Zebra People: Guardians of the Grevy’s, which was opened last Sunday at Nairobi National Museum by KWS Director and one of Kenya’s leading conservationists, Dr Richard Leakey, is one of the most stunning photography exhibitions I have ever seen.
The main body of the work is by the Kenya-born professional photographer Mia Collis who was in Vancouver, Canada when she received an email from another Kenya-born conservationist Belinda Low MacKey, requesting that she shoot photos of the launch of the new Grevy Zebra Trust base camp last July.
“I knew immediately I had to be part of that occasion,” said Mia, who’s as passionate about endangered Kenyan wildlife and conservation as she is about her photography.
She flew straight back to Nairobi, then up to Buffalo Springs in Samburu where she went right to work shooting powerful black and white portraits of all 72 Samburu and Rendille staff members who’d joined the Trust since 2007 when Belinda formed the Trust with two other conservationists committed to saving the endangered Grevy Zebra whose population has diminished from 15,000 in the late 1970s to around 2,800 today.
But Mia’s exquisite photos of the men and women who work with the GZT on the ground either as warriors, scouts or ‘ambassadors’ (comparable to KWS security forces) are not the only ones included in the ‘Zebra People’ show.
All 12 ‘warriors’ whose task is to watch over and protect the remaining Grevy’s zebra were part of a photography project designed by Princeton University professor, Dan Rubenstein, who’s been researching wildlife conservation in northern Kenya since the 1990s.
Through both Princeton and the St Louis Zoo, (where the Trust’s co-founder Dr Martha Fischer is based), over 100 high quality Canon zoom cameras were bought and shared with the warriors whose additional task was now to shoot memorable images of both the Grevy’s and their habitat as they travelled on foot all around the northern counties where the once-plentiful Grevy Zebras can still be found, (namely Samburu, Isiolo and Marsabit).
The warriors’ images are obviously by amateurs, but they are also graphic, spontaneous, revealing, surprisingly thoughtful and often well-composed. The men, all in their 20s and all unschooled former herdsmen, attended photo workshops organised by Dr Rubenstein.
Nonetheless, their cameras were not meant to distract the warriors from performing their primary task, which is to ‘preach’ the conservation ethic to their communities in order to raise awareness of the imperative need to help keep the wildlife, especially the Grevy zebras, alive.
Meanwhile, Mia had multiple challenges to her photo shoots of the zebra people. There was the time factor since she had only two days to shoot all 72 portraits.
Most of them were needed back in their respective communities where their job was to protect the zebras from poachers and also from environmental hazards, like disease, diminished water and food supplies or sundry injuries.
Mia also couldn’t carry some of her essential equipment (like lights) as electricity was unlikely at the camp.
“I worked with one of the warriors who understood how to capture the [shifting] sunlight and send it exactly where it was needed,” said Mia who also shot a series of portraits of the women ‘scouts’ with their babies.
Only one of those images is in the current Museum show, but both Mia and Belinda hope to take the exhibition abroad, especially to the US where much of the support for the Trust has come from.
One donor, in particular, has already expressed her interest to mount an exhibition in New Mexico of the young mothers who work with the Trust.
St Louis Zoo
“The St Louis Zoo has been incredibly generous but we have also received support from other American zoos,” said Belinda who has been instrumental in growing the community-based conservation project from one warrior-scout in 2007 to over 70 now.
She is also the brains behind the recent Grevy Zebra rally which had 118 cars tracking the Grevy’s over two days.
“The data collected during the rally will enable us to determine the current Grevy population,” said Belinda who, with Mia hopes that besides taking The Zebra People on a tour around the world, they can get Mia’s and possibly the warriors’ photographs published as a book that can both raise public awareness of the zebras’ plight as well as help strengthen the Trust’s community-based conservation programme.