By Jen Goebel
While bouncing along the rocky roads of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in the Samburu region of Kenya, my family and I came across a group of rare Grevy's zebras (named for a French president to whom one was sent as a gift). Unlike the common plains and mountain zebras, these zebras have big heads, rounded, donkey-like ears, and erect manes. They are bigger than other zebras, growing up to nine feet long and standing more than five feet at the shoulder. And, unlike other zebras, Grevy's zebras are facing extinction in the next 50 years. Of the 15,000 Grevy's zebras that once roamed the semiarid areas of Kenya, only about 2,000 remain, predominately in Kenya's Samburu District and Laikipia Plateau, with a small group of about 150 in southern Ethiopia. So, we felt pretty lucky, as we bounced along with our insides doing flips and the car stereo threatening to crash onto the floorboards, that we were seeing these zebras in the wild.
Herd of Impala Passing through the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy on our way to a family weekend at Tassia Lodge, we could see an immense difference in the landscape as soon as we drove under the electrified wires that form the elephant fence. In the surrounding pastoral land, the grass and underbrush had been mostly stripped by the efficient munching of cows, sheep, and goats. We were suddenly in untamed wilderness again, with dik diks scattering, impala watching us with wary eyes, and giraffes gazing placidly at our Land Cruiser. We saw signs of elephants long before we found the elephants themselves, and once they saw us, they were quick to depart. It is amazing how, in this scrubby tree-dotted landscape, an animal as large as an elephant can vanish from sight in seconds.
Searching for zebra Here, in and outside the 267-square kilometer Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, the first cooperatively-managed private wildlife conservancy in Kenya, history is being made. Not only is the conservancy being managed to protect wildlife, but the conservation managers are working with local communities that want to conserve their resources and manage their lands for the benefit of both people and wildlife. Group ranches, some with eco-lodges like Tassia, have sprung up near the conservancy, and are carefully managing their lands for the benefit of the tourist-bringing wildlife, as well as agriculture and livestock.
With the Grevy's zebra research being done by Earthwatch volunteers at Lewa and elsewhere in Samburu, part of Earthwatch's Samburu Conservation Research Initiative , people are beginning to understand more about these zebras and how to protect them. Through the CRI, the information gathered by Earthwatch teams working with Drs. Daniel Rubinstein and Paul Muoria and their colleagues is being shared throughout the region.
On our way out of the conservancy, which involved some uncertain moments as the unmarked dirt roads and grassy hills were clearly doing impressions of each other, we relived the highlights of the trip. For my nine-year-old son, the baby zebras came in just ahead of our friend Nancy having acquired real marshmallows at the Nakumatt grocery store; for my five-year-old, it had to be the unfettered joy of riding with his head out the sunroof, safari style. For me, hearing our guide Simon talk eloquently and knowledgeably about the ways the Laikipia Maasai, of which he is one, are working to protect their heritage and land brought warmth to my conservationist heart. With passionate people like Simon taking ownership of wildlife protection, I think the Grevy's zebras have a fighting chance
A cross between a zebra and a horse is called a "zebroid." Taller than a zebra, they have the physical shape of their non-zebra parent, but have the stripes of the zebra on all or parts of their bodies.