Protecting Grevy’s zebra during Kenya’s drought


Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) is one of only three species of zebra that exist in the world. Classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the population has declined from approximately 15 000 in the 1970s to current numbers of 2 800. Of the remaining population, over 90% are found in Kenya’s Westgate Community Conservancy.

Kenya’s drought threatens endangered wildlife

In 2016 and 2017 Kenya experienced an extreme drought. Healthy rangelands are able to persevere during extreme conditions due to the presence of perennial grasses and the land’s ability to store water, providing continued sustenance for Grevy’s zebra, livestock and other wildlife. Unhealthy rangelands are less resilient to drought and the ground remains bare.

How the Grevy’s Zebra Trust got to work

Because of the drought, we initiated a supplementary feeding programme in 2017. We distributed hay to maximise the impact on the Grevy’s zebra survival, particularly that of lactating females and foals. Each day at sunrise, a truck loaded with bales of hay would leave the Grevy’s Zebra Trust field camp in the Westgate Conservancy and offload to waiting herds of Grevy’s zebra.

Daily reports of Grevy’s zebra mortalities were unceasing and every case had to be verified. We worked tirelessly for weeks on end to save every individual. However, the effects of the drought were relentless. In 2017, Kenya lost 5% of its Grevy’s zebra population. With every death, hopelessness hovered over every team member. Efforts were renewed tenfold every day. This is what a day in the life of GZT represents – working tirelessly to conserve every individual Grevy’s zebra.

grevy's zebra trust research manager

Photo: Andrew Peacock/ footloosefotography

Sheila Funnel, research manager at Grevy’s Zebra Trust. 

Protecting the Grevy’s zebra

We aim to conserve the species through understanding their behaviour, life history, distribution and – critically – the dynamics between Grevy’s zebra and humans. This is achieved through the Scout, Ambassador and Warrior programmes. This grassroots approach relies on vital data collected by the Samburu, Turkana and Rendille communities who have co-existed with Grevy’s zebra for hundreds of years.

Data accumulates rapidly and needs to be analysed quickly to initiate real-time responses to fluctuations in the Grevy’s zebra population. Some of the immediate questions we need answered are on key foaling areas, how well juveniles are recruited into the adult population, and the status of pasture and water in the species distribution hotspots. Long-term questions include the incorporation of Grevy’s zebra conservation into economic development plans for northern Kenya, and the rehabilitation of the rangelands to sustain Grevy’s zebra and the communities relying on them. It’s important to work closely with every team member to help find answers to these questions each day.

grevy zebra suffer during the Kenyan drought
Image by Jillian Knox

While in the field, I see Grevy’s zebra almost daily. They have been described as ‘old souls’ and every time I see one of these majestic creatures it appears each animal carries the combined experiences of every generation that came before them. Conserving Grevy’s zebra is as much about protecting the species as it is about preserving the livelihoods of the communities that have lived in harmony with them for so long.

Written by Sheila Funnell, research manager at Grevy’s Zebra Trust 

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