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Scientific name:  Equus Burchelli Boehmi

Zebras, with their brilliant black and white striped patterns, are among the most recognizable of all mammals.  At first glance they may look alike, but their stripes are as distinctive as our human fingerprints.   Scientists are able to identify individual zebras by comparing stripe width, patterns, color and scars.  Underneath its hair, a zebra’s skin is black.  It is thought that the stripes help to camouflage the zebra and protect it from being attacked by other animals, especially animals that are color blind, since they have trouble differentiating the stripes from grass and tree branches. Zebra coats are shiny and dissipate over 70% of incoming heat.  Many scientists believe that their black and white stripe combinations help the animals to withstand intense solar radiation.  The zebra species each have different stripe patterns from narrow to wide. The further south on the African plains they live, the farther apart the stripes are. 

Three sub-species of zebra (the Burchell’s, Grevy’s and Mountain zebras) still occur on the continent of Africa where they live in a wide range of habitats like woodland, hills, grasslands, mountains and savannahs.  The most widespread and numerous of the three species is the Burchell’s, also known as the plains or common zebra.  On the Serengeti plains, Burchell’s zebras sometimes form migratory herds in tens of thousands of individuals.  The second is the Grevy’s zebra, named for Jules Grevy, the President of France in the 1880’s, who once received one from Abyssinia as a gift. The unfortunate animal died on arrival, was stuffed and placed into the Natural History Museum in Paris. 

Grevy’s zebras are now mostly restricted to desert-like parts of northern Kenya and are thought to be the oldest type.  Grevy’s are the wildest and largest species of zebra, weighing up to 900 pounds, yet they require less water than the other types.  The third and smallest species, Equus Zebra (also called the mountain zebra), is found in southern and southwestern Africa.  Mountain zebras have hard, pointed hooves that are well suited for navigating around difficult slopes.  Their climbing skills come in handy in the mountainous areas of South Africa and Namibia where the elevations are up to 6,500 feet above sea level. 

Unlike the other two species, the Grevy’s zebras are usually not found in herds but are solitary, except for the mother’s that roam with their young foals. Both the Grevy’s and mountain zebras are now listed as Endangered because of loss of habit, competition with other animals for food and water, disease and poaching for their hides and meat.  The Burchell’s zebras number is currently around 750,000; there are around 2,000 mountain zebras; and fewer than 2,500 Grevy’s zebras remain today.  Their biggest threats are habitat loss due to farming and ranching, droughts, increase in disease, competition for water with livestock, and poachers that hunt them for their skins.

The name “Zebra” is derived from the Old Portugese word “Zevra” which means “wild ass”.  Their bodies are horse-like, but the manes are made of short erect striped hair and their tails are tufted at the ends.  These creatures are Ungulates, which means “hoofed animals”, and are part of the Equidae family along with horses and donkeys and have an average lifespan of around 25 years in the wild and 40 years in captivity.  They are extremely social animals that live in large groups of a dozen members or so called “harems” with one stallion as the head of the group.  Communication is made with barks, sniffs, brays and snorts. 

Zebras tend to be unpredictable in behavior and panicky under stress. Occasional fights are characterized by biting each others legs and kicking.  Their main predators of are  lions, hyenas, leopards, wild dogs and cheetahs. Nile crocodiles are also great threats during migratory river crossings.  As zebras travel across the plains a lead stallion usually always stays at the back of the group to defend the herd against predators, if necessary. If they spot a predator, they will whinny or bark loudly to warn the other members of their group.  When being chased, zebras run very fast from side to side in a zigzag manner.  Once cornered, they will bite their predators and kick fiercely with their rear hooves.

Zebras have large muscular bodies, long legs and one toe on each foot. They have a long striped mane that goes from the forehead to their shoulders, large noses, tall ears that are indicators of their moods, a tail that measures about 18 inches, beautiful long eyelashes and a strong incisor teeth for grinding and chewing their food.  Their herbivorous diet is made up of leaves, grass, shrubs, herbs, twigs and bark.  Zebras walk, trot, canter and gallop although they are generally slower than horses, although they can run at speeds up to 40 miles per hour.  They sleep standing up and in shifts so that some members of the herd are always awake and alert to dangers.  Each individual has its own “smile”, a bare-teethed grimace that serves as a friendly greeting and helps to reduce aggression when others approach.  They also reinforce bonds with one another through grooming and nibbling on each other with their teeth to pull out loose hair and give each other a good scratching.  Unlike their closest relatives, horses and donkeys, zebras have never been truly domesticated.

Foals are born with brown and white stripes as opposed to black and white stripes and can walk within 20 minutes of being born.  This is very useful because the mare needs to constantly move with the herd to find food and water.  She can’t leave the baby behind, so it must quickly be up and running to keep up with the family.  Mares usually won’t let others around her baby for at least 2-3 days until it recognizes her be sight, sound and smell. From a young age zebras have excellent eyesight and are thought to have color vision.  Their night vision is thought to be nearly as good as that of a cat or an owl.  They also have a keen sense of smell and hearing and are extremely sensitive to smoke.  Communication is done with facial expressions, loud braying, barking or snorting sounds.  Herds are commonly seen grazing with other animals like antelopes and wildebeests and often take dust or mud baths to clean themselves, shaking off the dirt to get rid of flaky skin and hair.  What’s left protects them from wind, sun and insects.  Many hours each day are spent chewing on grass.  Zebras prefer to eat the tough tips of grass and foliage that other grazers are not able to digest.  This constant chewing wears down their teeth, so their teeth keep growing for their entire lives.

Increasing human population, reduction of water sources, hunting, disease and the resulting competition from alternative land uses continue to be a threat to zebra ranges. The best thing we can do is safeguard this beautifully striped animal from extinction by providing protection to them from poaching and habitat loss.  The African Wildlife Foundation is working with reserve management and their rangers, who conduct regular patrols and are best placed to monitor the health of wild animal populations and their habitat in a sustainable way, to develop a ranger-based monitoring system.  They are also attempting to work closely with local communities to raise awareness and a greater understanding about the need for conservation of this species on not only local, but national and international levels as well.  The Grevy’s Zebra is currently being used as a flagship species to promote the overall conservation of wildlife in the area and is being used as an entry point to facilitate peace talks between both ethnic groups who periodically come into conflict over lifestock and resources, according to the Grevy’s Zebra Trust.  Strategies must be developed and maintained that benefit the local people as well as the zebra populations in order to achieve a positive balance and wildlife preservation.  

Article and images by Christina Bush

 Zebra carousel drawing by Christina Bush - 1992