Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Endangered Grevy’s Zebra Trying to Earn its Stripes

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, September 15 / 14

Zack Gross

Over the past several years, I’ve been trying to keep my grandchildren off-balance about zebras by asking them questions, such as “Why are those horses wearing pyjamas?” and “Is a zebra black with white stripes or white with black stripes?” 

Like most kids, our granddaughters show a lot of interest in wild animals.  As they grow older, they feel that my ill-considered questions are wearing a little thin, just like the zebras’ pyjamas.

My renewed interest in our striped buddies was stimulated by our recent family trip to East Africa which included several days of safari.  It seemed that no animal was more visible or plentiful than the zebra, so I was surprised to find that one of the three zebra species, the Grevy’s, is threatened.  They are the largest living wild member of the horse family, situated between horses and wild asses.  Standing 5 feet tall at the shoulder and measuring up to 10 feet long, they can weigh 350 to 450 kg. (800 to 1000 lb.)  Zebras can run up to 40 miles per hour (they would get a speeding ticket in a school zone) but are still prey to the usual suspects – lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas and, of course, a range of human activity.

Grevy’s live in semi-arid climates in Kenya and Ethiopia and do other animals a favour by eating tough grasses that others can’t.  They are a little more solitary than other zebras that tend to live in large herds.  The black stripes that extend uniquely on each different white zebra (now you know) don’t reach the belly on Grevy’s.  Whereas 40 years ago, there were over 15,000 of this species of zebra, the number has now dwindled to 2,000.  The causes of this decline mirror the causes of species loss in many other wild creatures over the past generation.

While it is thought that zebras have been around North and East Africa for the past 6,000 years, the first written record of their use comes from ancient Rome 2,000 years ago when emperors harnessed them to pull chariots and participate in parades at public spectacles such as circuses and gladiatorial combats.  With their stripes and size, they made a majestic impression.  The Grevy’s got its name when the emperor of Abyssinia, Menelik II, gave one as a gift to President Jules Grevy of the French Republic in 1882.  While the animal soon died, its hide was preserved and it received its presidential name.

Hunting and poaching were an early cause of zebra depopulation in previous generations, and have remained a reduced threat.  Various conservation conventions have meant a greater degree of enforcement of laws that protect zebras.  However, humans have found other ways to impact this animal, particularly with the competition that agriculture and animal husbandry provide for land and water.  With the recent desertification of the Horn of Africa and East Africa, after years of drought, pastoral peoples have blocked access to water for wild animals in order to provide for their own domesticated herds.  While the Grevy’s can go five days without water (half that when lactating), lack of water is a major cause of mortality especially among young zebras.

Irresponsible tourism can also impact on zebra herds.  Vehicles driving outside the roads provided causes disturbance to animals that may affect their sustainability.  In the days that we travelled through Tanzanian game parks, we saw that traffic jam-sized vehicular activity sometimes meant that a predator missed a meal (the prey was scared off by our cameras, binoculars, chatter and motors) or a herd of wildebeest or zebras were inspired to move on due to our presence.  As the Grevy’s has a distinctive hide, they are still sometimes hunted for their skins, sometimes for food and, in some regions, for medicine beliefs or uses.

To respond to the endangerment of any species takes global as well as local action to make a difference.  In response to the crisis of the Grevy’s zebra, Kenya for instance has developed a national strategy but, as well, governments, academic institutions, local communities and wildlife organizations are working at the regional level to find solutions.  Examples include the increased use of technology to monitor the zebra, to better track numbers, range and habitat, and the use of rangers to provide herds with greater safety.

We were told by our guide that the zebra is not an easy animal to domesticate.  It doesn’t have the friendliest nature or the physique to withstand heavy work.  Yet, in many ways, it symbolizes the mystery that is wildlife in Africa. 

Let’s hope that it can survive its current challenges.

Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of the Marquis Project and recently visited Manitoba-funded development assistance projects in Tanzania.

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