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Securing a future for Grevy’s zebras and the cultures of northern Kenya (commentary)

  • Grevy’s zebras were once widespread across the Horn of Africa, but their numbers were decimated by poaching and civil unrest during the 1970s and 80s. Fewer than 3,000 endangered Grevy’s zebras remain worldwide today.
  • Habitat loss and competition with people and livestock for water and pasture pose a bigger threat than poaching to the species’ survival today.
  • Conservation initiatives devised and implemented at the grassroots level hold the key to the species’ future. Local efforts by the Grevy’s Zebra Trust (GZT) seek to promote sustainable grazing practices and employ local communities in monitoring zebra movements, thereby safeguarding both the area’s natural and cultural heritage.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

For most foreigners, the mention of Kenya conjures images characteristic of the country’s southern safari circuit — the famed Masai Mara wildebeest migration, Amboseli’s elephant herds dwarfed by Mount Kilimanjaro’s icy peak, Rift Valley lakes teeming with flamingoes, and regal Maasai warriors.

Yet, the country’s semi-arid, remote, and relatively little-visited north represents a whole different world. This landscape is the home of the indigenous Samburu, Rendille, and Turkana people and the endemic Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi), whose fates are profoundly intertwined.

Larger, more streamlined, and with thinner stripes than its more familiar plains zebra cousin (Equus burchelli) of the southern savannas, the Grevy’s zebra roams the acacia-studded semi-deserts of northern Kenya. Since the decimation of the species from its formerly widespread distribution across the Horn of Africa by poaching and civil unrest during the 1970s and 80s, the species has become confined to Kenya’s Samburu, Marsabit, Isiolo, Meru, and Laikipia counties (which contain 90 percent of the global population) and three isolated populations in southern Ethiopia. Fewer than 3,000 endangered Grevy’s zebras remain worldwide today.

Historically, the indigenous Samburu, Rendille, and Turkana people and their livestock have lived in harmony with northern Kenya’s wildlife. These semi-pastoralists traditionally reared indigenous cattle breeds best suited to the region’s harsh environment and migrated continuously with their stock in search of fresh pasture, allowing rangeland to regenerate. Over the last three decades, however, traditional culture and the ecological equilibrium in the area have come under severe strain from sedentarization of pastoral communities, changing husbandry practices, and increasingly erratic weather conditions.

A plains zebra (Equus burchelli) mingles with a herd of Grevy’s zebras (Equus grevyi) on the Naibelebele Plains, Westgate Conservancy. The Grevy’s zebra physically differs from the plains by its larger size, thinner stripes, and more streamlined build. Photo by Alex Dudley.

As semi-pastoralism in northern Kenya has increasingly yielded to sedentarization, sheep and goats have supplanted cattle as the dominant livestock. The combination of the sheep’s and goats’ far more intensive grazing habits and the lack of livestock rotation — rather than absolute livestock numbers, as popularly believed — has triggered both food insecurity during recurrent droughts and the loss of viable habitat for Grevy’s zebras. Habitat loss and competition with people and livestock for water and pasture pose a bigger threat than poaching to the species’ survival today.

Conservation initiatives devised and implemented at the grassroots level hold the key to the species’ future. Local efforts by the Grevy’s Zebra Trust (GZT) seek to promote sustainable grazing practices and employ local communities in monitoring zebra movements, thereby safeguarding both the area’s natural and cultural heritage.

Ecologist Allan Savory has pioneered the concept of holistic livestock management — bunching and movement of domestic grazers to maintain pasture. When managed sustainably, cattle, goat, and sheep herds fertilize grassland through their dung and by trampling the soil, facilitating the growth of fodder for successive wild grazers such as the Grevy’s zebra. This cycle requires continuous rotation of livestock; when concentrated too long in a particular area, livestock will completely strip the area of grass and compact the soil into a barren moonscape. Holistic livestock management underpins the GZT’s work in community conservancies such as Westgate, Kalama, and Namunyak conservancies (abutting the Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves) to coordinate livestock movement and allow for the recovery of pasture.

Ngeti Lempate (“Mama Grevy”) leads the Grevy’s Zebra Scouts in Westgate, and is widely revered in the community for her environmental knowledge. She acts as a key intermediary between the Grevy’s Zebra Trust and pastoral communities in Westgate. Photo by Alex Dudley.

In the conservancies, tracts of land are demarcated through the use of natural features where grazing is prohibited entirely, or restricted to certain periods of the year, in order for native vegetation to regrow. Through quarterly meetings, grazing user groups negotiate pasture and watering rights between the conservancies. This mitigates the impact of drought on residents within a particular conservancy by allowing that community to graze inside another conservancy. Such measures provided crucial relief to communities during the severe 2017 drought in northern Kenya. Meanwhile, coordinated grazing and restricted pasture has reinstated the coexistence of livestock with Grevy’s zebras, and led the species’ population to stabilize after decades of precipitous decline.

In 2016, the GZT helped start the Lkiramat Nkujit (the Grass Guardians), an environmental activist club made up of both schoolchildren and herder children in Westgate Conservancy whose goal is to conserve the grass in their rangelands. After learning about holistic livestock management at the GZT field camp in Westgate, the Guardians have since shared their knowledge with the larger community.

