Samburu and Grevy’s Zebras: A ‘Win-Win-Win-Win’ Project

The weather has been weird in Oxford lately. Really weird.

Two years of low winter rainfall has led to groundwater levels so low that Oxford is officially in drought and we are all being asked to conserve water. Being fairly lazy by nature, I’m happy to have a legitimate reason not to water the garden or wash the car, but I do miss lounging in a warm bath with a pot of tea and a good book.

The drought orders were followed by the wettest April on record, with water bouncing off concrete and hard packed soil alike, causing localised flooding and widespread cynicism.

May brought a freak heat wave, and the city was awash with pallid white winter skin roasting to lobster red as people followed the time honoured British tradition of basking in the sun without enough clothing or sunscreen.

Then the weather broke and we all stood gaping out of the windows at the Earthwatch office as what looked very like a tropical monsoon swept through the high street in Summertown. It’s June now; I’m bracing myself for snow.

In the UK, we talk (and joke) about the weather a lot, but somehow many people don’t seem to have made the link between these unusual happenings and climate change.  Yet we know that increasingly frequent extreme weather events is a predicted climate change effect so I guess it’s only a matter of time before the ‘penny drops’.

The Truth is, Climate Change is More than Inconvenient
If you have spent a lot of time and money on your garden, I can imagine that it’s pretty frustrating to have to decide which parts of it to save with watering cans of rainwater and buckets of washing-up water. However, I think it’s fair to say that for most us in the UK or US, climate change impacts are currently little more than an inconvenience. We aren’t facing up to the fact that our lifestyle choices are already changing the planet, and for the most part other people are paying the price for it.

As we experience more unusual weather conditions at home, I often find myself thinking of the more extreme drought and floods being experienced in Kenya. I remember the scarred landscape, the damaged infrastructure and the wonderful people I met when I visited the Earthwatch project Conserving the Grevy’s Zebra in the Samburu District. It’s an amazing project which can provide ‘wins’ for conservation and people in so many ways.

Jaguar Land Rover team takes a well earned break (photo courtesy: Kay O'Regan)

Jaguar Land Rover team takes a well earned break
Photo courtesy: Kay O’Regan

Conserving Zebras in their Natural Habitat – Win!
A few years back, I was the facilitator for a team of employees from Jaguar Land Rover, a much valued  Earthwatch corporate partner who has generously assisted our work in Samburu with donated vehicles and volunteer support. The team came to study and learn about zebras and to learn more about their employer’s sustainability programme,  although seeing their vehicles in use in the field was a big kick for them too!  For many of the volunteers it was their first visit to Africa and they were excited at the prospect of seeing wildlife and experiencing a new culture. After 20 years of travelling in Africa, it is still a great joy and privilege to travel with volunteers and share such an experience with them.

They were not disappointed. We saw an amazing diversity of wildlife from beautiful birds to wild elephants, and we all fell in love with our study animal, the Grevy’s Zebra.  It is a magnificent beast; big, bold and beautiful with a big round white belly and ‘Mickey Mouse’ ears; easily distinguishable from the little plains zebra once you have seen them side by side.

Grevy's Zebra

Grevy’s Zebra: Yes, we’re beautiful
Photo courtesy: Kay O’Regan

Increasing Scientific Knowledge and Skills – Win!
Earthwatch scientists Dr. Nick Oguge and Dr. Paul Muoria and their team made sure that we understood the context of the research, the tasks and the significance of our results.  This project has nurtured and grown students and up-and-coming Kenyan scientists and their enthusiasm and passion is an inspiration to be around. We learned that the Grevy’s range is restricted with the majority of the species living in northern Kenya and a smaller number in southern Ethiopia. This study estimates that there are only about 2,500 individuals left. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that Dr. Muoria is working with the Kenyan government, the Kenyan wildlife service, communities and other organisations to develop an updated national conservation strategy for the Grevy’s zebra.

From a research point of view, there is still a lot more work to do, particularly to gather wet season data about the zebras and to support work with the Samburu community to develop complementary conservation and domestic animal husbandry strategies that will reduce the chronic over grazing and soil erosion which is evident across the community lands.

Drought and erosion takes its toll on grazing land (photo courtesy: Matt Anderson)

Drought and erosion take their toll
Photo courtesy: Matt Anderson

Samburu People; a Critical Part of the Ecosystem – Win!
The Samburu people are pastoral nomads living a very traditional life. Their animals are their wealth and their food source and they traditionally move with the herds to find fresh grazing. The elders report that in the past, the grazing would have regenerated by the time they returned, but now with lower rainfall and greater erosion, the grasslands are not recovering quickly enough, and that’s without the drought years.

