Counting wildlife before it’s too late

Saturday January 13 2018

Suyian Ranch in Laikipia

Grevy Zebras at the 44,000-acre Suyian Ranch in Laikipia on February 1, 2017. The animals will be photographed and counted during the Great Grevy’s Rally to be held at the end of January 2018. PHOTO | SULEIMAN MBATIAH | NMG 

By SUSAN MUUMBI
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Counting endangered wildlife helps evaluate whether their population is growing or the species is heading towards extinction. Factors causing decline include climate change, habitat loss, competition with livestock and even human conflict.

Some of the endangered species found in East Africa include the Grevy’s zebra and the reticulated giraffe.

Grevy’s zebra are found in the wild in five counties in Kenya — Laikipia (more than 50 per cent), Meru, Isiolo, Samburu and Marsabit — and some parts of Ethiopia.

The reticulated giraffe is a subspecies native to Somalia, and is also found in parts of southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya.

The Grevy’s zebra is taller and has narrower stripes than the the common plains zebra. The reticulated giraffe has large, polygonal spots outlined by a network of bright white lines.

In the late 1970’s there were an estimated 15,000 Grevy’s zebra in the wild. A ground census in Kenya done by the Great Grevy’s Rally (GGR) in 2016 put the number at 2,350.

The reticulated giraffe population is estimated at 8,500 in the wild. According to wildlife experts, giraffe numbers are dwindling because of poaching and habitat loss caused by human settlement.

However, data on actual numbers is scarce. To get more accurate figures, during the second edition of the Great Grevy’s Rally to be held on January 27 and 28, the reticulated giraffe will be counted as well.

In the first edition of the GGR in 2016, 118 teams comprising more than 500 people drove over 25,000 square kilometres.

The census teams were made up of citizen scientists, conservationists, national and county governments, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), scientists, local conservancies, partners and NGOs. This year, it is estimated that there will be 800 participants using 170 cameras.

Taking pictures of wildlife is no easy task; only photographs of the right side of the animal can be used.

The photographs help in identifying the animals accurately so that there is no double counting, as well as to gather information like age, sex and health.

Driving around the Mpala Conservancy in Laikipia last week with a team of photographers and media practitioners, we found that the animals were either camera-shy or did not get the memo on how to pose for pictures. They frequently showed their left sides or back sides, or even faced us directly. Hopefully, during the rally the wildlife will be more co-operative.

Once the pictures have been sorted, they are fed into the Image-Based Ecological Information System.

Head of research and monitoring at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy David Kimiti explained how the system works.

“The photos are grouped by date and location. If they were taken in the same location but on different days, they are flagged as separate. The system identifies and flags duplicates and removes them.”

Animals are classified using their unique stripes and patterns. In 2016, out of 40,000 pictures taken, only 18,000 were usable in the system.

An aerial census conducted by KWS in November put the number of Grevy’s zebra at 1,800. One of the disadvantages of an aerial census is that in the heat of the day, zebras hide under trees or bushes and could be missed in the count.

The GGR aims to cover as much ground as possible. The habitat is broken down into blocks and people drive around taking pictures.

All they need is a four-wheel drive vehicle and a place to camp or nearby accommodation. The rally is open to anyone who wants to participate. The GGR team provides the camera and training.