advisor recommended the UW Department of Zoology and Physiology. “I was also attracted by the multidisciplinary nature of the program in ecology offered by UW,” he says.
Ali’s graduate research focuses on hirola (Beatragus hunteri) conservation. “Hirola are a unique antelope restricted to the Kenya-Somali border,” Ali says. “With a global population size of less than 500 individuals, the hirola is the world’s most endangered antelope—its extinction would constitute the first loss of a mammalian genus since that of the thylacine in 1936.”
Ali explains that ecological knowledge gaps, weak local involvement and political turmoil on the Kenya-Somali border have hindered hirola conservation since the 1970s. “Unlike many endangered species, the historic range of hirola occurs entirely outside national parks and other formally protected areas, so their fate hinges on an ability to understand and manage jointly for conservation and human livelihoods,” he says. “For comparison, the black rhino (Diceros bicornis)—arguably the highest-profile endangered mammal in sub-Saharan Africa—is estimated to number around 10 times the global population size of hirola. Further, hirola are highly distinct from an evolutionary standpoint being the only extant member of the genus Beatragus. The reasons for historic declines (and lack of contemporary recovery) of hirola are the subject of much speculation but little systematic study.”
Ali has garnered numerous honors and grants for his work, including being named an Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leader and EDGE Fellow, and earning the William T. Hornaday Award. His research is a collaborative effort among UW, the Kenya Wildlife Service and The Zoological Society of London that is designed to unravel the causal factors underlying hirola declines using the best science possible. “Through a combination of GPS telemetry, analysis of long-term satellite imagery, a large-scale predator exclusion zone and sustained community outreach, my research is informing national policy on this little-known species,” Ali says. “Since 2010, I have been working on hirola to understand basic facets of hirola ecology (e.g. habitat preferences, seasonal movements, birth rates) to form the foundation of a national conservation strategy by the Kenya Wildlife Service. Specifically, I am addressing the demographic drivers of hirola declines and hirola resource selection and landscape change. In so doing, I am fostering long-term community-based hirola conservation through education and outreach.”
Ali plans to continue his conservation work in Africa after he graduates in 2015. “My goal is see hirola downgraded from critically endangered species to endangered category,” he says. “Therefore I will continue to lead research-based conservation in this remote part of the world. To scale up my past effort, I recently founded the Hirola Conservation Program, a nonprofit organization registered in Kenya that will spearhead the hirola conservation effort.”
One of the 10 Cowboy Ethics adopted by UW is “Know where to draw the line.” Graduate student Abdullahi Ali realized something had to be done to save the world’s most endangered antelope, the hirola, and is working to make sure things change.