The zebra doesn’t often take the safari spotlight. They are easy to spot because of their distinctive stripes and large herds. This makes for slightly less thrilling game viewing than searching for the elusive leopard or majestic lion. However, they make up a large part of our plains game at Lalibela, and we value them just as much.
So, we dedicated this blog to the zebra.
1. Grévy’s Zebra
Grévy’s zebras are found in Kenya and Ethiopia. They are more donkey than horse-like in their appearance with rather adorable round ears and a stockier build. They are the largest wild members of the horse family, weighing up to 450kg (990lbs). Unfortunately, they are considered endangered on the IUCN Red List with only 1900 left in the wild.
2. The Mountain Zebra
The mountain zebra is found predominantly in hilly and rocky places in South Africa and Namibia. They have a more rugged look to their species counterparts, with distinctive reddish brown colouring on their snouts. Their hooves are especially sharp and hard to help them balance and climb rugged terrain. They are considered vulnerable on the IUCN Red List with 34 900 left in the wild.
3. Plains Zebra
By far the most common zebra species, the plains zebra is the one you’ll spot at Lalibela. They are the smallest of all the zebra species, about 1.5 metres in height (4.5 feet) and weighing up to 300kg (700 pounds). They are also the most abundant of all the wild members of the horse family. There are a number of subspecies – interestingly, the further south you move down Africa, the fewer the stripes on the zebras’ legs.
Zebras are widespread across vast areas of eastern and southern Africa. Their preferred habitat is treeless grasslands and savannah woodlands. Unfortunately,their natural habitat is shrinking – they are already extinct in Lesotho and Burundi, to which they once were native.
1. They’re walking barcodes.
Just like the spots of a leopard or our fingerprints, every zebra’s stripe pattern is unique. In fact, scientists can scan images of zebras and identify individuals by ‘reading’ their stripes, just like you’d read a barcode. This technology is so advanced it even compensates for changes in posture and weight, and pregnancy.
2. They’ve got speed.
Zebras, though not as fast as horses, can reach quite high speeds. They can reach speeds of up to 65k/h (40mph) when galloping. This is just fast enough to outrun their predators, such as lions.
3. Their stripes aren’t just aesthetic.
There has always been debate among scientists as to why zebras have stripes. A prevailing theory is that stripes confuse predators – making it harder for them to single out a zebra from a big herd. However, this theory was disproved in 2016, when research showed that by the time a predator sees the stripes, it has already heard and smelled their prey.
Newer theories are more interesting. Some scientists believe the stripes are a cooling system – the black stripes absorb more heat, and during the hotter parts of the day, the zebra raises the hair in the black stripes to release extra heat. Another theory is that the stripes work as a defense mechanism against flies and other biting insects.
But there is yet to be a definitive answer, so we suppose the zebra has one up on scientists for now!
4. Their skin is black.
We speak for ourselves here, but most of us think of the zebra as having black stripes, but we are mistaken! A zebra actually has black skin, their fur then grows in black and white stripes. All the fur grows from follicles containing melanocyte (pigment-generating cells). The white fur (white stripes) grow from follicles where this is deactivated. This implies that black is the default colour of a zebra’s fur and thus, they are in fact, contrary to popular opinion, black with white stripes!
5. They are big socialites.
Zebras are social animals, living in large herds. Within a herd, zebras stay in a smaller family groups made up of a dominant male, several mares, and the young foals. When migrating to new feeding ground, ‘super herds’ form which are made up of thousands of zebras.
6. Babies are tough.
Zebra foals put human babies to shame – a mere 20 minutes after birth, they stand up and start walking. A few hours later, they’re running with the herd.
7. Zebras make grass taste better.
This sounds strange but zebras make for tastier grass. Plains zebras are not fussy eaters – they often enter un-grazed grasslands first and eat the harder, less nutritious grass. Once this old grass is cleared, new tender growth springs up. The fussier grazers, such as the Thompson’s gazelle and wildebeest, then come in and enjoy the good stuff.