Within thorn-bush bomas (enclosures), the Guardians have re-seeded formerly barren patches of land by planting grass seeds. The newly revived pasture in the bomas provides a future source of both dry-season cattle pasture and of seeds for future regeneration areas. Simultaneously, through their awareness campaigns, they have curbed bushmeat poaching in Westgate and begun holding adults in the community accountable for negative environmental practices. Thanks to rapid initiation of friends into the club by the original members, the Guardians have grown from thirty-four children in 2016 to over fifty today.

During the rainy season in Kenya (from April-early June) Grevy’s zebras concentrate on the open plains of Westgate Conservancy, where they are relatively safe from predation. With the start of the dry season in late June/early July, they largely migrate into Samburu and Buffalo Springs national reserves. Photo by Alex Dudley.

Besides allowing Grevy’s zebras and livestock to share the same habitat, northern Kenya’s peoples have taken an active role in monitoring zebra numbers and movements and safeguarding the species against poaching. In Wamba (a settlement straddling Samburu and Marsabit counties), twenty-nine Scouts from the community are employed by the GZT to monitor zebras and compile crucial data on their movements, age, sex, and behavior. Over 70 percent of the Scouts are women, many of them widows or single mothers. Farther north in El Barta, where poaching and inter-ethnic conflict between Samburu and Turkana people threaten zebras, fourteen Grevy’s Zebra Ambassadors recruited from both communities monitor zebras and safeguard them against poaching through training in security and surveillance operations. These individuals benefit from the technical training, support themselves and their children from their income, and foster conservation awareness and peace between their communities.

Meanwhile, in Laisamis, a settlement in Marsabit County that is home to one of the most important yet least protected Grevy’s populations, regal Samburu morans (warriors) monitor the animals and ensure their access to scarce food and water resources while promoting goodwill among the community. Traditionally excluded from community decision-making due to their existence as a separate social stratum, their newfound role as conservation ambassadors has allowed the morans to realize their leadership potential.

In addition to its rangelands and conservation monitoring programs, the GZT extends awareness campaigns about Grevy’s zebra conservation and environmental sustainability among the local communities to the classroom. The GZT visits two to three primary schools every year to teach students an initial lesson about the species and its conservation plight, followed by a later visit to assess what students have learned and fill knowledge gaps through educational games. To reinforce the newfound appreciation for wildlife among the students and inspire conservation activism when they reach adulthood, the GZT’s education program culminates with an annual field trip into Samburu National Reserve during the holiday break. Such hands-on immersion aims to promote commitment to conservation at a young age and provides access to the reserve that is not otherwise easy for local residents to obtain.

A herd of Grevy’s zebras on the Naibelebele Plains. Only the females are radio-collared, since they migrate between the territories maintained by stallions. Photo by Alex Dudley.

These multifaceted campaigns have created a network of local intelligence about the population status and threats to Grevy’s zebras, and provided a rapid response in times of environmental crisis. The distribution of hay bales, which provided a key lifeline for the zebras during the 2017 drought, rested on the groundswell of local activism generated by the coordinated efforts of the Grevy’s Zebra Ambassadors, Scouts, and Warriors.

With 99 percent of the Grevy’s zebra population roaming beyond the boundaries of national parks and reserves in community conservancies and unprotected rangeland, the species’ future clearly lies in the hands of the local people who have long lived in harmony with the animals. Strong cultural ties bind zebras and humans, with accounts describing local people following the animals to locate water and pasture. In one instance, Subanya Lekupe, an elder from Illaut (near Laisamis), saved his entire cattle herd from drought by following Grevy’s spoor. In turn, the zebras benefited from Lekupe’s service of scooping water from a deep well and filling in the trough for them to quench their thirst. He was awarded a medal by GZT for his services to the species and instilled these skills in his son, now the Westgate Community Conservancy’s manager.

While the rangeland degradation of the last half century has threatened to erode this balance, local conservation initiatives over the last decade are successfully reviving traditional cultural and environmental wisdom. Although these campaigns are geared toward ensuring the long-term survival of the Grevy’s zebra, they recognize that doing so depends on understanding, and changing, human nature. These intertwined efforts hold the key to securing a future both for Grevy’s zebras and the unique cultures of northern Kenya.

Grevy’s zebras are more closely related to wild asses than plains zebras. Unlike the harems formed by plains stallions, adult Grevy’s zebras maintain their own territories, where they mate with herds of passing females (similar to the social structure of wild asses and antelopes). Photo by Alex Dudley.

Alex Dudley has long maintained a passion for wildlife and hopes to work in conservation or environmental communication. After graduating from the University of Colorado at Boulder, he spent a year (2015-16) volunteering in Tanzania with grassroots conservation projects, reported from Nepal on successful rhino protection mechanisms, and currently is interning with the Grevy’s Zebra Trust in Kenya. In fall 2017, he will start his masters in Conservation Leadership Through Learning at Colorado State University.

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