‘One of the most important yet least protected populations of the endangered Grevy’s zebra is found in Laisamis – at least 4% of the national population’
During 2019, Laisamis, in Marsabit County in northern Kenya, experienced a prolonged and severe drought because of the failure of the short rains in 2018 (October to November) and long rains in 2019 (March to May). One of the most important yet least protected populations of the endangered Grevy’s zebra is found in Laisamis – at least 4% of the national population. Prolonged droughts can severely reduce water and pasture availability which, coupled with overgrazing of remaining grass by domestic livestock, can negatively impact Grevy’s zebra, particularly lactating females and foals. Grevy’s zebra can go without water for up to five days but lactating females need to drink water at least every other day. As forage declines, these females must travel longer distances in search of pasture and yet must return to water more frequently than other Grevy’s zebra classes in order to produce milk to nurse their foals. This places severe stress on the both females and foals and results in high foal mortality and in some cases the death of the mares.
Since 2011, supplementary feeding with grass hay has been used in drought situations to alleviate the impact of droughts on Grevy’s zebra. Supplementing the natural diet of Grevy’s zebra with hay helps to prevent starvation and allows them to maintain body condition so that they can better withstand the effects of drought and disease. The national Grevy’s Zebra Technical Committee (GZTC) chaired by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), has developed specific guidelines on supplementary feeding which state: ‘The decision to intervene should be made based on an assessment of current forage and water availability and the time remaining to the next predicted rainfall event, rather than waiting to observe a decline in body condition.’ After becoming increasingly concerned about the declining forage situation in Laisamis through monitoring by our Grevy’s Zebra Warrior team, the Grevy’s Zebra Trust (GZT) carried out a forage assessment over five days in early June 2019 and based on the results of this received permission from KWS to start an emergency response supplementary feeding program.
GZT established two supplementary feeding sites in Laisamis in July 2019 and a further site in September 2019. The location of sites was based on assessments of pasture availability, livestock densities and Grevy’s zebra abundance and distribution. Sites were set up in corridors used by Grevy’s zebra to move between water and grazing areas. Community members living near to each site were employed as hay monitors, and together with the GZT team, were responsible for estimating how much hay was to be used each week and putting the hay out each night. Both sites were monitored with camera traps which were put out each night by the hay monitors to monitor which species were eating the hay. Prior to starting supplementary feeding, local communities were introduced to the approach and need for supplementary feeding during meetings held by the GZT Laisamis Regional Coordinator and the Grevy’s Zebra Warriors, which helped ensure the security of the camera traps and prevented livestock being taken to feed on the hay.
Towards the end of the drought, the pasture in Samburu (SNR) and Buffalo Springs National Reserves (BSNR) which are normally dry season refuges for Grevy’s zebra, became extremely depleted. GZT was extremely concerned about the health of the Grevy’s zebra lactating females and foals, and with support from reserve management and tourism partners, initiated feeding in September 2019, with a dedicated vehicle and team putting hay out daily.
GZT is still in the process of analysing the many thousands of images from the camera traps and so it is difficult to estimate with certainty how many Grevy’s zebra have benefited from the intervention, and how many mortalities have been avoided. However, hay uptake was high, and ongoing sorting of camera trap images has shown that vulnerable demographics, such as lactating females and their foals, made significant use of the hay.
Belinda Low Mackey.