Amy Hofmeister, elephant caretaker, and Gretchen Cole, veterinarian, spent two weeks in Kenya assisting the Grevy’s Zebra Trust census of endangered Grevy’s zebras. The Trust received a grant from the OKC Zoo’s Round Up for Conservation fund to support their program that employs members of local communities to monitor and collect data on the zebras year-round. In part one of a two-part blog series, Amy Hofmeister shares her experience from Kenya.
Citizen Science in Action
Citizen science is a new concept for many people. This form of data collection allows the public to participate in meaningful and often life-changing experiences such as The Great Grevy’s Rally. In January, sixteen participants, representing seven zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) gathered to learn more about The Grevy’s Zebra Trust, the rally, and the groundbreaking stripe identification software that could change the way we monitor wild populations.
The Great Grevy’s Rally
Large rounded ears, narrow stripes, and brown muzzles make the Grevy’s Zebra easy to distinguish from the common plains zebra. The challenge was not identifying the zebras, it was finding them! The rally took place over the course of two days. Gretchen and I camped at Laisamis, which is a settlement in Kenya’s Marsabit County and each morning we set out in our Land Cruisers accompanied by John, our skilled driver who mastered the rugged terrain, and Lengesen, a ranger from Melako, who is an experienced tracker and outdoorsman.
The first day of the rally we searched and searched, travelling over 50 miles through rugged terrain without finding a single zebra. However, we observed an abundance of other wildlife present in that area. On the second and final day of the rally, we left earlier in the morning in hopes of spotting the zebras watering before the heat of the day. It was not until midday, miles off in the distance when our keen-eyed ranger pointed and said, “Zebra” with an enormous grin on his face.
The Land Cruiser could not drive over the rocky valley, so we went on foot. Our team walked for almost a mile before reaching a distance that was sufficient enough to view each zebra and collect data. Our mission was to photograph the right side of the zebras with our GPS-tracking cameras. At the end of the rally, a stripe identification software called Image-Based Ecological Identification System (IBEIS) will be used to process every photograph. IBEIS uses stripe patterns to distinguish between individuals in a population. Grevy’s zebra conservation partners use these data to identify which factors influence these population changes and they determine how to adjust their conservation efforts to meet the needs of this endangered species.
Having traveled to many places in the world, Africa will always have a special place in my heart. The Grevy’s Zebra Trust has grown from a small independent wildlife conservation group in Kenya, to an organization that is empowering local women, educating youth, contributing to global conservation research and striving to save an endangered species. The vibrant African culture compliments the inspiring individuals who have dedicated their lives to conservation. A renowned anthropologist, Margaret Mead, once said, “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.” The Grevy’s Zebra Trust, its staff, and their partners are certainly doing their part.
My life-long dream of caring for animals led me to the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden. As a Senior Elephant Caretaker, I interact with amazing animals every single day, but that is just one part of my job. The Zoo creates a platform for inspiring conservationists to share their message with the public. The animals in our care act as fantastic ambassadors for their species. Together, we hope to encourage young conservationists to save wildlife. My experience in Africa will be a story that I tell long after my career as an animal caretaker comes to an end. It was an unforgettable opportunity that I have the pleasure of sharing with our community.
-Amy Hofmeister, elephant caretaker