These rare zebras are dependent on humans, for now

Feeding wildlife is generally discouraged, but it may be the only way to help the endangered Grevy’s zebra survive drought.Saturday, 18 January 2020

Grevy’s zebras—loiborkoram in the Samburu language—are massive. At up to almost a thousand pounds, they are the largest wild animals in the horse family. Their prominent ears appear rounded at a distance, and their stripes are finer than those on a regular old plains zebra. “They are absolutely stunning animals,” says Belinda Low Mackey, a cofounder of the Nairobi-based Grevy’s Zebra Trust.

They are also highly endangered. Just 2,000 adults remain in the wild, and their range has shrunk from a significant swathe of the horn of Africa to a few places in northern Kenya and just over the border into Ethiopia.

Hunting in the 20th century and ongoing competition for scarce food with livestock that also graze their arid habitat have driven their numbers down. Since 2009, the area has also suffered regular droughts, which shrivel the grass the zebras eat. Photographer Heath Holden accompanied some of the Trust’s rangers in Samburu County, Kenya, in October. The land was “unbelievably dry,” he says. “All the rivers were dry.” (Read more about threats to grasslands here.)

Combined with the overgrazing of livestock, these events can kill large numbers of Grevy’s zebras. And so the Grevy’s Zebra Trust has chosen to feed them. They’ve delivered bales of hay during droughts in 2011, 2014, 2017, and again late last year along the zebras’ routes to watering holes. The hay comes from a neighbouring province with more rainfall and is bought in by truck or motorbike. In 2017, the worst drought in at least the past decade, the Trust put out more than 3,500 bales of hay.

But is it right to feed wild animals? In many cases, the answer is no. Philosopher Clare Palmer, who studies human-animal ethics at Texas A&M University, says that one could, in theory, argue that feeding the zebras reduces their wildness by making them more dependent on humans for food. And becoming dependent on people arguably makes them less free. (Read about why you shouldn't feed your backyard wildlife.)

"Reducing animals’ freedom in this sense could be seen as a kind of hubris, human arrogance in trying to control everything that goes on in the world,” she says.

Humans feeding wild animals without careful plans can cause them to become dangerously habituated to humans and change their behaviour. In some cases, migrating animals have changed or given up their annual journeys; in other cases, habituated animals venture too close to humans and scare them or damage their farms and homes, risking retaliatory killings. In this case, the zebras eat the hay at night, when the humans are gone, so they don’t even see their food delivery drivers.

And when the alternative is starving to death, a small reduction in one kind of wildness is considered by Kenyan wildlife managers an acceptable price to pay for their survival. Besides, Palmer argues, the zebras’ lives have been shaped by living alongside grazers for millennia and by climate change for at least several decades. “It’s not as though there’s a living-independently-of-human-impact option for these zebras,” Palmer says. (Learn why spots and stripes aren't so black and white.)

Averting a 'tragedy of the commons'

Low Mackey says that’s not the goal anyway. The goal is for humans, livestock, and Grevy’s zebra to coexist. She hopes the food provisioning will be “a short-term intervention,” while they work to restore the land so it can support all the grazers, wild and domestic.
(Related: Read why this young zebra has polka-dots instead of stripes.)

Restoration work includes cutting down acacia trees the animals can’t eat and using their branches to fill in gullies to control erosion, planting grass seed, and working with the communities that own the land to adjust their grazing practices to better fit their no-longer-nomadic way of life. “We have started a visioning process,” Low Mackey says. “That has been inspirational for them: They know that they can really be proactive about their future.”

In some ways, the situation is a real-life version of a famous thought experiment posed by ecologist Garrett Hardin: the tragedy of the commons, which suggests that common resource, such as grazing area, will inevitably be over-used because there’s no incentive for each individual to show restraint when the others are putting more and more animals on the land.

If the pastoralists who own the land can come to an agreement about how to manage the land so that there is grass for the zebras as well as cattle, it’ll be yet another story in which Hardin’s pessimistic prediction is proved wrong. Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 Nobel prize winner in economics, studied such success stories—places where common resources were fairly and sensibly managed by groups. In Switzerland, for example, herders who shared alpine meadows agreed to only pasture as many cows on the common land in the summer as they could personally afford to feed in barns during the winter.

Ultimately, the Grevy’s story is a metaphor for species conservation writ large. Species can be saved, short-term, by a direct infusion of resources—be they money, political attention, or hay. But in the long term, the diversity of life on Earth will be best preserved by managing whole landscapes so that people and other species can thrive together.

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