The field conservation of endangered and threatened African species is a high priority for the Saint Louis Zoo. The WildCare Institute's Horn of Africa Conservation Center was established to provide in situ (on-site conservation) and ex situ (off-site conservation) conservation support for all Horn of Africa species. In recent years, the Center's support has included field research projects and conservation initiatives in Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti, and has supported conservation efforts for many critical species.

This year, the Zoo's support expanded to include the participation of its zookeepers in Grevy's zebra conservation in Kenya. Read on to enjoy the adventures of two of our Zoo's finest animal caretakers - Tim Their and Shelly Wagner, both Senior Keepers in the Antelope/River's Edge department.

Zoo Keeper Earthwatch Expedition to Kenya
By Shelly Wagner, Senior Keeper/River's Edge

The endangered Grevy's zebra (Equus grevyi) species is the catalyst for an important new conservation partnership, involving zookeepers and Earthwatch Institute. In March of 2006, five zookeepers from the Saint Louis Zoo, Minnesota Zoo and the San Diego Zoo were invited to participate on an Earthwatch expedition in Kenya and take part in field research being conducted for the Grevy's zebra.

As professional zookeepers, we were perfectly suited to participate in an Earthwatch expedition. We arrived the first day already highly trained to conduct animal observations, well-versed in animal behavior, experienced in data collection and record keeping, and ready to watch animals from dawn to dusk.

On our first day in the field near Wamba, we drove along what was called an elephant highway. This was a path that herds have used for many years to travel from one water source to another. It looked like a deserted road except for the footprints. The arid vistas of Wamba were breathtaking. The vegetation was sparse but unique, and the red soil greatly contrasted the green and brown flora.

On our trip we also visited the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya dedicated to the conservation of wildlife and its habitats. The lush hills, valleys and plains of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy were exhilarating for the amount and diversity of wildlife seen. A herd of elephant, zebra, impala, Cape buffalo, waterbuck, giraffe or oryx seemed to be around almost every turn. The warthog and black-backed jackal were always exciting to see. While watching a watering hole in the morning, herds of elephant of varying ages and size came up to drink. Watching them interact with each other and other species, such as zebra, reinforced all that I had read in books or papers, but nothing compares to seeing them in person.

In return for the opportunity to travel to Kenya and participate in field research, our team was charges with developing creative ways to present our Kenya experiences and our knowledge to our millions of Zoo visitors when we returned home. Our goal is to use our experiences to raise awareness of the conservation needs of Grevy's zebras and to encourage Zoo visitors to become involved with and support conservation activities for this critically endangered species.

Anthrax Vaccination Trial with Grevy's Zebra in Kenya
By Tim Their, Senior Keeper/Antelope Area

An outbreak of anthrax began in northern Kenya in December 2005, which impacted both wild and domestic ungulates (hoofed animals), particularly the endangered Grevy's zebra. The Kenya Wildlife Service decided that a mass vaccination of the Grevy's zebra population was needed to control the spread of the disease within the population. The anthrax vaccine had never been administered to Grevy's zebra, so an anthrax vaccination trial was conducted prior to the mass vaccination project.

Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to travel to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya to participate in the vaccination trial. Eight zebras were captured at Lewa and moved into a boma (holding corral) to be part of the study. There was a control group of two zebras and a test group of six zebras, four of which were given the vaccine. To be sure my observations were unbiased, I was not informed which zebras had received the vaccine.

During this study, I observed the zebras for an average of nine hours each day. I quickly learned to identify each zebra by its stripes and individual personalities, and I watched each animal closely for adverse reactions to the vaccine, taking careful notes about their behavior.

Fortunately, the vaccination caused no ill-effects in the zebras who participated in the trial and they were released from the boma. In the following weeks, over 600 Grevy's zebras in northern Kenya were darted with the anthrax vaccine. This program, combined with the return of seasonal rains to the region in April, successfully controlled the spread of the disease within the Grevy's zebra population.

It was astounding to see giraffes, ostriches and zebras, animals that I care for everyday at the Zoo in the wild for the first time. It is still hard to believe that each day I walked to work and shared a path with warthog and impala, or that I was only a few feet away from elephants while driving to the boma. It is extremely gratifying to know that I played a part in a project that had a direct impact on saving an endangered species.