Grevy’s zebra in Northern Kenya

Earning Their Stripes

With the help of women, warriors, elders and kids, Grevy’s Zebra Trust—our newest Luminescent Eye Shades partner—is working to save one of Africa’s most endangered animals.

With their dashing bold stripes—thought to ward off disease-carrying insects—zebras aren’t great at hiding in plain sight. But their visibility in certain landscapes can be an asset to those who live near them. For instance, Grevy’s zebras—taller than the common plains zebra, with big fuzzy ears, fine stripes and a bright white belly—live mainly in the arid rangelands of Northern Kenya, home to the Samburu, Rendille and Turkana ethnic groups, who graze their livestock alongside them. The zebras’ movements alert herders to the presence of wild predators, and to lead the way to water in dry seasons. “If zebra move out of an area, they know they’re moving toward rain,” explains Belinda Low Mackey, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Grevy’s Zebra Trust (GZT).

In this shared space, though, the Grevy’s zebra population has dropped 80% since the 1970s—one of the most dramatic declines of any large mammal species in Africa—leaving only 3,000 in the wild between Kenya and Ethiopia. There was a time when zebras were hunted for their magnificent hide, but today they are more threatened by habitat loss due to overgrazing, infrastructure like oil pipelines and railways, and poaching for bushmeat.

GZT has been working since 2007 to reverse these trends. Recognizing that the zebra’s survival rests on their ability to coexist with local communities, GZT puts communities at the center of their conservation programs. “The Grevy’s Zebra Trust works with women, warriors, elders, and children to come together around the conservation of the Grevy’s zebra,” Low Mackey says. This collaborative approach “is really helping them to find solutions that they own.” Here’s a look at a few of GZT’s goals:

Grevy’s Zebra Warriors from rival tribes travel to monitor zebras. Photo by Mia Collis.

1. Monitoring & Protecting Zebras: The charity’s Grevy’s Zebra Warriors program is drawn from young men in Samburu and Rendille groups who travel into remote areas—often for days at a time with camels—to monitor zebra numbers and health, collecting data using mobile tools. Grevy’s Zebra Ambassadors are uniformed patrolmen employed from rival Samburu and Turkana groups, who visit with herders to raise conservation awareness while also protecting zebras from poachers.

“This program is really powerful,” Low Mackey says, describing a history of conflict between Samburu and Turkana that includes stealing livestock in raids where zebra can be caught in the crossfire. In response, GZT formed a council of elders within both communities, a network of intelligence gathering, which builds trust and collaboration. “We’ve done a lot of peacebuilding work through that network, and a lot of lives have been saved.”

“Many of the women that the trust employs are widows or single mothers; they now have greater standing within their community and are also able to provide for their families.”

Women have a special role in the Grevy’s Zebra Scouts program. Twenty-nine Scouts, most of them women, help to monitor zebra and foster positive attitudes among local communities using puppet shows and other engaging tools. “Many of the women that the trust employs are widows or single mothers; they now have greater standing within their community and are also able to provide for their families,” says Sheila Funnell, GZT’s Program Manager.

These combined programs monitor more than half the world’s population of Grevy’s zebra and have helped stabilize their population across community-owned lands.

The GZT staff (from left): Peter Lalampaa, founder Belinda Low Mackey, and Sheila Funnell

2. Supporting Healthy Habitats: GZT’s Rangelands Manager, Peter Lalampaa, who grew up in the region, recalls that when herders were nomadic there was plenty of grass. But as these tribes became tied to towns with schools, hospitals and stores, their livestock overgrazed these areas. “The livestock are threatened [by lack of forage], but wildlife are threatened too. Plants are not only the foundation of the local economy, they also play a critical role in the capture of rain.” To support conservation while retaining traditional livelihoods, Lalampaa explains, “a paradigm shift has to happen—seeing livestock as a tool, instead of seeing them as a problem.”

GZT works to create more resilient grass and soil in zebras’ rangelands by teaching herders a holistic method of grazing that allows for longer recovery times. To communicate this message, the organization relies on the power of indigenous traditions—"because we also realize we’ve lost our culture,” Lalampaa says. For instance, the traditional Samburu ntorosi festival of songs and prayers takes place once a year in March, during which men must follow women’s demands. Working with GZT, a team of 40 women visited settlement zones in the conservancy where they sang with other women in the villages about their shared grasslands while GZT team members met with villagers to talk about sustainable grazing. “It was really powerful,” Lalampaa recalls.

Preserving healthy habitat also means minimizing environmental damage from infrastructure projects. With the coming development across northern Kenya of an oil pipeline, railroad, and highway, GZT has successfully worked with the development sector to help reroute 4 km of the pipeline to avoid a critical zebra breeding area.

Women at the Samburu ntorosi festival, using tradition to save zebras.

3. Women’s and Community Empowerment projects: Some initiatives go out of the box to build community support for wildlife. In a place where many menstruating girls are forced to drop out of school because they have no sanitary protection, GZT’s Scouts launched the Nkirreten project to distribute reusable pads to hundreds of girls in the Samburu region. Made from zebra-striped material, these pads are a connection to the Grevy’s zebra for both the girls and the women who are employed to make them. As one team member put it, “The Nkirreten project changed my life from a victim to a solution maker by enabling me to learn a skill and earn a living from it by making the Nkirriten pads.” More recently, the team shifted to making zebra-stripe cotton masks, which are distributed to the communities. GZT has also granted more than 20 scholarships to help boys and girls in these pastoral communities to complete their education, which also builds changing attitudes towards wildlife.

Although these rural communities—where running water and soap are not readily available and physical distancing is near impossible due to the way they’ve lived for centuries—are vulnerable to COVID-19, GZT has established rigorous protocols to stop the virus’ spread and all its wildlife monitoring and protection teams remain in full operation. As GZT looks to the future, Chantecaille’s donation will go towards ensuring that Grevy’s zebra continue to be monitored and protected by the communities it shares its habitat with. It won’t just be the animals that are saved, though—land, community livelihoods, and traditional culture will also benefit. “I can’t imagine living without Grevy’s zebra,” Lalampaa says. “I don’t want to lose an important part of my heritage.”

Grevy’s Zebra Scouts sew masks to distribute to vulnerable community members



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