Kenyan Scientist on a mission to save hirola


A Kenyan scientist is determined to help save from extinction one of the world’s rare antelope species.

Graceful hirola, found in North Eastern Kenya and Western Somalia, where conflicts have killed them off, are said to number only about 500.

Kenya has the only known remaining herd.

They are said to be on the verge of joining the dodo of Mauritius, a flightless bird hunted to extinction more than 300 years ago.

It carries distinctly ringed horns that reach up to 70 centimetres (28 inches). Enlarged pre-orbital glands beneath its eyes give it a unique ‘four eyes’ look absent in all other antelopes.

Ali inspecting a hirola carcass. [PICTURES: JOE OMBUOR/STANDARD]

If the hirola gets extinct, the world will miss the only animal outside the human race that appears to be wearing spectacles, thanks to the white line or chevron that passes from one eye to the other across the animal’s forehead.

This slender antelope with a sandy brown coat and an elongated face featuring a slightly convex forehead is virtually unknown outside its natural habitat in the arid grassy plains east of Kenya’s River Tana.

Scientists popularly refer to it as a living fossil because of its rare nature.

It is in these singed plains where the endangered hirola has steadily been on the decline largely due to competition with livestock and frequent droughts that 31-year-old Abdullah Hussein Ali, an ecologist with the National Museums of Kenya, was born and raised.

"I grew up seeing these elegant creatures and I have watched them dwindle over the years. So, when confronted with a choice for my PhD dissertation work, I quickly settled for the hirola," says Ali, who is a member of the University of Wyoming’s ecology programme.

His studies have revealed that unlike other endangered animals, research on the hirola has been prohibitive because of historical issues such as the shifta war that made their geographical range a no-go zone area for scientists and the perennial mayhem in Somalia.

Geographic range

"Besides, many people view Somalis and the northern region with suspicion and are reluctant to work among them. Lack of infrastructure and negative perceptions about insecurity have kept scientists away from Somali populated areas that are the natural hirola range," says Ali, who prides himself as the first scientist to undertake research on the rare animal in its natural habitat.

His findings are extensive and an invaluable treasure to conservationists. He says declines in hirola population have coincided with an increase in livestock numbers stemming from a shift from traditional Somali nomadism to sedentary pastoralism.

"Other factors include fire suppression, a 98 per cent decline in elephant numbers throughout hirola geographic range in North Eastern Kenya and range degradation. Research findings have it that elephant numbers in North Eastern province have dropped drastically from 7,725 in 1978 to less than 100 today, hindering the maintenance of grasslands on which hirola, cattle and other animals depend.

It has also been established that overgrazing reduces fuel loads that subsequently reduce fire frequency. Fires and elephants kill shrubs that hamper the growth of short grasses on which hirola feed. Fires make grasses to sprout afresh.

Ali says hirola are known to follow the progress of newly sprouting grasses on the savannah and grass lands.

He says competition with cattle that also feed on short grasses is the most serious contemporary issue facing the hirola besides predation, disease and poaching.