Kenyan conservationist honoured for saving rare antelope

Abdullahi Hussein Ali wIns Sh5.3 million award for concerted efforts to save hirola

In Summary
  • With fewer than 500 individuals remaining, the antelope is currently among the top 10 focal species at risk of extinction.
  • Hirola numbers have declined by more than 95 per cent in the last four decades
Hirola antelopes
ENDANGERED: Hirola antelopes

A Kenyan conservationist has been honoured with the prestigious Whitley Award for his dedication to protecting the critically endangered hirola antelope.

Abdullahi Hussein Ali won the award following his concerted efforts to save the endangered species.

Hirola numbers have declined by more than 95 per cent in the last four decades.


With fewer than 500 individuals remaining, the antelope is currently among the top 10 focal species at risk of extinction.

Ali founded the Hirola Conservation Programme to prevent the species from becoming the first extinct mammal since the Tasmanian tiger was wiped out in 1936.

The Whitley Award, often referred to as ‘Green Oscars’, is awarded annually to individuals from the global south by UK-based conservation charity the Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN) and are each worth £40,000(Sh5,323,540) in project funding.

Ali is one of six conservationists recognised this year for their achievements in nature conservation.

The project is based near the Kenya-Somalia border, a remote and volatile region.

Abdullahi Hussein Ali
PASSIONATE: Abdullahi Hussein Ali

While previous conservation attempts by foreigners have been largely unsuccessful, Ali’s local understanding of the area he grew up in, conservation knowledge and passion for the work made him a prime candidate to lead the country’s hirola conservation effort and was identified for the role by the Kenya Wildlife Service. 

Ali and his team have carried out vital research to understand the continuous decline of the species – which has sunglasses-like markings on its face - pinpointing habitat degradation as a key threat.


 Worsening droughts and livestock overgrazing have resulted in grasslands becoming overgrown by trees.

While these wooded areas are good for some wildlife, they are strictly avoided by the hirola who need the safety of open land. 

Their research also revealed that the population decline of elephants in the area was exacerbating the situation.

Elephants historically maintained the grasslands by herds moving through the area, preventing too many trees from growing.

The megaherbivores were poached for their ivory in the early 1980s but recolonised the area in 2011.

Ali and his team now run an anti-poaching programme to help protect them so they, in turn, can protect the habitat – allowing the hirola to thrive.

 “I think of the hirola antelope as a relative. We have shared a home our whole lives and I have a strong obligation to get them back into Noah’s Ark. As the story goes, a combination of all species is needed to retain the careful balance of the ecosystem. Our aim is to provide locals with the knowledge and skills to restore the grasslands and save this species whilst building a sustainable future for the community,” Ali said.

Garissa county is considered to be one of the most disadvantaged in Kenya, with poverty rates estimated to be over 80 per cent.

With support from his Whitley Award, Ali will work with communities to restore grasslands for the benefit of the hirola and at the same time teach herders to use the land more sustainably to prevent overgrazing and support their livelihoods.

In addition, Ali and his team will provide training to a network of Somali pastoralists to track sightings of hirola and work with schools teaching students the importance of wildlife.

The Sh5.3 million funding from WFN will also allow Ali to strengthen institutional frameworks needed to better govern protected areas.

Edward Whitley, founder of WFN, said: “Ali’s commitment to his country and its wildlife has provided a powerful formula to deliver lasting change. He shows us a wonderful example of the benefits of a grassroots approach in conservation, and we are thrilled to highlight his achievements and support the scale-up of the Hirola Conservation Programme.” 

Edited by Henry Makori

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