With the population decreasing by half in the last two decades, there’s never been a better time to jump into action and help save these marvellously stripy stallions
Grevy’s zebras are one of three zebra species, all very easily recognised by their iconic black and white stripes. The Grevy’s joins the plains zebra (also known as Burchell’s zebra) and the mountain zebra in sporting this amazing monochrome coat. The exact function of these gorgeous stripes isn’t fully understood, but scientists hypothesise that they are a type of camouflage to deter and confuse predators, or that the stripes could even play a part in zebra temperature control! All of the world’s zebra species live in Africa, existing in social herds and grazing on grasses and shrubs. Yet unlike the plains zebra, which has a healthy population, the mountain zebra is listed on the IUCN Red List as being vulnerable and – worse still – Grevy’s zebras are an endangered species in desperate need of protection. Larger and more mule-like than the other zebra species, with a thick mohawk-style mane, Grevy’s zebras live in a very specific area of Kenya and Ethiopia. Once, these zebras were known to roam the scrublands and plains of much of Eastern Africa, but their home range has drastically decreased over the last few decades. Sadly, these zebras have also fallen victim to environmental factors such as drought, as well as human influences, which is why conservation trusts and charities are stepping in to ensure that this zebra species gets what it needs to survive.
Grevy’s in danger
In the last 30 years, estimates show an 80 per cent decline in global numbers of Grevy’s zebras. The habitat that supports Grevy’s zebras is part to blame, as it has come under intense pressure from human influences. Farming is overtaking more of their homeland, and irrigation is draining the water, making it less available for the zebras. Overgrazing of livestock has also meant that the quality of their environment has declined, and zebras have had to compete against other domestic animals for resources.
Droughts in the area continually pose threats to the species, as lactating mothers need to drink every other day. If there simply isn’t enough water (and also food) to be found, this can severely affect the survival of the foals, meaning that the new generations of Grevy’s zebras might not survive to further the species. Local conservation laws protect the Grevy’s zebras, and hunting for the zebras’ beautiful skins was outlawed in the Seventies, but occasionally still happens illegally. Thankfully, to combat these issues facing the Grevy’s zebra, there are many dedicated conservation programs that have produced evidence that numbers are slowly increasing.
On the dry plains of the horn of Africa, Grevy’s zebra herds live in much smaller groups than those of their zebra cousins. They communicate with facial expressions and vocalisations, and will strengthen bonds with one another by grooming. Zebras are vegetarian beasts, and aside from their main diet of grasses, water is the most important aspect of their environment. However, zebras aren’t afraid to walk in order to quench their thirst, and these zebras can go up to five days without water, making great treks across the desert to find a drink. Male zebras aren’t hugely territorial, but when water is such an important resource, breeding males have been known to defend their patch when there’s water nearby, and also when there are breeding females around. They mark their territory with loud vocalisations and dung piles, and can hold dominance until a younger, stronger and altogether more strapping challenger may appear. These younger males will live in separate bachelor groups until they challenge for dominance over a herd. Foals are most often born in the rainy seasons, and usually have reddish-brown stripes that fade to black in time. They stay with their mothers for up to three years, before becoming more independent.
Tanya Langenhorst is a conservation biologist at Marwell Zoo. She told us about the work the zoo is doing to protect Grevy’s zebras in the wild.
How is Marwell involved in protecting Grevy’s zebras?
We’ve been working with Grevy’s zebras since 2003, and over the last decade we have published results of extensive surveys and monitoring of populations, pioneered the use of digital recognition software to identify individuals, and created a national photographic database. We’ve carried out groundbreaking research on unstudied populations, and gained insights into the ecology and movements of the zebra using camera traps and GPS collars. We also helped to carry out successful operations to save the species from disease outbreaks and effects of drought, and supported community-based conservation initiatives. Marwell also manages the International Studbook and the European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) for Grevy’s zebras.
What has recording data told you about the species and how has it helped?
Grevy’s zebras can move over huge distances, so it’s difficult to conserve them just in conventional protected areas. We therefore fit collars to a number of study animals and track their locations. This tells us what they do, how far they move, and where they find food and water. We can also see how they react to human activities – it’s vital for planning conservation action. One of our study animals recently crossed the Chalbi Desert during a journey of 500 kilometres (310 miles) in just one month – that’s the equivalent of walking from Marwell to Newcastle, but in stifling heat!
What are the key achievements in Grevy’s zebra conservation?
Surveys over the last ten years show that population figures have stabilised. This is a first and hugely important step to increasing numbers again.Another success was the vaccination of Grevy’s zebra against anthrax during an outbreak in 2006. Conservation organisations and the zoo world pulled together and acted quickly to protect the core population in Kenya. Without this, we could have lost huge numbers of animals that would have delayed the recovery of the population. We supplemented Grevy’s zebra feeding through two periods of drought, and successfully enabled females to keep lactating and feed their foals. We could have otherwise lost recruitment from a whole year.
Why is it important to preserve the longevity of the Grevy’s zebra?
Not only could we lose this wonderful animal, but it could weaken the ecosystem and its ability to support other species, and the people that depend on precious natural resources. People would also lose the social and economic benefits that Grevy’s zebras can bring through community conservation initiatives and alternative forms of income like eco-tourism.
How you can save the Grevy’s Zebra
With their habitat dwindling, the Grevy’s zebra has never needed more help. Luckily, the following organisations are coming to the rescue.
Established in 2007, the Grevy’s Zebra Trust is an independent wildlife conservation trust in Kenya, dedicated to conserving the Grevy’s zebra and its habitat. The organisation covers an area of the north of the country of 10,000 square kilometres (3,861 square miles), and 93 per cent of the Trust’s team come from communities within the Grevy’s zebra range. They work together with local communities, along with research partnerships, to monitor the zebras. The Trust also has many other schemes in place to ensure that the zebras stand a fighting chance for survival, such as water-management programs throughout the dry season, habitat restoration through planned grazing, and a widespread educational scheme to prolong the success of the Grevy’s Zebra Trust, as support from the local community is essential to the survival of the zebras. To find out more, go to www.grevyszebratrust.org.
In partnership with other organisations dedicated to preserving the Grevy’s zebra (such as the Kenya Wildlife Service), the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) set out in 2002 to conduct a census on the Grevy’s zebra populations living in Kenya’s protected areas as well as community lands. It takes and records data on the population sizes, movements and distribution of the zebras, among other things. This is important to get a clear picture of the zebra population. The AWF is now using its data to make more people aware of the plight of the zebras, and to work on securing further key areas for Grevy’s zebra conservation.
As well as conserving the species in the wild, zoos worldwide are contributing to keeping the Grevy’s zebra species from extinction with successful captive breeding programs. Marwell Zoo manages the International Studbook for the species (see our interview section for more information on Marwell’s conservation efforts), but another zoo that has had much success is the Saint Louis Zoo in Missouri, USA. This zoo has celebrated the birth of more than 30 Grevy’s zebra foals in the last five decades. The zoo’s ungulates/mammals curator also manages the Grevy’s zebra Species Survival Plan (SSP), and the zoo itself contributes to the conservation of the animals in the wild, as well.
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