Donor and former Zoo Commission President, Shelby Kaplan Sloan established the Sloan Animal Keeper Advanced Studies Fund in 2003 to provide keepers with opportunities for hands-on field experiences with particular animals. Upon completing their fieldwork, they share their experiences and insights with the staff and the animals at the Zoo.
2006 Sloan Grant
With his Sloan Grant funding, Animal Keeper Joshua Sisk took part in Grevy’s zebra fieldwork in Kenya that was hosted by the Earthwatch Institute. The focus was to observe Grevy’s zebra living on privately owned tribal land in the area of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and the town of Wamba 100 km north of Lewa. The observations included diet and food competition as they related to the distinct differences in typography between Lewa and Wamba.
As a child, I watched nature shows and aspired to one day travel the world and work in the field like the biologists I saw on television tracking through exotic lands in search of the rarest wildlife. Living on a small farm in Missouri, this seemed an unattainable dream, but it was all I could think about during my 12-hour flight to Africa in March 2007.
Flying into Nairobi, Kenya, I saw the distinctive acacia trees that Africa is known for. The unfamiliar roads, culture, and architecture were constant reminders that I was in a foreign land, and I was full of excitement when I arrived at the hotel to meet the rest of the team—seven zookeepers from across the U.S. The next morning our adventure began. After loading into a plane just big enough for the team, we left for a remote town called Wamba.
Grevy’s zebras are on the brink of extinction in the wild. With as few as 2,100 left, there is a critical need to conserve this species. The arid terrain around Wamba is community land inhabited by the Samburu tribes and their livestock. Competition between wildlife and livestock is a huge problem affecting the Grevy’s zebra. Watering holes are precious and few. During the day livestock and herders dominate the water, which forces wildlife to drink at night, when predators are abundant. Overgrazing by livestock is causing erosion and making resources for wildlife scarce.
For one week we spent our days driving off-road in search of Grevy’s zebra. When we found them, we took global positioning satellite (GPS) location readings and photographed each individual. We also noted the location of other wildlife and livestock nearby. At night we entered our data into a database. We used the pictures we had taken to identify individual zebras by each animal’s unique stripe pattern. This information shows migration patterns and social behaviors of individuals over time.
As an anthropology student, the cultural side of this trip was just as exciting for me. The Samburu live in small nomadic communities, and we spent one day traveling to different villages and interviewing tribal elders about the Grevy’s zebra. Our translator asked the elders questions about the past. Is it drier now than 20 years ago? Was it common to see Grevy’s zebra 20 years ago? Is it important to conserve the Grevy’s zebra? The responses were both interesting and alarming.
It is important to understand conservation from the perspective of these people. Survival is the priority for the Samburu. Their drinking water is thick with mud and bacteria. Every day is a struggle to keep healthy and strong. Without livestock for trade and food these tribes could no longer exist. Once you see what these communities endure on a daily basis you can understand why saving the Grevy’s zebra may not be a priority. The question then becomes, how do you conserve a species when the people sharing its habitat have other priorities?
After a week in Wamba we flew south to Lewa Downs Wildlife Conservancy. This protected area comprises about one-fourth of the remaining Grevy’s zebra habitat. Our objective was to compare data gathered in the community lands versus the “ideal circumstances” of a wildlife conservancy. Despite ideal conditions in Lewa, Grevy’s numbers have fallen in recent years. The question of why this was happening is on everyone’s mind. Our research not only involved tracking zebra but also observing time management and resource availability. We gathered data on the grasses where zebra were observed eating and collected fecal samples for parasite analysis. Studies are also currently examining the relationship between Grevy’s zebra and predators in this area.
The data we collected in the two weeks I was in Africa was just part of years of research taking place. Why the Grevy’s zebra is disappearing and what we can do about it are questions that cannot yet be answered. Hopefully, continuing research will bring the answers needed to help save this species. In the meantime the L.A. Zoo is taking part in a Grevy’s zebra breeding program that will maintain a healthy captive population—and allow the public to learn about this rare species and raise conservation awareness.