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Bringing the zoos to the zebras

Princeton biologist reports at AAAS on partnership with St. Louis Zoo to empower Kenyan communities in endangered Grevy's zebra conservation

The Grevy's zebra is the most endangered member of the horse family in the world, with an estimated 2000 left in the wild. More than 70 percent of these live in the Samburu region of northern Kenya, most of them on unprotected community lands. Now an innovative partnership between Princeton University and Saint Louis Zoo's WildCare Institute is bringing effective conservation of Grevy's zebras within reach for Samburu pastoral cooperatives.

Dr. Daniel Rubenstein of Princeton University reported on this pioneering effort at the annual meeting of the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) in St. Louis on February 17, 2006. Rubenstein is chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and director of the Program in African Studies at Princeton University, as well as a board member and principal investigator for Earthwatch Institute. In a talk titled "Engaging and Empowering Local Communities in Conservation," Rubenstein described how data gathered by local communities are leading to important changes in attitudes toward Grevy's zebra conservation.

"Because members of the community collect the data, they 'own' the findings," said Rubenstein. In collaboration with Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and Northern Rangeland Trust, WildCare Institute employed local scouts from pastoral communities in northern Kenya to gather data on the activities of zebras relative to livestock. Workshops with community members revealed that these data are providing insights into the effective conservation of Grevy's zebras and leading to important changes in community attitudes.

"After the first year we showed them that only about 35 percent of their sightings of Grevy's zebras were in the presence of livestock, and that for the class of non-lactating females the percentage was even lower," said Ruben stein. These data suggested that the zebras were relegated to suboptimal habitat, a potentially harmful situation for female zebras attempting to regain body condition after weaning their young.

"Clearly the community took this message on board because when we returned a year later they had changed their behavior and allowed Grevy's zebras to walk with the livestock," added Rubenstein, principal investigator of the Earthwatch-supported Grevy's Zebras project.

Since 2001, teams of Earthwatch volunteers have worked with Dr. Rubenstein and his Kenyan colleagues to determine the habitat needs of Grevy's zebra populations in northern Kenya and address the local conservation concerns. Part of Earthwatch's Samburu Conservation Research Initiative, the project is a crucial element to finding sustainable livelihoods for pastoral communities in the region.

"Earthwatch volunteers working at the Lewa Conservancy were instrumental in helping us show that part of the reason that Grevy's zebras fare poorly even in the best of conditions is related to competition with plains zebras," said Rubenstein. "Their data also showed that Grevy's zebras prefer to drink during the morning, highlighting the problem of coexisting with herds of livestock outside the conservancy that occupy waterholes during the daylight hours. By having to wait until dusk to drink, Grevy's zebras face elevated risks of predation."

In March, two zookeepers from Saint Louis Zoo, two from San Diego Zoo, and one from Minnesota Zoological Park will add their special expertise to the Grevy's Zebras project. They will be able to share first-hand knowledge of Grevy's zebra conservation in captivity, and will take home valuable experience with zebra behavior and habitat needs in the wild.

Earthwatch has a long tradition of putting zookeepers in the field, including one from Saint Louis Zoo on Grevy's Zebras last year and one from Zoo New England on the same project in 2002. By ex panding the their awareness of conservation issues in the wild and enabling them to gather relevant data firsthand, Earthwatch makes keepers better able to teach the zoo public about the ecological issues confronting Grevy's zebras.

"Zoos have an important role in the future of biodiversity, and are a key stakeholder in Earthwatch's research and education programs," said Dr. Marie Studer, chief science officer at Earthwatch. "We look forward to continuing our close collaboration with zoo personnel in the effort to improve awareness and management of life on Earth."

As part of WildCare Institute's involvement in Samburu, zoo educators are also helping develop a teacher-training program to introduce ecological and conservation thinking into local schools. Finally, Saint Louis Zoo is recruiting a team of interested volunteers from the Saint Louis area to participate in Earthwatch's Grevy's Zebras project in September.

Rubenstein's talk was part of an AAAS symposium titled "Research Collaboratives for Conservation: Zoos and Universities Working Together." The symposium highlighted recent efforts by zoos to move beyond captive breeding and research programs to integrate these activities with conservation efforts in the field. WildCare Institute has become a world leader in this movement, and other speakers described their partnerships supporting conservation efforts in Nicaragua, Galapagos, and Madagascar.

Earthwatch engages people worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment. 2006 marks the 35th anniversary of the unique global volunteer organization. The Samburu Conservation Research Initiative is part of a network of four collaborative research centers that engage local communities in addressing conservation issues.


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Source:Earthwatch Institute


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