Citizen scientists get out to save Grevy’s zebra



Sightings of the iconic thin-stripe Grevy’s zebras in the grasslands and woodlands of Laikipia are very rare.

The first three hours of our game drive across the 50,000-acre Mpala Research Centre and wildlife ranch last Saturday yielded a glimpse of just one lonely stallion holding a hopeful territory for a love date.

When we finally came across a herd of 12 grazing down the valley at 11.44am., Dino Martins— the Mpala executive director, who was our driver and tour guide for the day —was ecstatic.

“It is highly likely that we are the only people lucky to see them today. They must have come all the way from Samburu,” said Dr Martins, an entomologist and evolutionary biologist with a PhD from Harvard.

He was particularly thrilled by the presence of foals (the young ones) in the group.

“This means that the population is healthy and growing,” said Dr Martins.

The Mpala game drive was part of last weekend’s Great Grevy’s Rally, a national photographic census of the endangered animal only found in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia.

Kenya is home to more than 90 percent of all the Grevy’s zebras in the world, making the species a special part of the country’s natural heritage.

The census conducted every two years since 2016 involves volunteers called ‘citizen scientists’ in tracking, identifying and counting the animals.

More than 500 volunteers from different parts of the world— organised into 39 teams and armed with 150 GPS-enabled cameras— participated in this year’s census in Laikipia, Samburu, Meru and Marsabit counties.


Children from Wildlife Warrior's Club. PHOTO | BIANCA OTERO

Belinda Low Mackey, the co-founder and executive director of Grevy’s Zebra Trust, says data from the biennial census will be used by national park authorities and ranchers to manage pastures, water and other needs of the zebras.

A drastic decline in the population of the Grevy’s in the past four decades has stoked fears of possible extinction. From 15,000 individuals recorded in the 1970s, the population shockingly dropped to 1,500 at the onset of the new millennium before rising slightly to about 3,000 at the last count in 2018.

Conservationists and scientists say that the Grevy’s has largely been a victim of its beauty, which has made it widely hunted for its skin over the years.

Human encroachment on its habitat, drought and diseases have added to its troubles.

Dan Rubenstein, a professor of ecology at America’s Princeton University who has been conducting research in Kenya’s rangelands for 40 years, says that the decimation of the Grevy’s population began during the colonial era and gathered pace in the last four decades.

“In 1980 when I first came to Kenya, one could still find an aggregation of more than 400 Grevy’s zebras grazing in one area in Laikipia. But in early 2000s, the population in the whole country was down to about 1,500,” says Prof Rubenstein.

“But the Grevy’s turned a corner when we started to involve community scouts in its conservation. We persuaded the local pastoralists to let it share pastures and water with their livestock. We got middle class people in Nairobi and other urban centres in Kenya as well as foreign tourists to volunteer their time and resources for activities such as the Great Grevy’s Rally.”

One of the major highlights of this year’s photographic census was the participation of about 50 schoolchildren. A majority of them were members of the Wildlife Warriors schools programme run by the conservation lobby WildlifeDirect.

“By introducing the children to wildlife and nature through experimental school-based activities, and conducting citizen science in the field, they become proud of their Kenyan heritage and are eager to contribute towards saving it. We are also encouraging some of them to consider careers in science,” says Paula Kahumbu, the executive director of WildlifeDirect.

The images collected during last weekend’s census are to be sent to Wildbook for analysis, and the results won’t be out until sometime in June or July this year.

But the organisers of the Great Grevy’s Rally sounded fairly confident that the experts will report a significantly higher number than the 2,812 identified in 2018, buoyed by the resilience shown by the zebras in recent years.

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