Bringing People Together as Scientists to Save a Zebra Species

Morgan Kelly, Office of Communications ・ Princeton Environmental Institute

NANYUKI, Kenya — For 30 long minutes, the two safari buses trundled across the dry bushland of northern Kenya. Rocks and a haze of red dust kicked up from the rough and pitted road. The sun seared through the cloudless sky and thin air of the high escarpment, illuminating the leaves and long blanched thorns of the acacia trees.

The roughly 40 people in the buses snapped photos of giraffes languidly plucking treetops clean, or of small families of elephants crushing and eating the dense and brittle vegetation mere feet from the road. But a specific animal had brought these people out in the midday heat and it had yet to appear.

Then, on the lead bus, a passenger called out, “Behind that tree — tell the driver to stop!” Everyone called out the instruction and the bus lurched to a halt. To the right, a herd of plains zebras, with their iconic stripes of white and black, milled about an open patch of grass. But from behind the tangled branches of an acacia, larger, leaner striped heads emerged — first one, then two more — stepping out until their white underbellies shimmered in the undulating lines of heat rising from the ground.

From his seat at the front of the bus, Dan Rubenstein, Princeton University’s Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, stood and turned toward the window, quickly raising his binoculars to his eyes. “There they are,” he said. “Those are Grévys — aren’t they incredible?”