To Catch a Zebra

To Catch a Zebra

Rescuing Grevy’s Zebra from Extinction

By Brian Jackman

It was the Turkana tracker who saw him first: a solitary stallion about a mile away on the open plains of Kenya’s remote Northern Province. At once Don Hunt slammed the open Toyota catching truck into gear and we lurched through the cool desert dawn towards the distant grey speck which Nyangau, the eagle-eyed Turkana tracker, assured us was the Grevy’s Zebra whose spoor he had found the day before.

In 1977 Don Hunt was probably the best animal-catcher in Africa, and he badly wanted that Zebra. If we failed, he knew its fate was sealed. Either it would be shot by poachers and its skin nailed to the floor of a rich man’s penthouse. Or, driven from the open country which was its natural habitat, it would head for the bush where the lions waited.

Poached zebra in Kenya
Don Hunt and William Holden in 1974 with the carcass of a poached Grevy Zebra in Northern Kenya.

Grevy’s Zebra is the world’s most beautiful wild horse, and in the 1970s it seemed to be heading for extinction. Big bat ears, a mane as proud as a centurion’s plumes and an elegant coat of slimline stripes immediately set it apart from its more numerous cousin, the common or Burchell’s Zebra.

Somehow the Grevy seems altogether more exclusive. Those close grained stripes that flicker like an op-art painting looked so much smarter when turned into a fancy handbag.

In Nairobi at the time, such bags were fetching £70. You could buy an expensive telephone-directory cover in hand stitched Grevy for £40, or a Grevy-skin coat for £350. And when the World Wildlife Fund’s Kenya representative wandered into a Nairobi warehouse he was offered £250 Grevy skins on the spot.

Once Grevy’s Zebra ranged all over what used to be know as the NFD- the Northern Frontier District. From the shores of Lake Turkana to the Tana River and on up into Somalia and Ethiopia, they ran in herds hundreds strong. In Kenya alone their numbers were put at more than 15,000. But that was in the 1960s, before large scale poaching emptied the plains. A decade later they had vanished forever from Somalia and Ethiopia, and in Kenya, their main stronghold, numbers had fallen to no more than a thousand.

One of the first to realise that all was not well in the NFD was Don Hunt, a genial beefy, sun-bleached American who was at the time running the Mount Kenya Game Ranch in partnership with William Holden, the Hollywood movie star. Hunt, then in his mid-forties, had thrown up a prosperous TV career in Detroit and come to live in Kenya. He had started as a hunter but soon became sickened by the bloodletting and turned trapper instead.

Kenya zebra translocation

Don Hunt and William Holden with the first of approximately 100 Grevy Zebra that were successfully translocated.

It was while catching animals for the Kenya Government and shipping them as gifts to Ghana and Nigeria that he became aware of the Grevy’s plight. “Every time you went back,” he said, “you couldn’t help noticing there were fewer Zebra around.

Then, in 1975, Major Ian Grimwood, at that time a consultant for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, produced a shock report on the status of the Grevy Zebra. His figures showed that Kenya’s population had crashed from 15,000 to 1,500. There could only be one cause: poaching.

Clearly, something had to be done fast if the Grevy was to survive. “So we got together with the national park wardens,” said Don Hunt, “and went to see the government.” The result was full backing for Operation Zebra – a plan whereby Hunt was given permission to catch 140 Grevy’s and move them from the NFD to the comparative safety of the game parks. Thirty or 40 were to go to the Samburu Game Reserve and the remaining hundred would take their chance down in Tsavo West, the vast national park on the Tanzanian border, where they would be under the watchful eye of Head Warden Ted Goss, and his helicopter-borne anti-poaching patrols.

It was a controversial scheme and Hunt himself was a controversial figure, involved in a business which raised the hackles of many conservationists. But as he said, “Make no mistake. The Grevy is doomed outside the parks. If the poachers don’t get them, the lions will. In two years, they’ll all be gone.”

Grevy zebra catch in Kenya

Success! Ngatia moves in to grab his catch.

Hunt reckoned that at least 8,000 Grevys had been poached in the last three years, sending the price of skins soaring from $150 to $2,000. “That kind of money has pushed them into the ivory league,” he said. “Just think about it. If there are 1,000 Grevys left, that represents $2 million still running around out there.”

The worst poachers were the well-organised gangs of bandits known as the shifta, who were heavily armed and dangerous. When the shifta embarked on a raid they hired local people as porters, trackers and skinners. The gang bosses kept the perks: ivory, rhino horns and Grevy skins, while the local hired hands, who were paid only in meat or in skins and trophies from other animals, took the rest. The result was that entire areas of Northern Kenya were being cleared of everything that moved, from elephants to dik-diks.

