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Protecting the Grevy’s Zebra

From a global population of 15 000 in the late 1970s, there are now just over 3000 remaining. Over 90% of these live in northern Kenya. As hardy and adapted as they are, Grevy’s zebra is one of Africa’s most endangered large mammals.

The situation is dire, but fortunately, something is being done about safeguarding these majestic animals by the Grevy’s Zebra Trust, which works in partnership with pastoralist communities in northern Kenya to conserve and grow the Grevy’s zebra population.

zebras from the side
Photograph © James Culverwell

Where did the name Grevy originate?

In 1882, Menelik II, the Emperor of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), gifted a zebra to the president of France, Jules Grevy. The French zoologist, Emile Oustalet, realised that this type of zebra was different from other zebras and named the species after President Grevy.

  • Scientific name: Equus grevyi
  • Swahili name: Punda milia
  • Also known as the Imperial zebra

What makes Grevy’s zebra unique?

Grevy’s zebra is the largest of the zebra species. Like their relatives, plains/Burchell and mountain zebra, they are native to Africa and closely related to horses and assess. They all have distinctive black and white stripes and share the same genus, Equus.

Grevy’s zebra are easily recognisable from the more common plains zebra by several features. Most noticeable are the close narrow stripes, white belly, a black dorsal strip that run the length of their back and striking black ear markings on their large, conical ears that stand upright and alert. Combined with a long neck, a large head and bolder stripes on the chest and neck extending through the mane make the neck appear thicker, giving them a mule-like appearance.

Photograph © James Culverwell

Behaviours and social structure

Although Grevy’s zebras are social animals and live in herds, they have much looser social structures than plains zebra. Grevy’s form groups that can change daily, and within the pack, dominance is, to an extent, non-existent other than the territorial male’s right to the breeding female. Mothers and foals often stay together in nursery groups, although colts do not always travel with their mothers and might stay with several other foals watched over by an adult. Young males also form loose bachelor herds. They do not migrate; a stallion’s attachment to his land and the mare’s attachment to her young are the most stable relationships.

Stallions maintain large dung middens on their territorial boundaries and defend these with loud braying sounds. They can produce an extraordinary cry that sounds like a hippo’s grunt combined with a donkey’s wheeze. The male often breaks into a clattering gallop making for an amusing sight. Physical clashes do happen with kicking, pushing, or biting. Successful males can keep their territories for up to seven years.

Photograph © James Culverwell

Why are they threatened?

There are many challenges to the survival of this beautiful creature – poaching, competition with domestic livestock, disease and the disturbance of their traditional watering places. The most urgent is an ever-shrinking habitat due to human encroachment. They prefer dry grasslands and semi-arid scrublands, and although they need access to permanent water, adult zebras, except nursing mothers, can go without drinking water for up to five days.

They are highly mobile grazers and are beneficial to other grazers because they clear off the tops of coarse grasses and can digest many types and parts of plants that are difficult for other herbivores to digest. Despite their flexibility, a ribbon of water is a lifeline to these wild animals in a land of climatic extremes, and they will only migrate to grazing lands within reach of the water.

Since 1977, Kenya has banned hunting them, but these zebras still compete with people and livestock for grass and water. Although they are protected in Ethiopia, poaching at times, with semi-automatic weapons, is still a concern as they are primarily hunted for their striking skins and occasionally for food.

Range

Grevy’s zebra has had one of the most substantial range reductions of any African mammal. Now they are found only in Kenya and Ethiopia.

distribution map of the Grevy zebra
Historical distribution map of the Grevy’s zebra
two-zebras from behind
Photograph © James Culverwell

International Zebra Day

A consortium of conservation organisations, such as the Conservation Biology Institute and Smithsonian’s Natural Zoo, founded International Zebra Day on January 31. This day gets celebrated yearly to raise awareness of the three zebra species to protect and conserve them from further decline.

zebra side
West African giraffe – Photograph © James Culverwell

About the Grevy’s Zebra Trust

There is, fortunately, an organisation focused solely on conserving this species. The Grevy’s Zebra Trust (GZT) was established in 2007 and worked to preserve the Grevy’s zebra in partnership with communities. They are an independent wildlife conservation Trust registered in Kenya and the only organisation dedicated to saving the endangered Grevy’s zebra. It works with elders, warriors, women and children from the Samburu, Turkana and Rendille ethnic groups to increase conservation awareness and encourage positive attitudes towards the species and their habitat.

For more information, visit: www.grevyzebratrust.org

As a dust devil crosses the dusty plains and the sandy soil spins into the air in the arid wilderness, one can ponder that these endangered animals can only survive when their habitats are safe.

Learn the facts: Read between the stripes | All you need to know about Zebras

Our beautiful continent is home to three different species of zebra, the most common being the plains zebra, which roams the grasslands and woodlands of eastern and southern Africa.

There are many theories about why zebras have such a unique coats, but no one is entirely sure why zebras have stripes. This animal facts video aims to unpack all you need to know about the Zebra!

About the Author

Diane McLeish is a freelance writer who lives on the shores of Lake Naivasha in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya.
From South Africa, she has traveled extensively in sub-Saharan Africa and has been living in Kenya for the last 16 years.

About the Author:
Picture of Diane McLeish

Diane McLeish

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