OKC Zoo Team Reports on Kenya Conservation Journey, Part 2

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 this second and final part of a blog series, Dr. Gretchen Cole shares her experience from Kenya.

Kenya has such amazing animals, beauty, and people. It’s been many years since my first trip and every time I get the opportunity to go, I get excited. This trip was quite the opportunity. Amy Hofmeister and I were chosen to represent the Oklahoma City Zoo in the Great Grevy’s Zebra Rally 2018, a zebra population count. This was only the second time the rally has been done and there was still a lot to learn.

There were seven Association of Zoos and Aquarium-accredited institutions that sent people to participate in the rally, a huge commitment by US zoos to endangered Grevy’s Zebras. The teams met in the middle of the country, a town called Nanyuki, where we received training on the project and how to use the special GPS-tracker cameras. Then we were assigned a rugged, remote area of northern Kenya.

We set up camp outside a rural town, Laisamis, and set off in our Land Cruiser with a driver and ranger to look for zebras. It was very hot, dry and sandy. Not ideal conditions for zebra, but we looked and looked. On our first day, we only saw the local people and their goats, sheep, and camels. But on the second day, we did find two zebras. Our ranger urgently stopped the vehicle, ran up on top of a pile of large volcanic rocks and pointed off into the distance, ran back down the rocks and took off quickly gesturing for us to follow. We didn’t have any language in common, so the finger pointing and follow me hand gestures sufficed. I struggled to keep up with how fast he was moving and even stepped on a large three-inch acacia thorn. It went completely through the shoe into my foot, but I pulled it out and kept moving knowing it was going to sting later on. It seemed like we walked a half mile before we even glimpsed the zebra. I’ll never know how the ranger was able to spot them from the road!

Following the rally, the zoo teams were invited back to the headquarters of the Grevy’s Zebra Trust in nearby Westgate Conservancy for a week. The Trust had created a small living area for employees and visitors, complete with small tent camp, open-air meeting room, garage, kitchen and water storage. We were given the opportunity to learn about the landscape, the local Samburu people and the environment for the Grevy’s Zebra. We met the zebra warriors and scouts who track zebras as a full time job and the Grass Guardians, teens selected by the community elders to participate in this program. Every layer of the community was experiencing a benefit from this partnership.

We had a memorable afternoon learning from the teens as they described the Grass Guardian program and how they have affected change in their communities. Then they asked us about how we work with our wildlife. Describing what we do through translation isn’t very exciting, but everyone carries a cell phone and zoo people always have pictures of their animals! So the whole group stood up and started flipping through their photo files. The youth would stare and point and sometimes squeal when they saw the different wildlife pictures. Often times the pictures were close ups, something these kids may never have experienced. It was fun to answer their questions and then in turn, learn about their life.

-Gretchen Cole, associate veterinarian

Photo: Mwarv Kirubi

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