“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself”
How sad it would be to lose the unique Grévy’s zebra from the plains of Africa. It is the rarest and most endangered of all species of zebra, and no other African mammal has seen such dramatic reductions in range as Grévy’s zebra has in recent decades. Being driven from its home by pastoral farmers after being forced to compete with cattle and goats for food and water has been one of the major problems the animals have had to face. Over-grazing has left the land severely degraded.
Furthermore, irrigation schemes surrounding the Ewaso Ng’iro River have seriously depleted water supplies in the past thirty years, “reducing dry season river flow by 90%” (Williams 2002). This and natural droughts have been significant contributory factors in, not only the deaths of adults, but also the high rate of juvenile mortality (fifty per cent), posing a huge threat to the species. Human disturbance at crucial watering holes is also hastening their decline. Grévy’s zebra are able to live without water for up to five days, but this is their limit and access is then necessary. The distances they are compelled to travel between food and accessible water often prove too much for the foals and many die en route.
Diseases occur, and an outbreak of anthrax between December 2005 and March 2006 killed more than fifty Grévy’s zebra in the Wamba area of Rift Valley Province in central Kenya. Considering their low numbers, this constituted quite a high percentage of the population.
In the late 1970s, zebra were extensively hunted for their highly prized skins, medicinal value and subsistence food, which markedly added to the initial reduction in numbers. Since then, hunting has been outlawed, but still persists in some areas; notably in Ethiopia where the laws are not always adhered to. Here the isolated populations are still sought primarily for their hides, occasionally for food and sporadically in connection with traditional healing.
But now much has changed for Grévy’s zebra, and the outlook is beginning to look a little more promising. But their numbers are still few and they may well become extinct in the wild if conservation plans are not successful. So what is being done!
Currently, there are some amazing ongoing projects in existence run by various NGO, including the Grévy’s Zebra Trust, which are doing their utmost to save the species within its own or similar habitat.
This includes involving the local tribes of Kenya. Fourteen years ago, Grévy’s zebra became a conservation flagship species among the pastoral communities of northern Kenya. At this point, indigenous tribes began to take a pride in their wildlife and ceased to be huntsmen and became guardians instead. This was an extraordinary turning point, beneficial to both wildlife and local farmers.
Not forgetting, the zebra has its fair share of natural predators, too. The Kenya Wildlife Service, the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and the Ol Pejeta Wildlife Conservancy initiated a plan in 2012 to translocate the Grévy’s zebras, currently distributed thinly across the Ol Pejeta Conservancy,to a predator-free fenced area of seven thousand and four hundred acres. Several are now living safely in this area. Since lion, leopard, cheetah, etc, take a fairly substantial share of beasts, this too is a heartening step towards enhancing the populations. And, of course, these predators will still have plenty of other natural prey left on their own home ground to choose from. Separating the Grévy’s zebra from the plains zebra, will also eliminate any further problems of hybridisation which have already occurred.
Grévy’s zebra are ridiculously easy to spot out on the plains. They have huge furry ears, large heads and long legs. They are the largest of all wild equids and their stripes are as unique as the human fingerprint. Unlike the plains zebra, who is closely related to the horse, Grévy’s zebra,between its habits and distribution, falls somewhere between the wild asses and other zebras.
Although they have the classic black zebra stripes which form a concentric pattern, in Grévy’s zebra these are notably narrower than those of other species. Foals are born with reddish-brown stripes which darken with maturity. Each adult animal has a characteristic dorsal stripe, black with white either side, and a very discernible brown muzzle. The hogged-like mane and forelock hairs have brown tips, as does the tail, and the underside is gleaming white.
As far as build goes, Grévy’s zebra are fairly solid animals weighing up to nine hundred pounds. They can be as much as nine feet long and stand almost five and a half feet at the shoulder. Generally speaking, males tend to be about ten per cent larger than females.
They are herd animals, but where there is dominance over breeding females by the leading males, there is rarely aggression. Some males are highly territorial where others are not. Those who are claim prime watering and grazing rights. They are also solitary, except for mating, and will often remain in their territories during the dry season, whilst other migrate to lusher pastures. The non-territorial males travel together in small bachelor groups of up to eight individuals.
Socially, Grévy’s zebra do not form stable social units, or harems, such as other species of zebra do. Their social structure consists mainly of females attached to their young and joining large herds of other females and their offspring, and males being attached to their territory or forming bachelor groups. Females are polyandrous and, during the breeding season (they breed once every two years), are capable of visiting up to four territories a day in search of partners.
The breeding season takes place in August and September, with births coinciding with the early rains. There is an exceptionally long gestation period of three hundred and ninety days, after which a single foal, weighing eighty to ninety pounds, will be born.
Newborn foals are like newborn ducklings; they will attach themselves to the first thing they see. New mothers instantly protect their young from other approaching mares until they have imprinted their own stripes, scent and sounds on the newborns. The new foal will be able to stand after just six minutes, and run after forty only minutes. It will not be weaned until six to eight months of age and may continue to travel with its mother for the next three years.
Unfortunately, when very young and left alone in the open whilst their mothers forage for food, foals have a tendency to stand still rather than run away from predators. This is, of course, fatal.
A few extra thoughts…
In 1882, the Emperor of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), Menelik II, thought these zebras were rather regal-looking, and as such he gifted one of them to Jules Grévy, the then President of France. The zebra was subsequently accorded its own species and named after him.
Over six hundred Grévy’s zebra are recorded as living in zoos across the world, many in captive breeding programmes where they have bred very successfully, but I have been unable to find any evidence of any of these institutions taking steps to return the animals to the wild. Most seem to be simply kept as tourist attractions. As usual, comments are most welcome.
Arid and semi-arid grass and shrubland, and dry acacia savannah; all within range of permanent water.
Northern Kenya and southern and eastern Ethiopia.
What they eat
Grasses and forbs, and leaves in the dry season.
Habitat loss through over-grazing, competition for food and water, drought, hybridisation, disease and illegal hunting for meat, hides and Traditional medicine. Natural predators include lion, hyena, leopard and cheetah.
Grévy’s zebra (Equus grevyi) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Endangered. It is also listed on CITES Appendix I. Although the population is thought to be stable, only two and a half thousand or so remain with over six hundred of the species being kept in captivity.
The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya holds three hundred and seventy individuals constituting fifteen per cent of the entire population.
The species is protected by law in Ethiopia. In Kenya, where ninety per cent of the populations live, hunting has been banned since 1977 and Grévy’s zebra is being elevated from ‘Game Animal’ to ‘Protected Animal’.
Conservation projects exist in both countries focusing on better management of protected areas, protection of water supplies, community involvement and monitoring of wild population numbers.
Here are just a few worthwhile and informative articles about the current status and conservation efforts on behalf of Grévy’s zebra.
Novel Strategies Save Both Endangered Grévy’s Zebras and Cattle Ranchers
Grévy’s Zebra Trust
Grévy’s zebra – Fragile flagship of community conservation
Our solutions to protecting the Grévy’s zebra