For Don Hunt the year of the Zebra had begun in January 1977. When I joined him in May the operation had already cost him $28,000. Or, as he put it, “nearly $1,000 for every Zebra I saved.”.

To catch a Zebra is a dangerous game. By day there was always the risk of being shot at by the shifta. At night, lions roamed around Hunt’s camp, lured by the smell of captive Zebras shut up in their thorny boma.

But the biggest dangers were the plains themselves, riddled with pig-holes and unseen luggas – dried-up watercourses that loomed under your wheels as you careered through the bush at 60 mph. It was precisely such a hazard which had hospitalised two of the Hunt’s catching team with broken limbs the week before I arrived.

Zebra catch in Africa
‘The smartest zebra ever caught’

Now here I was in the same Toyota, bearing down on that lone dawn stallion. When we were still 400 yards away he broke into a canter. We increased our speed and he began to gallop. “He’s making for the bush,” yelled Hunt, and we slewed round in a choking swirl of dust to try and head him off.

Suddenly all sense of danger was forgotten in the thrill of the chase. In the excitement we missed by inches an ant-bear hole that would have buried us all. We smashed through thorn bushes, pulverising them into a million fragments that flew overhead in a spattering slipstream. Clods of red earth kicked up by the Zebra’s hooves smashed against the windscreen.

Time and again we would close to within yards of our quarry as Ngatia, the Kikuyu catcher, stood braced inside the rubber tyre which protected his ribs, swinging the noose of the lasso on its long bamboo pole until it dangled tantalisingly close to the tossing head. But like a rugby three-quarter the Zebra would jink and swerve at the last moment, leaving us floundering in a four-wheel drift.

Zebra being tranquilized
The tranquilized zebra is gently walked into the crate for transport.

Iris tranquilizes a zebra

Iris gives an injection.

Once more we drew alongside, and this time Ngatia made no mistake. The noose dropped over the Zebra’s head, the line ran out and the Toyota skidded to a stop with the stallion plunging on the end of the line like a fighting marlin.

The drill had been perfected to a fine art. The chase was always relatively short: otherwise the animal would die from exhaustion and shock. As soon as it was caught the support truck would arrive with extra hands. The idea was to grab the Zebra by its ears and tail, avoiding teeth hooves, rope its legs together, tranquillise it, patch up any wounds with antibiotics, and then haul it into a crate.

“Dammit,” said Don Hunt admiringly, “that was the smartest Zebra I’ve ever caught in my life.” Later he admitted he would not have pursued it for so long but for the suppurating scar on its rump where it had been clawed by a lion. “That wound was so bad he would probably have died anyway, so I took a chance.”

We caught no more Zebra that day; but the following morning we tried a fresh locality, setting out an hour before dawn to be on the catching grounds while the day was still cool.

Normally the north of Kenya is an arid wilderness of sun bleached scrub and withered thorns; but the long rains had been unusually heavy and the plains were as green as an Irish meadow. The earth blossomed overnight, and we marvelled at the sight of Samburu warriors wrapped in blood-red cloaks, striding with their cattle through drifts of white storm lilies.

Beyond the slab-sided mountain of Ololokwe, strange shark-fin peaks recede into the distance, giving this enigmatic landscape the surreal perspective of a Salvador Dali painting. Here we came across the totally unexpected sight of a band of fifty Grevys. Only five years earlier, herds of one hundred were not uncommon. But constant harassment had fragmented their numbers.

Grevy zebra marked in Kenya
Don marks the mane of a Greby Zebra about to be released in the Samburu Game Reserve.

Eagerly we gave chase as the sun came up over the immense horizon. Larks rose singing into the sky, and on either side of us, oryx and elands stampeded away through the flat-topped thorn trees.

Slowly we began to close the distance between ourselves and the Zebra and as I watched their dazzling black and white bodies wheeling and turning as one, kicking up a haze of dust that hung like gold in the day’s first glow, it dawned on me that I was witnessing a momentous occasion. Here was a spectacle that might never be seen again: a herd of wild Grevy’s Zebras running free as the wind on the plains which had been their home since the time before man was born.

Fortunately, I was wrong. When the plight of Africa’s biggest Zebra species became more widely known, it was given greater protection and the trade in skins subsided. Today, though it is still endangered and almost entirely confined to the arid plains and thorn bush country of Northern Kenya, the Grevy’s numbers appear to have stabilised in the low thousands, keeping alive the glorious vision I had seen with Don Hunt on the plains beyond Ololokwe.

Grevy zebra mother and baby
The first foal born to a Grevy Zebra translocated from the endangered northern herds to form a nucleus on the Mount Kenya Game Ranch.
Grevy zebra herd Mt. Kenya
A herd of Grevy Zebra is now safely established at the Mount Kenya Game Ranch.

• Photo by Jane McKeand
Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy