An interview with Dr. Zeke Davidson on efforts to save Grevy’s zebra.
Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) is the largest of the zebra species and also the most threatened. Listed as Endangered by the IUCN, a 2008 assessment put the total population at fewer than 3,000 individuals alive today. Photo by Zeke Davidson/Marwell Wildlife.
After taking a four-year hiatus from science, Dr. Zeke Davidson eventually found his way into the world of conservation where he is currently dedicating much of his energy towards the endangered Grevy’s zebra, one of the most threatened mammals of Africa.
I embarked on the team’s latest field mission led by Davidson, to the arid savannah landscape of northern Kenya in place called South Horr (part of the Rift Valley region near the southern end of Lake Turkana) to help find individual Grevy’s zebras and attach GPS collars. This group serves as a sub-population that has never before been formally documented. With GPS, their movements can be tracked.
“We put [the South Horr sub-population] on the map,” said Davidson regarding the significance of this field mission Certain people knew it was here, even [the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS)] had some idea, but nothing has been published or reported to the Grevy’s Zebra Technical Committee (GZTC)—people who are responsible in working with KWS to find out how the species is doing—and knew nothing about this population.”
Zeke Davidson. Photo by Nika Levikov/Marwell Wildlife.
Davidson further remarked, “The main thing is that [the sub- population] represents another isolated area where the species is doing well enough to continue surviving. The more of these populations we have, and the more we can ensure their linkage between one another, the safer the species will be. The better its chances of remaining extant.”
After completing his PhD from Oxford University where he studied the effects of sport hunting on lions in Zimbabwe, Davidson has lived the last five years in Kenya where he works as the principle field biologist for Marwell Wildlife, based in the UK. He, along with partner efforts from the GZTC, is taking the lead on tracking the movement of Grevy’s zebras to understand how they’re using the landscape and where connections between sub-populations exist. In doing so, Davidson hopes to determine the most crucial areas to conserve.
“I think it’s essential that pastoral people continue their way of life. The nomadic model for life in these areas [income through legitimate livestock markets] is essential for the environment, for ecological conservation, because if anybody gets sedentary and settles down here, the environment just crumbles immediately…Those people have to move on, go away and let it recover,” Davidson said when asked if it is possible for local pastoralists to continue their lifestyle and live harmoniously with Grevy’s zebra.
“And I think that’s got to be promoted hand in hand with a tolerance for wildlife and understanding why Grevy’s zebra are important to them and what the benefits are ecologically speaking of having those animals there beyond tourism,” he said. “The benefits are that they as a species are essential to keeping the environment in a good condition.”
With empirical evidence on the South Horr sub-population now available, the pathway to recovery for Grevy’s zebra – whose numbers are currently estimated to be less than 3,000 individuals – Davidson hopes to lend to a brighter future for the sub-population.
The undulating mountains of South Horr valley neighboring the southern end of Lake Turkana. Photo by Nika Levikov/Marwell Wildlife.
AN INTERVIEW WITH ZEKE DAVIDSON
Mongabay.com: What is your background?
Zeke Davidson:My background is in zoology…Bachelors in zoology and entomology and a bit of marine biology. I started a Masters in ichthyology and fisheries science on a deep water species of fish, the orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus), which I didn’t finish because I couldn’t get enough of a sample. They were just too rare.
And I guess I got into all of this initially because I thought I wanted to make wildlife documentaries…My interest in science, I think, overtook my interest in journalism. I wound up being a conservation biologist after dabbling for maybe fifteen years.
Mongabay.com: Why did you choose to study Grevy’s zebra?
Zeke Davidson: Grevy’s zebra initially because it was a species that was part of a job package…But as a species that allows one to conserve, to practice conservation at a landscape scale and conserve environments, it’s very good for Kenya because [Grevy’s zebra] represents a large area of northern Kenya.
Davidson and colleagues peer over the arid landscape hoping to catch a glimpse of small shapes moving between shrubs. Photo by Nika Levikov/Marwell Wildlife.
