September 14, 2009
|The Wildlife Conservation Network is holding its annual Wildlife Conservation Expo on Saturday, October 13, 2012 from 10am to 6pm at the Mission Bay Conference Center in San Francisco, CA. The lineup includes 20 prominent conservationists.|
Belinda Low, Executive Director of the Nairobi-based Grevy's Zebra Trust, says her group's programs, which employ members of local communities as scouts and conservation workers, are helping maintain dialog between communities while providing new opportunities for education and employment. Grevy's Zebra Trust is working with communities to plan livestock grazing so that it can be used as a tool to replenish the land, rather than degrade it, "by ensuring that plants have adequate recovery time, and to break up bare, capped soil using livestock hooves so that rainfall capture improves and the right conditions are created for seeds to establish," Low explained. "This approach actually strengthens the pastoral way of life and in the long-term will strengthen the resource base that livestock (and thus community wealth) depends on."
In a September interview with mongabay.com, Low spoke about the Trust's efforts to protect Grevy's Zebra and its habitat while simultaneously helping local communities. Low will be presenting at the upcoming Wildlife Conservation Network Expo in San Francisco on October 3rd.
INTERVIEW WITH BELINDA LOW
GZT Grevy's zebra scout collecting data
Mongabay: What is your background and why did you choose Grevy's Zebra?
Belinda Low: I was born and raised in Kenya. My parents always took my brother and I on safari as babies and regularly as we were growing up, so my childhood was instrumental in shaping my love of wildlife and wild places and in particular my connection with Kenya. I did a four-year undergraduate degree in Hispanic Studies during which time I lived in Ecuador for a year studying language and literature at a university in Quito. A chance meeting with an American biologist in South America who told me the world was my oyster opened up the possibility of getting into conservation. I enrolled in a master's degree program in Conservation Biology at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, UK in 1999. After graduating, I returned straight home to Kenya and received a call from Lewa Wildlife Conservancy shortly afterwards asking me if I would be interested in studying zebras and I thought why not? The study was looking at competition between plains and Grevy's zebra and sounded really interesting, particularly as Grevy's zebra is endangered. At the time I was not aware of the serious decline that Grevy's zebra had undergone in my own lifetime as I had seen them regularly in Samburu when I was growing up and none of my family or friends in Kenya or abroad were aware either.
Mongabay: What distinguishes Grevy's Zebra from other zebra species?
Grevy's Zebra. Courtesy of Grevy's Zebra Trust
Plains Zebra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Socially they are also quite different. Because they live in semi-arid and arid environments, resources within their range are patchily distributed. Breeding males therefore defend territories containing water and grazing resources that are required by females, while surplus males move around in bachelor herds. Females are separated by the needs of their reproductive status, for example, lactating females need to be near water so that they can produce enough milk for their foals, while non-lactating females can afford to seek pastures further away. Grevy's zebra are therefore socially fluid unlike the other two zebra species which are water-dependent and organized in tight-knit harems.
Mongabay: The population of Grevy's Zebra has declined significantly in recent decades, what are presently the biggest threats to the species? Do you see risks to Grevy's Zebra from climate change?
The historic and present distribution of Grevy's zebra in the Horn of Africa (data assimilated from Kingdon, 1979, 1997; Yalden et al., 1986). Map and caption courtesy of the Grevy's Zebra Trust
I think your question about climate change is a really good one and I'd like to answer it in two parts. First, in a global context, the impact that the whole world has on this planet is extremely significant for an endangered species like Grevy's zebra because it lives in such a fragile ecosystem. So in a sense, yes, there is a risk to Grevy's zebra from climate change because already the rangelands which they depend on are rapidly deteriorating. If rainfall becomes more erratic and decreases, our work to rehabilitate rangelands becomes even more challenging.
Poached Grevy's zebra being discussed by herders and the GZT team
Mongabay: Has conflict in Ethiopia had an impact on Grevy's Zebra?
Digging wells for Grevy's zebra during the drought
On the other side of the coin, water and grazing resources in conflict-torn areas tend to be in good supply because pastoralists are unable to stay for long due to the insecurity. So Grevy's zebra and other wildlife get the chance to flourish in these circumstances, but they live in constant fear of man.
Mongabay: Given that human populations in the region are desperately poor and often dependent on livestock, what are your strategies to compel local people to care about wildlife? Are there community benefits from conservation?
