Novel Strategies Save Both Endangered Grevy's Zebras and Cattle Ranchers

grevy's zebra photo

Photo by just chaos via Flickr CC

The zebra is an icon of Africa -- as important and recognizable as lions, elephants and wildebeest. But the Grevy's Zebra, found in Kenya and Ethiopia, is endangered. In an effort to bring back numbers, the Grevy's Zebra Trust, an organization that is part of the Wildlife Conservation Network, has come up with novel -- and successful -- strategies for literally changing the land to help the species.The Grevy's zebra is a lesser known species of zebra -- we're more likely to see plains zebra if we're watching a wildlife documentary on television. There are only about 2,500 individuals left in the wild as their range has shrunk. Grevy's Zebra Trust reports, "Towards the end of the 1970s, the global population of Grevy's zebra was estimated to be approximately 15,000 animals; in 2008 an updated survey estimated approximately 2,500 animals representing more than an 80% decline in global numbers over the past three decades."

That is a radical drop in number, and the main reasons for the decline is hunting of the animals for meat and human encroachment on their habitat. That, and drought.

peter lalampaa photo

Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch

Peter Lalampaa, Regional Coordinator of the Grevy's Zebra Trust, spoke at the Wildlife Conservation Network Expo this last Saturday alongside Belinda Low, Executive Director. He emphasized how important the zebras have always been to indigenous people, as they're an indicator of water sources in these arid areas. Seeing the zebras disappear is like seeing a part of their heritage disappear, and he stated that his people want to return to a more traditional way of life. Making room for zebras is a key to this, and the Grevy's Zebra Trust has come up with some smart ways to improve the area for zebras and in the process, improve it for the pastoralists who share space with them.

Hay is for... Zebras.
A significant problem facing the zebra population is the distance between foraging areas and water sources. After a drought in 2009, Grevy's zebra numbers took a serious hit, in no small part because mothers with foals have to travel between grazing and water holes more often, something the foals can't handle and they often die.

As a temporary solution, the group has put out feeding stations with hay to allow the zebras to feed closer to their water sources. The supplementary hay has been a successful strategy, and buys the group time to look for more permanent solutions.

Using Cows to Grow Grass
Cattle are a big part of life for pastoralists in Kenya and Ethiopia, and overgrazing is a big problem. The land has a difficult, if not impossible, time supporting both wild and domesticated animals.

However, the Grevy's Zebra Trust looked at cattle and wondered how they could turn them from competition into a resource. Working exclusively with local communities, the trust educated herders on sustainable grazing techniques. The cattle are bunched up when grazing so they graze only a small area at a time. This allows grasses a chance to regrow. It helps to churn up the soil so that when it rains, more water can be soaked up and stored underground, further helping the growth of grasses. The cattle also fertilize the land with their dung and urine.

The strategy has worked wonderfully, and not only is the habitat recovering, but the cattle are healthier as well, which makes the herders happy. It shows the many ways in which it is possible, with enough planning, for herders to share space with and even help wild animals.

Felling Trees for Greener Grazing
Another strategy for helping to regrow overgrazed grass is to remove shrubby trees in small batches. The trees soak up water and sun, making it impossible for grasses to grow under them. By strategically removing trees from small areas, grass has a chance to sprout up and offer nourishment to both wild and domesticated animals.

The Grevy's Zebra Trust is working hard to bring back a species on the brink of disappearing altogether -- but in the process they're teaching us another vital lesson. It is possible to end the Us-Versus-Them mentality between wild and domestic animals, between environmentalists and herders. It is possible, indeed it is essential, to look at what a community wants and needs and build conservation efforts around that, so that everyone's needs are addressed.

With continued innovation, luck, and more rain, hopefully we'll see Grevy's zebra numbers return.

grevy's zebra photo

Photo by snake3yes via Flickr CC
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