Back in January, I wrote about an impending citizens’ science initiative: the Great Grevy’s Rally. I also promised to follow up when the results came out.
The rally itself was a huge success – over 350 members of the public, communities, rangers and scientists, took over 40,000 geo-tagged pictures of Grevy’s zebras, covering an area of roughly 25,000 square kilometres! It was the first time ever, globally, that such a citizen science-based census of a species’ population had been undertaken.
In the months since, the US-based IBEIS team used their special software to identify the different individuals from their unique stripe patterns. The results suggest there are 2,350, with a very respectable margin of error of 93. That means 90 per cent of the entire world’s population of this special creature is in Kenya.
All the individual profiles were then sent to Princeton University’s Professor Daniel Rubenstein and his team for sexing and ageing. Knowing the proportion of infants and juveniles helps to determine a population’s health. The results suggest that in all the counties they are present, the Grevy’s are stable – except in Meru. This is due in large part to the burgeoning lion population in Lewa Wildlife Conservancy.
While the number is still critically low, especially compared to a few decades ago, the reasonable foal ‘recruitment rate’ is cause for optimism. Now, how do we go about letting the zebra populations grow?
Last weekend, to coincide with the public announcement of the results, the Grevy’s Zebra Trust, WildlifeDirect, KWS, Laikipia Wildlife Forum, Princeton University, and Mpala Research Centre, hosted a workshop on Mpala Conservancy, Laikipia.
The governors of each relevant county were invited to discuss Grevy’s conservation issues, and all but two attended.
We went out on a game drive to find some zebras and were treated to some fascinating interpretations by the likes of Prof Rubenstein and the Grevy’s Zebra Trust’s Peter Lalampaa. What I found particularly poignant was seeing Mpala’s cattle and wild herbivores grazing side by side. Isiolo’s deputy Governor, Mohammed Guleid, said that he was unaware that they actually facilitate each other, keeping the grasslands healthy by eating different parts of a grass plant, if allowed to rotate and not overgraze one area.
Kitili Mbathi, KWS Director-General, convened a workshop for the results announcement and to discuss action points. WildlifeDirect’s, Paula Kahumbu, had everyone sit in a circle, facilitating an all-inclusive discussion of government officials, the US ambassador, scientists, conservationists, and the public – all with equal voices.
Action points included restoring grasslands and water access management to reinvigorate degraded land — benefitting communities as well as wildlife. A telling outcome of the census was that the largest proportion of the Grevy’s population now resides in Laikipia. Historically, these animals did not occur there. In fact, it was only in 1983 that the first sighting on Mpala was recorded. This says a lot for the respective land use and management policies in recent decades in northern Kenya.
Devolution, the development of community conservancies and organisations such as the Northern Rangelands Trust will hopefully help the other counties to facilitate rangeland recovery.
Infrastructure planning was also a major discussion point. With the LAPSSET project forecast to bring roads, power-lines, dams and pipelines across the region – all potential environmental challenges – careful mitigation planning is required to allow wildlife and communities to continue to live interconnected, safely and sustainably.
Already, lessons should be drawn from the current unintended negatives we are experiencing with the SGR and roads leading up to the Turkana wind farm and oil drilling projects – unplanned, linear settlements, drying-up boreholes, road kill, cut-off migration corridors, public distrust, etc. Don’t get me wrong, these projects can and should have amazing economic impact on Kenya, but they should be planned wisely and sensitively to protect, arguably, our most valuable and sustainable asset – our natural heritage. The Grevy’s, as a beautiful and endangered species found nowhere else, could be a symbol of northern Kenya’s conservation efforts.
Workshop done and dusted, everyone rushed off to Nanyuki to glam up for the really fun part. The team had organised a glitzy Black-and-White themed ball at the Mount Kenya Safari Club.
Money raised through ticket sales and an auction of Grevy’s-inspired art will help run next year’s Rally. The plan is to run three consecutive censuses. I’ll be sure to cover details of these future events with a view to getting more of us out there, to help protect our special animal – but also to explore a region of Kenya that has largely been ignored by local tourism.
Andreas Fox is Managing Director of Mbweha Training and Trails
The first ever headcount was held earlier this year.