Belinda Low: There are several strategies that we use. Communities are our primary partners in our projects and we engage them in several ways. One is through employment as Grevy's Zebra Scouts or Ambassadors where their role is to provide protection for Grevy's zebra, raise local awareness about their conservation status and monitor them. These employment opportunities are highly prized and through the network of scouts and ambassadors, significant awareness has been raised causing positive behavior changes towards the species. Both the Grevy's Zebra Scout and Ambassador Programs are complemented by our secondary school education scholarship program called the Grevy's Zebra Bursary Programme. Education opportunities for children living out in these remote areas are few so we are able to offer support and link it directly to Grevy's zebra, which again results in creating positive attitudes towards the species.
Grevy's Zebra Scouts with Belinda Low (left) and Martha Fischer (right)
Belinda Low with West Gate Community
When we first start working with a community, we have a meeting where we discuss Grevy's zebra, during which we learn about their knowledge of Grevy's zebra and we share our own. One of the things we ask about is the role of Grevy's zebra in culture. This often leads to traditional songs and dances being performed in which Grevy's zebra are the theme and it serves to remind everyone of how intertwined cultural traditions are with this species, thus reviving their intrinsic value rather than their economic value.
Instead of viewing livestock as a problem we view it as an opportunity. As I explained earlier, for the future of Grevy's zebra to be secured, it is critical that rangeland is recovered. But this is not just critical for Grevy's zebra and other wildlife, it is also critical for the long-term security of pastoral livelihoods which are dependent on the same ecosystem. The Grevy's Zebra Trust has begun working with communities to plan livestock grazing so that it can be used as a tool to regenerate land by ensuring that plants have adequate recovery time, and to break up bare, capped soil using livestock hooves so that rainfall capture improves and the right conditions are created for seeds to establish. This approach actually strengthens the pastoral way of life and in the long-term will strengthen the resource base that livestock (and thus community wealth) depends on.
Mongabay: Have you seen a positive response to your programs?
Belinda Low: Yes, we have and I'd like to quote one of the Grevy's Zebra Scouts as an example:
This is just one of many examples of positive feedback that we have had not just from Grevy's Zebra Trust employees but also from the wider community, and community leaders.
Mongabay: What are some of the challenges of working in the field there?
GZT camp on the Barsaloi lugga in northern Kenya
Mongabay: Do you see much potential for Grevy's Zebra-centric tourism to generate alternative livelihoods for local communities?
Belinda Low: Absolutely and in fact, it has already started. Both the West Gate and Kalama Conservancies got their operating budgets funded thanks to their potential for Grevy's zebra conservation. Since the conservancies began, both now have a high-end lodge established and Grevy's zebra is one of the key marketing factors for both tourism enterprises.
Mongabay: How can people in places like the U.S. help your efforts?
Belinda Low: One of the things I love about Grevy's zebra conservation is seeing how it connects the pastoral communities of northern Kenya with an international audience. It is a bridging of cultures and continents with the common goal of conserving this magnificent endangered species.
Grevy's Zebra Trust community meeting
Taking samples from a sick Grevy's zebra foal
You could also visit Kenya and see Grevy's zebra in the community conservancies. A percentage of the income from your stay at one of the lodges in the conservancies goes to the community for development and conservation activities. And you get the wonderful experience of both wildlife and people. If you book through the Grevy's Zebra Trust then we would receive 20% of the income from your booking.
Finally, I think as a global community we need to minimize our impact on the planet, so that endangered species like Grevy's zebra and the communities that they share the land with, are given the best chance for a bright future.
Mongabay: Do you have any tips for aspiring field conservationists?
Belinda Low: Yes! I would advise that if they are working in a community context then it's vital that the local people play a leading role in developing and implementing any conservation measures because it promotes ownership and pride and this is ultimately going to determine the success of your conservation program in the long-term.
Planning livestock grazing
I'd suggest that where possible you should collaborate because from my experience, two or more is stronger than one and there are always going to be gaps in your experience, knowledge and resources, which others can fill so you create a win-win situation.
Finally, there are times when one feels like the odds are against you and there's a danger of losing hope. Don't! It's essential to remain positive and maintain your passion and vision because that is what will drive you to succeed.
Grevy's Zebra Trust
Low will be presenting at the upcoming Wildlife Conservation Network Expo in San Francisco on October 3rd.