The Grevy’s Zebra Trust (GZT) is an incredible, hardworking organization that not only combats the very challenging issues that wildlife face, but also brings an invaluable level of assistance to communities that share their home regions with wildlife.
The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens began supporting the community-focused work of the GZT in 2014, and in January of this year, prior to COVID-19 restrictions, I was honored to attend the Great Grevy’s Rally of 2020 in Kenya!
Hi everyone, my name is Tirzah Nichols, and I’ve been a keeper at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens for over eight years. The Grevy’s zebra is one of the wonderful and beautiful species I’ve been lucky to care for during my time here.
The rally itself is a full, two-day excursion where teams of people survey several different areas & habitats for Grevy’s zebras and photograph any that they find. Photographing the right hip of each zebra provides a snapshot or barcode for each individual. GZT uses software to count each individual to determine a population estimate of the species throughout its range in Kenya and Ethiopia. The area my team surveyed during the rally was in Laisamis, which is most heavily used by livestock and pastoralists compared to many other areas that were surveyed.
Interestingly, my team didn’t see a single zebra within our block! Observing zero zebras is critically important data to document and help understand the effects of the presence of people and livestock on wildlife.
Teams that surveyed further north where fewer people live saw varying numbers of Grevy’s zebras, and they had the added challenge of photographing the zebras up close! The zebras tended to be shy when approached so photographs were difficult to acquire. The areas we surveyed during the rally are ones that GZT is striving to collect more data regarding zebra populations because the wildlife in these areas are less familiar and comfortable with vehicles and are very shy which made the task both challenging and exciting.
Even though my team did not observe Grevy’s in our block, we realized they could have been there but were too elusive to locate, especially with the elevated number of livestock and pastoralists present. All of the data collected is crucial to the mission of GZT, who uses this information to help communities make the best decisions possible for their residents, their livestock, and for the wellbeing of the wildlife they share the land with.
After the rally, the teams traveled to the headquarters of Grevy’s Zebra Trust in West Gate, a well-monitored area for Grevy’s zebras, and where the wildlife are more comfortable with the presence of vehicles. We experienced many wonderful zebra sightings in this area including bachelor herds, solitary stallions, larger mixed groups, and mothers with foals, along with a multitude of other incredible wildlife! During our stay in West Gate, we learned even more about what the Grevy’s Zebra Trust does to support the communities in the region to improve their livelihoods while also caring for the wildlife that share their land.
Examples of their amazing work range from creating private water sources for wildlife separate from those used heavily by livestock and people, to employing local village women for data collection which not only introduces them to reading and writing skills, but also gives them a sense of pride and respect within their community.
Recently, the Grevy’s Zebra Trust won a huge victory by convincing the government to redirect a major pipeline to minimize negative impacts on wildlife. Victories like this are not possible without the information they obtain from the data collected from the Great Grevy’s Rally combined with the support provided by the communities living in this region.
One of the most impactful and touching GZT programs I learned about was Project Nkirreten. This program’s mission is to restore and preserve girls’ dignity while also creating awareness of Northern Kenya’s endangered Grevy’s Zebra. This project employs local Samburu women to produce and package reusable sanitary pads for girls in villages. Female challenges are known for being very taboo, which makes it difficult to address and talk about in the community. In most cases, young women leave school, hugely impacting the future of their education. In some cases, girls have taken their own lives to avoid the emotional trauma of embarrassment while coping with this challenge amongst their peers. This program provides access to sanitary pads and helps them to maintain dignity and discretion so that they have the ability and confidence to stay in school year round without interruption.
Project Nkirreten has been so impactful, that even fathers and husbands have reached out to GZT to acquire this product to better the lives of their loved ones. Six U.S. dollars is enough to provide a kit that will last a full year for one girl. After learning about this mission from the leader of the project, I promised her that I would share this information with everyone I know so that we can come together and support their efforts. The packaging of the product is all zebra themed, and the beautiful and genius thing about it is that the GZT is helping to alleviate a major social challenge while directly connecting that resolution to the Grevy’s zebra. There are many ways that GZT accomplishes this, which gives the zebra such a valuable presence and role in the eyes of everyone in the communities who benefits from their efforts. If you’d like to support this program, you can donate here.
I can’t choose a favorite memory from my experience in Kenya, because every moment that I experienced was my favorite moment at that time! Our close encounter with wild elephants was definitely a profound highlight and something I never thought I’d experience. Observing wildlife species that I’ve cared for in captivity behaving naturally in their habitat was also paramount and beautiful, along with seeing species that were completely new to me! There were many, many bird species of all shapes, sizes, and colors that were new to me such as the Golden Starling, and varieties of sunbirds and sandgrouse. We also had numerous sightings of birds I recognized such as ostriches, hornbills, rollers, and bustards. Learning about and interacting with different cultures was also incredible, and overall this trip was a humbling and life changing experience. As GZT expands the rally to survey more zebra habitat, they will continue to need additional help to collect this valuable information. Hopefully each year, more and more zoos like Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens will support this incredible conservation work by sending staff to the rally. Not only does this help GZT collect the information they need, but it also nurtures the passion for conserving wildlife and habitat within those who participate. As it is brought home and shared, the awareness continues to spread and grow, and help further support these wonderful organizations who are ensuring the survival of species for generations to come.
Written by Tirzah Nichols, Mammal Keeper and Enrichment Committee Co-Chair