If most Kenyans south of Laikipia were asked to point out a Grevy’s zebra amongst a herd of plains zebra, chances are they would have difficulty doing so; in fact, most of us would. This is not because the Grevy’s zebra aren’t distinctly different from their cousins, but because many may not know what to look for when coming across Kenya’s most iconic mammal.
Scientific research dictates that the Grevy’s zebra was the first of the zebra species to evolve after asses. They are taller with narrow stripes, a white belly, black dorsal stripe, large rounded ears and a brown muzzle. They live in arid and semi-arid habitats comprised of grass and shrub land. Predominantly grazers, Grevy’s zebras live on forbs and grasses but during extremely dry periods they also browse.
Originally, the species’ range spread across the arid areas of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. However, due to over-hunting for their skins Grevy’s numbers reduced drastically; the majority are now found in Northern Kenya with a few remaining in parts of Ethiopia. In fact, Grevy’s are now listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list as an endangered species with approximately 2,800 individuals left in the wild, dropping from 15, 000 just 30 years ago.
Today, the greatest threat facing Grevy’s is increasing habitat loss due to overgrazing by livestock. In addition, the zebras are occasionally hunted for meat. The Grevy’s zebra has a 13 month gestation period which means that it takes a long time for the population to grow. Foal survival is critical to the growth of Grevy’s zebra populations but the threats of habitat loss and limited access to water significantly lower their chances of survival.
In Kenya, the zebras have nearly always co-existed with people where over 99% of its range is outside formal protected areas in northern Kenya. Their seasonal movements are dependent on the availability of water and grass distribution. Lactating females are found closer to water because they need to drink more often to nurse their foals. Local communities in Laikipia and other areas of Northern Kenya, revere the Grevy’s for their ability to find water especially during periods of drought.
Due to the fact that Grevy’s zebra are endangered, conservation efforts for the species have stepped up in recent years. For example, in 2012, Kenya updated its Conservation and Management Plan for Grevy’s Zebra. In the same year, an aerial count of large mammals, including Grevy’s zebra, was conducted by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Grevy’s Zebra Trust and other stakeholders to determine the status of populations in order to make informed decisions regarding conservation.
In addition, the involvement of local communities in long term conservation efforts of the Grevy’s zebra, means that communities who live with the species can play an active role in the development of infrastructures that address conservation. Governance processes are also being strengthened, with pastoralists managing their rangelands through a participatory approach. Also, efforts made in releasing more information about the Grevy’s zebra means that Kenyans now know that much more, about the iconic species that is part of their natural heritage.