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Sweeney studys zebras in Kenya

by: Submitted Photo - Teacher Judy Sweeney pets a baby elephant in Kenya.


   Madras Elementary teacher Judy Sweeney mingled with zebras and goat herders on the savannahs of Kenya, Africa, this summer during an EarthWatch Institute expedition.
   Sweeney was one of three American and three Kenyan teachers selected for EarthWatch fellowships to work with Kenyan scientists studying the endangered Grevy's zebra from Aug. 22 to Sept. 2. The cost of Sweeney's trip was sponsored by National Geographic.
   In 1977, there were 13,718 Grevy's zebras, but now the population has dwindled to 2,000 (Grevy's are different from plains zebras). A prolonged drought, predation by lions, and overgrazing of the grassland by domestic livestock are some of the reasons for the zebra's decline, and scientists are trying to determine other factors.
   In this area where the human population is growing, the goal of EarthWatch is to help find ways to allow people and animals to coexist.
   Sweeney's group lived in a locked compound in the Samburu region. "An armed guard slept on my doorstep every night and we had three guards when we went out in the field," she said, noting it was both for personal protection and protection from elephants in the wild.
   The teachers observed the behavior of Grevy's zebras, counted them, marked their location with a GPS, and learned how to identify them by their flank stripes, which are unique like a fingerprint. The most they sighted the whole time was under 200.
   "No (zebra) babies were being born, and I saw lots of dead cattle bones due to the (five-year-long) drought," Sweeney said.
   In another project, the teachers and scientist sectioned an area into 4 kilometer transects, then recorded every single plant in each transect.
   "We were up until 10 p.m., entering the data onto our computers," Sweeney said.
   Since lions prey on the zebras, the group collected fresh lion scat (feces) and analyzed what kinds of hairs were in it to see what animals the lions had eaten.
   The teachers wrote daily journals their students back in the United States could follow, and Sweeney did some "TeachLive" sessions with a class in North Carolina by satellite phone.
   The Samburu people live in that region, so on her one free day, Sweeney told the organizers she wanted to spend the day following a young girl goat herder around.
   "She was about the same age as the kids in my class," said Sweeney, who teaches fourth grade.
   The girl didn't speak English, but Sweeney had a Swahili dictionary, so they could communicate a little.
   "She had to walk six kilometers to get to water, and after the goats drank, she drank. She protected the goats and told me about a lion attack, where the lion took her little black goat," Sweeney said.
   She learned that the girl's family hadn't eaten in 2 1/2 days because of the drought, but finally got some meat when another person's cow died. Despite that, Sweeney said the Samburu people she met had a really happy and loving life and it was wonderful to be around them.
   "They live in harmony with the zebras, it's just that the land won't support them all," she said.
   Back in Madras, Sweeney is having her fourth graders replicate her fieldwork by doing a research project at Haystack Reservoir.
   "Last week we were out with the Madras High forestry class. They're helping us get ready by teaching the kids about habitat area, how to use a GPS, how to do a transect to look at plants and animals, and how to identify trees," Sweeney said.
   In October, her students will do a site-based learning session at Haystack with scientists from the Wolftree organization.
   "We'll concentrate on an animal and how everything in the habitat connects. Then they'll enter the data and write a brochure for the public," Sweeney said.
   Madras Elementary will also be studying the continent of Africa this year, encouraged by a National Geographic campaign to improve Americans geographical knowledge.
   "There's even a free trip to South Africa for kids to try for, and activities for them to do with their parents," Sweeney said, noting the Web site is mywonderfulworld.org.