February 2016

In Westgate Conservancy bordering Samburu National Reserve

Driving through Samburu National Reserve to get to the community-owned Westgate Conservancy, the first animal to bolt across the road in the mid-afternoon heat – is a Grevy’s zebra.

But we cannot at this point shoot it – that is shoot it with a camera and not a gun (a gun would mean a fine of up to Ksh 20 million or time spent behind bars under the new Wildlife Act 2015).

We’re on the first ever national survey of the world’s rarest equid – that’s the Grevy’s zebra and signed up for the two-day Great Grevy’s Zebra Rally 2016 organized by the Grevy’s Zebra Trust – end January 2016.

This striped equid, named after the French president Jules Grevy, is strikingly beautiful – so much so that in 1882 the Emporer Menelik of Abysinnia (modern-day Ethiopia) sent one to the French president as a gift – and so the name.

At that time, Grevy’s zebra were common and spread in Ethiopia, Djibuti, Sudan, Eriterea, Somalia and of course – the arid rangelands of northern Kenya.

Today, approximately 2,300 exist in Kenya and 140 in Ethiopia’s Allideghi Wildlife Reserve where they may become extinct in the near future – not to poachers but to the invasive Prosopis juliflora weed that only came to Ethiopia 30 years ago. It’s fast taking over the last of the grazing space of the rare zebra and other wildlife, worryingly, also in Kenya.

Survey the Zebra

Armed with special GPS-fitted cameras, we’re assigned to the furthest block in Westgate Conservancy with the stunning Mathews Range nicely propped up in the drylands.

Our team of father and son – Firoz and Rizwan Dharani, Kiprono Lepatire the Westgate ranger – and of course – l – are by the car to take the first picture to kick off our survey- the front page of the Great Grevy’s Zebra Rally 2016. From this point on the Nikon camera fitted with a GPS will log our every movement, time and position of the subject which is the Grevy’s zebra. It tells us researchers the ‘who, when and where’ of the zebra.

Every Grevy’s zebra has to be shot from the right side. Using this methodology, the scientists can then pick on hotspots on the animals and match them in the blink of an eyelid to prove whether or not it’s the same animal. It cuts out the time-consuming old fashioned way of sorting pictures manually.

Searching Stripes

It’s stunning country. Our block of 10 square kilometers is littered with gigantic rock kopjes fitted like jigsaw puzzles, streams of dry luggas and parched land. A part of it is set aside for the Samburu villages and bomas.

Minutes tick by and then hours. Finally we see our first Grevy’s zebra. He’s a male and we drive around it to get to its right side. The excitement of it all!

The Grevy’s zebra has narrow stripes, white belly, Mickey mouse ears and a brown muzzle and larger than the common Burchell’s zebra which has pointed ears, broader stripes running down to the belly and a black muzzle. They are distinct species.

Each survey lasts at least six hours each day. We criss-cross our block and six hours later, it’s the sole zebra in our block.

Day two – we arrive earlier in the hope of ‘catching the early bird’. Criss-crossing our block again and scanning vistas through our binoculars from ever high hill and kopje, we shoot just one during the entire six-hour span – and probably the same one. So desperate are we for zebras that even the Samburu donkeys begin to look like zebras from afar. Meanwhile the hornbills and other birds feast on the brown-veined white butterflies migrating in the millions.

We ask every Samburu warrior, maiden and all if they have seen the loibokorum loituko – the white-bum zebraSamburu translation for the Grevy’s zebra. They all point to Loijuk swamp across the road fed by the stream from Mathews Range. It’s not our block and there’s no room to cheat for the GPS reveals our every movement.

Six hours later with a few naps in the shade of the tortillas acacia in the dry luggas we have to accept that we won’t win the prize for most Grevy’s zebra spotted.

Driving back via Loijuk swamp, we spot a Grevy’s zebra plus a rare beauty – a Paradise whydah.

Back at camp, teams report of 10, 40, and even 70 Grevy’s zebra. We have to be happy with our one. The data will show movements of the rare zebra, their favoured territories, their migratory paths into Laikipia and their population dynamics which will help management strategies for their survival.

Meanwhile, the local Grevy’s zebra scouts continue monitoring them every day.

Westgate Community Conservancy 

It borders Samburu national reserve, 370 kilometers from Nairobi. It’s diverse and easily reachable through Samburu national reserve.

In Samburu check in at Samburu Intrepids Lodge within easy access of Westgate: www.heritage-eastafrica.com

More on Grevy’s Zebra Trust: www.grevyszebratrust.org