By Rupi Mangat
Everybody knows the zebra. It’s the animal with black and white stripes. But unknown to many is the fact that different stripes set the different species apart, and among the rarest is the Grevy’s zebra.
It has narrow stripes and a white patch on the rump. The Samburu people of northern Kenya — where the zebra is found — call it Loiborkuram, meaning “white-rumped.”
That’s not all that sets this zebra apart from its common cousin of the plains, the Burchell’s.
The Grevy’s zebra is more suited to desert-like conditions, and to distinguish it from the latter, all you need to look out for is the white belly because the stripes don’t go all the way down. It also has a brown nose; Burchell’s has a black nose. The Grevy’s zebra also has rounded ears. Its common cousin’s are pointed. Grevy’s zebra are also bigger in size than the Burchell’s, with a large male weighing up to 450 kilogrammes.
Sadly, Grevy’s zebra is so endangered that it has been placed on Appendix 1 of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna), says Belinda Low, a Kenyan-born scientist. This means that trading of the animal or products derived from it is prohibited.
As founder of the Grevy’s Zebra Trust, Low became interested in the equid while studying for her master’s degree in conservation biology.
“When l looked at the historical range of the Grevy’s zebra, it covered Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and northern Kenya,” she says.
Within a span of 40 years, the Grevy’s zebra’s stronghold became limited to Kenya in the arid north around Samburu, Laikipia, Marsabit and Isiolo. Three small populations are also found in Ethiopia.
In the 1970s, a herd was translocated to Tsavo West National Park in southeastern Kenya, but the population did not thrive. However, a population of 450 exists out of Africa in US zoos — and if ever the Grevy’s were to become nearly extinct in the wild as it happened to the bongo — a once common antelope of the Kenyan mountains — a breeding herd could be brought back to repopulate.
“It was hunted mostly for its skin,” says Low of the initial decline, for the hide is prettier than that of the common zebra.
The hunting ban in Kenya in 1978 helped stop the skin trade, but today the Grevy’s zebra faces habitat loss, declining access to water, poaching and disease.
The Grevy’s zebra can go for five days without water. The dominant stallion defends the watering points and grazing territories for the females against other herds, and the females and foals tend to stay together with the females having a gestation period of 13 months.
During this time and when she’s lactating, the female needs to be close to water. However, recent data outside protected areas where Grevy’s Zebra Trust operates, shows that times are tough with a higher mortality rate recorded among foals.
Although poaching may not be the most serious problem because the Samburu are natural conservationists and do not eat zebra (it is a cultural taboo for the Samburu to eat the meat of animals that do not have a cloven hoof), there’s a gamut of other threats.
“We’re looking at land degradation due to livestock overgrazing, soil erosion and limited access to water,” states Low. “There’s a 90 per cent decline in water flow in the Ewaso Nyiro because of water extraction by farmers upstream.”
The Ewaso Nyiro is the lifeline of the arid north, akin to what the Nile is to Egypt.
In the competition for water with pastoralist communities during the day when large herds of livestock descend on water points, the Grevy’s zebra is forced to drink at night, a time when big cats, hyenas and other predators are most active. And during the dry spells when water is really scarce, livestock drink throughout the night, further depriving the zebra herds of water.
The Grevy’s Zebra Trust works with communities outside protected areas in three regions: El Barta, Wamba and Laisamis.
“There’s a huge decline in grazing resources, which communities mostly attribute to settlement patterns. Now there are schools, houses and hospitals where previously the pastoral people moved around, giving the land time to regenerate,” says Low.
The demise of the healthy pasture land also points to an increase in Acacia reficiens, which releases a chemical that inhibits the growth of grass.
“What we now discuss is what the people want their landscapes to look like and agree on what needs to be done. This sets the agenda,” says the zebra conservationist.
It has led to some observations — like recording the recovery time of plants — that in turn led to a planned grazing system.
The highlight of this saw Daniel Letoiye from the Samburu community in Westgate Community Conservancy winning the Whitley award for the Conservancy’s work on holistic grazing planning in May last year.
“The communities in the programme now sell healthy cows to the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) at a higher price,” says Low. NRT — pioneered by Ian Craig — establishes community conservancies in northern Kenya and in areas further east along the coast.
El Barta historically was rich in wildlife. The Grevy’s Zebra Ambassadors scheme operating there is the result of a questionnaire survey among the El Barta communities where one of the questions asked was what would life be without the Grevy’s zebra? The answer was “Lonely.”
It may well mean that stripes aren’t going out of fashion any time soon.