We heard about the 2009 drought which resulted in some families losing 70% of their livestock. As we walked our transects across the community lands, we saw for ourselves the effects over grazing leading and negotiating around deep gullies in the grazing land, which have deepened each wet season as a result of soil erosion.

The aftermath of the floods (photo courtesy: Ross Casswell)

The aftermath of the floods
Photo courtesy: Ross Casswell

As if the drought wasn’t enough, when we visited the Buffalo Springs Nature Reserve, we were shocked by the twisted metal of the remains of a bridge over the Ewaso Ngiro River, swept away by flooding in 2010.  Our driver pointed to the level that the flood waters had risen to; we realised that the whole of the valley that were driving across must have been under water.

People told us about these difficulties, but it was in a very matter of fact way; everyone was carrying on business as usual. The handsome Samburu warriors, the morans, were striding about in their traditional finery, glorious as peacocks. The women were bustling away carrying wood, water and doing domestic chores (but still finding time to chat to their friends and neighbours as they went). The children were herding the goats or laughing and swimming in the river and waving at the Earthwatch vehicle as we passed by.

Earthwatch Volunteers Supporting Host Communities which Encourages Conservation – Win!
People we spoke to recognised the Earthwatch presence as benefitting the local economy in practical, tangible ways.  Of course, volunteers who participate in this project are critical to research data collection, but our presence also brings in income and reinforces the value of wildlife for ecotourists.

Our research is carried out on community lands. During each expedition, we visit land owned by several different communities. Host communities are paid $25 per volunteer per day for allowing access to their lands. For me, one of the most memorable experiences from the project was spending an evening with Thomas, one of the elders, who spoke to us about Samburu traditions and explained how the money we contribute is managed, and what it means for his people.

Traditionally, the Samburu people do not eat wild animals, but historically they would have driven animals away from community grazing areas to reduce competition with their livestock. Our presence gives the wildlife a monetary value and makes conservation pay. It’s a system based on respect and a fair exchange of payment for a service.

Samburu youngsters tending their livestock (photo courtesy: Matt Lloyd)

Samburu youngsters tending their livestock
Photo courtesy: Matt Lloyd

He explained that a proportion of the money is used to manage the conservancy, paying wages to guides and game wardens and to providing them with uniforms and equipment. The remainder of the funds are held in a community fund. Part is used to fund education, improving access to education for all children and providing small bursaries for high achievers. Those in hardship can also apply to the fund for help with necessities like healthcare.  When drought or floods occur, this fund can be a critical lifeline for people.

Of course, the research fee isn’t the only way that the presence of Earthwatch supports the local community.  The Drylands Research Centre, which we lease from the Namanyuk Conservancy also employs local staff who work incredibly hard to make sure that our teams have a comfortable and enjoyable experience. (Anyone who has visited the Earthwatch Samburu project will be able to tell you about the amazing food, prepared by the beautiful Janet)

Conservation has fought so many losing battles over the years, but the Earthwatch Grevy’s Zebra project deserves support because it has the potential to succeed on so many levels. With your help we can score a:

  • Win for the endangered Grevy’s Zebra and the whole drylands ecosystem which will only be saved through a fact-based conservation management strategy
  • Win for the Earthwatch scientists who are developing their scientific knowledge and skills and sharing them with the next generation of Kenyan scientists
  • Win for the community in terms of a long term plan that will help them develop a sustainable way of life that respects their traditions
  • Win for volunteers who, like me, will have an amazing experience that will change the way they think about the world. Wherever we go, we remain part of the Earthwatch Samburu team  – I hope you will join us.

Donate Your Body to Science!
Finally, a personal plea from me – someone who is really proud of Earthwatch and the work we do.

The bottom line is that we don’t have enough volunteers signing up on this expedition, and when that happens, we sometimes have to cancel.  We are a not for profit organisation, but like any business, we cannot run at a loss. A cancelled team means no research, it means no work for the centre staff and the guides, no payment for the community and makes saving species even more difficult.

I know that times are hard and people are thinking carefully about whether they can afford to take a big trip right now.  If you can’t manage to come right now, I would urge you to think about whether you might support our work some other way.