Mongabay.com: The conservation field is beginning to recognize the importance of ecosystem-based conservation rather than being species-specific. In light of this transition, what are the benefits of focusing solely on Grevy’s zebra?
Zeke Davidson: There’s a bit of a lag between the facilitation of field-based conservation and the reality of what is required to conserve ecosystems at a landscape scale. And the lag is that a lot of the donor funders, even at a grant scale for scientific work, are geared towards saving species. So if you want money to do work on ecosystem scale ecology, it helps to have a focal species.
Grevy’s zebra have a number of advantages quite a part from being a highly endangered, unique animal and an interesting equid in their own right…And they’ve been knocked back a long way, so they represent a useful flagship species to get into these ecosystems and do something to preserve them or Grevy’s zebra and other wildlife will disappear.
Mongabay.com: Have you seen any positive changes in this population as a whole?
Zeke Davidson: That’s beyond South Horr and beyond this project, but yes, I think we’ve seen certain populations…have stabilized, stopped declining.
Hours are spent both on the ground and in airplanes looking for females to attach GPS collars. As predicted, these animals keep a watchful eye over a steadily creeping Landrover. Photo by Nika Levikov/Marwell Wildlife.
Mongabay.com: And how does GPS collaring tie into that?
Zeke Davidson: GPS collaring allows us to, at a very fine scale, understand their behavior and hence the connectivity of these populations and how they get between bits of habitat, bits of the ecosystem that still function. And those are loosely termed ‘corridors’: these connections in the landscape and how these animals move in the landscape.
…That’s the next step for this project. Having established that they are here and with on going monitoring, we’re going to do what’s called a mark-recapture analysis [–using camera traps: identifying individuals by their stripe patterns and using repeat “capture” events/photographs of these individuals to estimate the size of the population –] and determine population density [i.e., determine how many individuals are concentrated within South Horr]. And we’re also getting some idea of its demographics and survival rates as a hopefully distinct sub-population within the national remaining Grevy’s zebra population.
Mongabay.com: How long do you plan to continue the collaring project?
Zeke Davidson: I don’t think collaring is a short-term commitment. It’s something that needs to have a long-term approach, ten years or more. And we’re getting there. The first collars went out in 2006. The trouble with the way it’s been done, because of funding and also because of legislated protocol—the way we have to operate in Kenya in terms of putting collars on—is expensive. And these animals are really difficult to find in this terrain. Historically not a lot of replacement has been going on of collars. Collars have been put on and removed or they drop off, we don’t often get to follow an individual with consecutive collars.
So what we miss in this particular study is individual data that is continuous…I would like to get to a place where we can do that and [hopefully we can] start changing collars reliably. I think we’re going to continue this until we meet a number of key milestones and one of them, the main one being, we’ve worked on pretty much all the sub-populations that we can detect and we see how they move in those areas…We look at the potential for connectivity between those populations. If we can answer that question through collaring then we can probably stop doing it.
Mathew Mutinda, veterinarian for Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, puts the finishing touches on a dart gun equipped with sedative for a targeted female Grevy’s zebra. Photo by Nika Levikov/Marwell Wildlife.
Tying into the main goal of your work as you just explained, how will the research findings contribute to the persistence and survival of this species in the long-term?
If we can establish how these functioning populations connect, then we’ll be able to protect those areas and protect the linkages; at least get the people who influence those linkages between populations more sensitized to the fact that we want them to protect the zebras.
I think knowing where your functioning populations are—and I’ve chosen the word functioning because if I say viable, I’m implying that that population can persist and persist and persist and survive because it’s big enough; it’s reproducing properly; it’s got the right sex ratios; it’s going to continue for the foreseeable—We don’t know that that’s the case with any of our populations; we don’t have the demographic data, and we don’t have 100% reliable population size estimates.
An excited team, including members of the Samburu tribe, works quickly on an a sedated female ensuring that the GPS collar is properly fitted. Photo by Nika Levikov/Marwell Wildlfe.
