The Zebras Being Protected by a History of Culture
Westgate Community Conservancy borders Samburu National Reserve on its western front. Just as the sun starts its early morning ascent up the horizon, I drive towards Sukuroi village to visit the women there. The sound of cattle bells fills the air and as I approach the settlement, young children herd their goats, sheep and camels towards Loijuk, the most favoured grazing site for herders during the dry season. Loijuk sits in the valley formed by the chain of hills south of the Mathews Range. Water collects in the valley and if sustainably grazed, ensures abundant pasture and water for livestock throughout the dry season, making it a go-to grazing site for Grevy’s zebras as well.
I marvel at the delicate balance required to protect these amazing animals. For people to tolerate their presence and share their most vital resources with them, they must first value the species. Grevy’s zebras are important in Samburu culture; they lead the way to water during droughts, alert herders and livestock to the presence of predators and it is believed that their presence indicates the coming of the rains. Westgate Community Conservancy presents one of the most outstanding opportunities to see community-based conservation at work. These traditional values thrive in some parts of the conservancy and have contributed to the stabilisation of the Grevy’s zebra population today.
This species is however endangered. Their population has dropped from over 15,000 in the 1970s to slightly over 3,000 today. Once more widely spread in the horn of Africa, they are now only found in Kenya and Ethiopia. Kenya holds more than 90% of the remaining population, yet less than 1% of Grevy’s zebras are found within formally protected areas. Their fate is closely intertwined with the pastoralist communities that they share their habitat with. Grevy’s zebras rely on the same resources as community livestock. Dominic Leparnat, a Samburu warrior, once told me that he would feel lonely if Grevy’s zebras no longer existed- a sentiment that is shared by many others in this landscape.
The Grevy’s Zebra Trust has been working in Westgate Community Conservancy for over 10 years, partnering with local communities, in an effort to reverse the effects of rangeland degradation and secure the future for these zebras, people and their livestock. The conservancy is also home to a pride of lions and it is not uncommon to see a team from Ewaso Lions monitoring and protecting the pride. The conservancy is a success story in the making and highlights the vital role communities play in the conservation of wildlife.
As I finally reach Sukuroi, I observe a thick thorn fence surrounding about 180 ha of land. The women are fixing gaps in the fence while animatedly talking to the children herding small stock. The women have cleared the land of the indigenous encroacher tree species, Acacia reficiens, which otherwise covers parts of the conservancy in thick bush. The sight of the tree is contrasting in its effect- beautiful in stature but its presence is a cry for help. A. reficiens establishes in the dry soil that results from overgrazing of once abundant grasslands, and it is a clear sign that the land is degraded and lacking in nutrients. The fenced site has transformed from the bare patch of land it was six months ago; grass seeds that were planted have sprouted, and a diversity of wildlife species are making use of them. The sight of a small herd of Grevy’s zebras with two tiny foals represents the success that could be replicated much more widely; wildlife conservation begins and ends with people.
As he understands the local language, I ask my colleague, Andrew, what the women are saying to the children herding the livestock. “They are telling them off for breaking the fence to access the grass inside,” he translates. “They are trying to teach them to respect the cleared site because when the dry season comes, this will be the only grass available for the livestock to feed on.”
Today, more than ever, it is clear that Grevy’s Zebra Trust’s philosophy has never been more relevant. That the survival and conservation of Grevy’s zebras is entirely about people, the sustainability of their livelihoods and the innate value they hold towards the species.