Saving the endangered Grevy's zebra
In the Samburu area of Kenya, the Grevy's zebra (Equus grevyi) is fighting extinction. Currently losing its battle within this last remaining stronghold, the population continues to decline. Drought, competition with livestock, disease, and high juvenile mortality are factors that are all being held responsible, but the reasons behind them are unclear and the true impact of each has yet to be concluded.
Poaching for zebra skins was eliminated in the 1980s, so recovery of the population was expected, but this has not been the case and we do not know why. Until we can resolve this mystery, and begin to implement informed management strategies, the Grevy's zebra will never achieve the abundant numbers enjoyed by its unthreatened cousin, the plains zebra (Equus quagga).
The Grevy's zebra
Wild Grevy's zebra are found mainly in Kenya, with an additional small group of about 150 in Ethiopia, so its range is much more restricted than the common and geographically widespread plains zebra. It is difficult to believe that the Grevy's zebra once roamed as far east as central Asia, and all the way south to southern Africa. As already mentioned, Samburu is the species' main stronghold; the reserves Earthwatch works in are home to at least 25% of the Kenya population. Here, the Earthwatch project is trying to reverse the decline in numbers and prevent extinction of the species.
Last year, the Samburu landscape experienced severe drought, which finally ended in October 2009, when the rainfall brought a dramatic, but possibly short-lived, resurgence of green foliage. Unfortunately, the rains have not returned as strongly as hoped, and in north Kenya particularly have not been sufficient to meet the needs of the human population, wildlife, and the habitat. In Samburu the northern parts were worst hit, and zebra from those parts were driven south. Data showed a migration towards Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves and the West Gate conservancy, which are key research sites for the Earthwatch project.
This is unusual movement for the Samburu Grevy's population, most of which is usually found on community lands with only a few utilising protected areas. However, a river runs between Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves, flowing for 365 days a year sourced by Mount Kenya. This vital water resource becomes one of the last remaining in Samburu during drought and so the area becomes a refuge for numerous wildlife species, making it extremely important that measures be taken to protect this habitat. Other species seen in the area include Somali ostriches; antelopes such as gerenuk, dik dik and Grant's gazelle; baboon; warthog; and elephant.
Kenya is no stranger to the idea of conservation for the benefit of wildlife, and the Samburu area is no exception. However, the organisation of protected areas in Kenya can be confusing, and they are not always linked up - but the Earthwatch project is trying to change things. As a direct result of the project, small reserves in Samburu are being turned into larger overall conservancy areas, where the local community has ownership and responsibility for protecting the habitat and its wildlife. Rangers are employed, trained, and patrol the area. The Kenyan government is fully supportive of these conservancies, and of putting the awareness and understanding of conservation into the hands of the indigenous population.
West Gate Conservancy (previously Ngutuk Ongironi Group Ranch) is one example where Earthwatch works with the rangers and local community towards the long term aim of developing their capacity to protect their area themselves. As well as enabling training of rangers, the project has also helped to develop natural resource management plans.
During the last year, Buffalo Springs, Samburu, and Shaba's National Reserves have been working with the African Wildlife Foundation to develop a joint General Management Plan. Information from the research on numbers, distribution, core habitats and resources, and movements of Grevy's zebra has been provided, and will ensure that the species' core habitats will not be jeopardised as tourism and community development activities expand in this important tourist destination.
In 2008, with the Kenya Wildlife Service, the Earthwatch project published a National Grevy's Zebra Conservation Strategy, which is now being implemented. Earthwatch scientists Drs. Paul Muoria and Nick Oguge sit on all of the key committees involved and the project's research and conservation activities have been carefully aligned to reflect and implement the strategy.
Unfortunately, protected areas do not solve all the zebra's problems, and outbreaks of disease can be harder to control within them. Anthrax and other zoonotic diseases (infectious diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans) became a problem in both 2008 and 2009, and the scientists are trying to collect information to explain how and why these outbreaks occur. This year, rangers have been trained in identifying causes of death and recording other data for any zebra carcasses they come across in their reserves, and numbers in 2009 were higher than normal due to the drought. The rest of the local community is also reporting mortality data to the scientists, which is vital to producing a more accurate idea of the impacts of drought and disease on both livestock and zebra.
The research is continually evolving and in 2009 volunteers became involved in a new task to photograph as many of the Grevy's zebra recorded individuals as possible for identification purposes. The photos are being used to enrich the existing database of known individuals. The stripe patterns of each zebra photographed are analysed by specially designed computer software, and the data helps to monitor changes in population size, movements, survival, and habitat use.
Volunteers are absolutely essential for this project, which has high data collection needs. A huge amount of ground must be covered by transects to survey the species in such open territory; numerous quadrat surveys are needed to assess the zebras' diet and whether competition with livestock exists; every zebra must be photographed and those photos entered into the database for the identification process; and data collected from other research must be entered for the scientists to later analyse. With the support of Earthwatch volunteers, lead scientist Robert Muoria stated this year that "the project was able to achieve a lot, despite the harsh global economic times and a severe drought on the local scene."
Similar challenges will be faced by the scientists in 2010, so their need for volunteers is as great as ever. If you would like to be part of Dr. Muoria’s team in 2010, read more about the project.
Earthwatch scientists have been carrying out Grevy's zebra research as part of the Samburu Wildlife and Communities project since 2003. The project is fully connected with other research in Kenya funded by Earthwatch and collaborates with the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF). Other work includes Earthwatch's Medicinal Plants project, climate change research, and providing academic development opportunities to Kenyan university students. All of this happens through Earthwatch's Kenya Field Centre at Wamba in Samburu. The programme is fully approved by the Kenyan government, works closely with the premier wildlife organisations in Kenya (Kenya Wildlife Service and AWF), and is having an impact on policy at a high level.
Report by Debbie Winton.