Mongabay.com: Previous reports from organizations within the GZTC have argued that the Grevy’s zebras serve as a symbol for some local communities. Is their significance as a focal species one that has been created by organizations to help stabilize the population or did the symbology also come from within indigenous tribes? If the former, what are the implications and possible consequences of using this tactic for specific-specific conservation?
Zeke Davidson: The traditional value of wildlife is not a unique thing. Just about every species has something that you can point back to traditional values…And our research has shown—and the GZTC shown—that in many parts, even the harshest parts of northern Kenya, really desolate places, people still have positive regard and a positive attitude towards wildlife and the Grevy’s zebra in particular. So that’s intrinsic in the population. It’s their culture. Some tribes have more and some less regard for wildlife. Some hunt and some don’t. Some have taboos and some just want to use them up or see them only as some sort of commercial value, but on the whole because Grevy’s zebra have very little threat value to local people, they are seen positively.
But can there be negative consequences to this conservation approach [if in fact the Grevy’s zebra have value, but do not act as symbol to the locals]? There is this push to get people to care by making this kind of statement and are there consequences to that?
After receiving the reversal drug, a newly collared Grevy’s zebra hurriedly runs away from the field team. Photo by Nika Levikov/Marwell Wildlife.
I think if you call them symbolic and you don’t define what that symbol is, it’s sensationalism. You’re sensationalizing the species. And that may not necessarily have any negative consequences. In fact it may have positive consequences because the people who don’t know this place and the people you want to influence into caring about Grevy’s zebra are going to care more if you give them some sort of mystical symbolic or ethical symbolic meaning. But the meaning of the species it tied to the value.
The local people will immediately tell you there are traditional uses for Grevy’s zebra, [meaning] consumptive uses. If you kill an animal, there are bits of Grevy’s zebra they use for specific purposes. They can be used for cultural ceremonial reasons in which case there may very well be a symbolic connotation to the species of strength and vitality.
I’m not sure what the symbolic value of Grevy’s zebra is. I’ve never actually asked that question. There may be some, but I think more importantly they like the fat because the fat is very rich and can be used for all sorts of things including medicine. And there are some other uses of the animal. The leather is useful. It also has a value is you can find a market for it.
Jacinta Mugure, veterinarian technician for the Kenya Wildlife Service, prepares blood samples taken from an individual. The blood is tested for various parasites and diseases, including anthrax which has caused fatalities in the past. Photo by Zeke Davidson/Marwell Wildlife.
The other use, or the other value to local people, which has been cited by an age set within the community is that if “you’re” around and you’re herding goats, if [Grevy’s zebras] panic, then you should panic too because they are an early warning system for predators or intruders. And I think that’s very tangible, especially in areas further south of here where you’ve still got large carnivores roaming the landscape.
Mongabay.com: Alternative livelihood schemes have been widely implemented in places throughout Africa and often failed. Some organisations are eager for pastoralists in northern Kenya to take up wildlife tourism as an approach to mitigating human wildlife conflict. Given the poor success rate of alternative livelihoods, do you feel this is an appropriate method and are other form of wildlife management within communities being considered?
Zeke Davidson: Wildlife tourism is often seen as the way to save communities, give them something else to do other than herd livestock…[which] can damage the landscape, which is very judgemental. There are two things about that; number one they herd livestock here because it works. It’s a very harsh environment and herding livestock keeps you alive. Tourism comes and goes as you’ve really painfully seen in Kenya in the last few years. There’s various travel warnings posted by foreign governments, and so there is no tourism in Kenya in the easy to access places at the moment. Lodges are closing all over Kenya. So it’s a fickle trade. And if you invest a lot of money into a lodge and rescuing [the community]—because that’s the suggestion for communities getting into tourism— then they’ve got to build a lodge, they’ve got to make facilities available at a western standard, which is expensive.
How is that community going to justify investing all that money when there are no tourists coming to Kenya? And how can they justify to their people as a governing board or whatever you’re suggesting in terms of making that decision? How can you tell somebody who is herding goats to sell a few of his livestock and put into this scheme that’s going to build a lodge because you can’t guarantee that’s going to give him income or a job? I think when times are good, tourism is great and a lot of people get impacted. So it is viable, and it is immensely enriching when it works. It’s not working now, so I don’t think that it is the answer for these people.
The team prepares to fly over the valley in search of a new herd to target after successfully collaring one female. Before take off, Samburu tribe members seek the shade of one of the plane’s wings. Photo by Nika Levikov/Marwell Wildlife.
Mongabay.com: What do local communities want and how do we help them to get what they want whilst also saving the species?
Zeke Davidson: I think if you asked local communities what they want, they want the same as everybody else. They want health, wealth and security; they don’t necessarily want a tourist lodge.
“Alternative incomes” is something we get stuck on. What we need is more efficient incomes, more efficient ways of harnessing the incomes that work in this area for the benefit of the landscape, the people and the wildlife. And that sounds like a very lofty rebuttal to that question. But I’ll give you an example: if we stayed with livestock as a model for lifestyle income, we’ve already seen changes in the last five years that I’ve been in Kenya, which facilitate that lifestyle and make it a more viable proposition; people can now realize the value of their livestock more easily.
Cattle graze on the sparse, yellow grasses of South Horr valley during the dry season. Photo by Nika Levikov/Marwell Wildlife.
Cattle markets are becoming a lot more common in central places, usually close to the good tar roads. “I” have school fees to pay, as a local person, and I know they’ve got to be paid this month. I go to this cattle market, and I sell ten goats, and then I’ve got the money for the school. I can liquidate my livestock much more easily than was previously possible, and now that means that ready cash is available much more easily, and I can send that to a school via mpesa [cell phone money transfer], and my child can go to school and get educated. In an ideal world that’s a lovely model.
…Whereas before these things happened it was very hard to get rid of cattle reliably and predictably, so your [i.e., a pastoralist’s] cattle weren’t really a bank; they were a hedge fund…So that is facilitating incomes through an existing model, through cattle; it’s just changing the model a little bit by giving us cattle livestock markets.
So why is there this push for wildlife tourism because that seems to be the answer, is turning pastoralists into people who work for the tourism industry.
After spending most of the day on foot, a member of the Borana tribe stands watching over his herd of cattle as they eagerly drink water. Photo by Nika Levikov/Marwell Wildlife.
I think it’s a polarized view. It’s a view that’s been latched onto by conservation people who are desperate to solve this problem and are desperate to provide solutions in real value and can only see value for wildlife in tourism. But there are other values, they’re just slower to realize. So if we’ve solved peoples’ need for cash, what we need to solve is peoples’ understanding of what they bring beyond tourism. Because if your needs are taken care of, you’ve already gotten your money and can pay for your lifestyle, then the pressure is taken off your need to recognize value from wildlife in monetary terms. In other words, you’re freed up to think about other things. It’s not this animal, “this zebra,” comes and eats my grazing from my cows and therefore I want to get rid of it because it’s competition. Instead it’s, my goats are actually doing quite well; I can sell five a month and live comfortably. I don’t mind the Grevy’s zebra being around. And all of a sudden there’s herds of the species again.
But are there alternative livelihood schemes that you think would work in this area or are you just 100% in the line of thinking of making pastoralism more lucrative?
I don’t think you can be black and white about anything. I don’t have any specific ideas; I think tourism needs to be diversified as well…So there are opportunities that can be taken but they’ll be slow growth. And that’s fine because that’s what these communities need, is something slow, not some great big whirlwind that comes through that they have to adapt to very quickly. That’s just the tourism side; I’m sure there are many others.
There isn’t a magic bullet fix to this. There’s just a whole bunch of stuff you’ve got to start working at slowly and urgently.
Interviewer and conservation biologist Nika Levikov treks up a sandy hill with the rest of the field team to spot Grevy’s zebras.
Photo credit: Mutinda/Marwell Wildlife.