Burchell's Zebra (Equus quagga burchellii)

Burchell's Zebra

Although zebra prefer to be more active on the open plains, where there is more grazing available, they are usually found throughout the park.
Kruger National Park – Mammal Guide
  Burchell's Zebra (Equus quagga burchellii)
Kruger National Park – Mammal Guide
Burchell's Zebra (Equus quagga burchellii)
The piano of the bush

“The zebra is the piano of the animal kingdom” - this quote from Jarod Kintz must be one of the best descriptions of this iconic animal.

These ‘horse-like’ creatures with black and white stripes have mesmerised humans for many years, and you can be sure that they will have the same effect on you when you’re on your Kruger safari.

Although zebra prefer to be more active on the open plains, where there is more grazing available, they are usually found throughout the park.

Pardon me!

Zebras are known as hindgut fermenters - they do not have a 4-chambered stomach like the Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer) or impala (Aepyceros melampus), where partially digested food intake will be regurgitated, and chewed again in order to get the most of the nutrients in it. Instead, they feed like elephants (Loxodonta africana) and the white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum).

They can digest highly fibrous plants, like grass, that have a high cellulose content. Cellulose, in general, is not easy to digest but is made easier to by using microbes.

Unlike ruminants, where digestion of cellulose occurs in the stomach, a zebra’s microbial fermentation occurs in a part of their large intestine known as the cecum. This type of microbial fermentation is also known as post gastric microbial fermentation.

During this process, a lot of gas build up is produced in the stomach, and the zebra you see standing on the open plain, is actually bloated! Even in poor conditions, a zebra will still have a rounded belly due to this process, so the condition of a zebra can’t be judged by this.

Instead, the condition is determined by the shape of the mane. There is a thick layer of fat deposit located underneath the mane, and when a zebra is in a poor condition, that fat layer is usually being absorbed by the body. In return, the layer that helps the mane look like a stiff brush, is depleted and thus does not help it to stand up. So, if you see a zebra with its mane flattened, it’s an indication that there is something wrong with it.

It is a very common sight (and very humorous) to spend some time with a herd of zebra, while listening to them release gas - they have no shame!

All about the stripes

In case you were wondering, the stripes on a zebra are not for camouflage. Previously, it was thought that they might act as a kind of temperature regulator between the white and black stripes, but that theory was proven wrong in July 2018 by a team of scientists who did a series of experiments on this. (See the June issue of Scientific Report 2018).


Another theory that was later proven wrong, is that a zebra’s stripes help to create confusion when they are running away from predators. In a study, this motion was crossed off the theory list as it seemed that prey species, such as lion (Panthera leo), would already have an individual in sight, and even though there is plenty of confusion created with all the different stripe patterns of the zebras, the chosen victim would still be selected and caught.

One study so far seem to hold the top spot though. Apparently horse-flies don't like to land on animals with striped hides.

They also say that there are about 18 different theories still to be studied and proven regarding the stripes of a zebra, but for now, they remain a mystery.

Mystery or not though, it does not make a zebra any less attractive and sought after while on a Kruger Park safari!

Black with white stripes or visa versa?

Underneath the hair, a zebra is like a polar bear - completely black skin with white hair.

The vicious nature of stallions

Zebras live either in bachelor (stallion) herds or in harems (one stallion that reigns over the mares). Within a harem, you might find other young stallions as well, but they will be tolerated as long as they are submissive to the leader and do not make an attempt to mate with the females. Zebras do not have territories, but the stallions will fight vigorously to keep their mares within the harem.

Although it always seems so placid to watch a zebra herd, these animals can be extremely cruel and nasty.

When bachelor herd stallions fight each other for dominance or a stallion challenges the dominant male that already has a harem, it tends to be a very bloody fight. These animals use their hind legs to produce a very powerful kick that is known to dislocate and, in some recorded cases, break the collar bones or jaws of lions! Not only is it the muscle power of those hind legs, but also the sharpness of the hooves that contribute to these injuries.

They also rear up to use the front legs to pounce down and hit a target. The most damage, however, is most likely caused by biting - with them often aiming for soft spots like the neck and groin. It is a real vicious scene to watch these stallions fight it out - and it is not uncommon for the males to bite the other’s tail or ears off in a serious dispute.

Unfortunately for the males who have had their limbs taken off, it is probably one of the most irritating abilities to have to live with as a zebra uses its tail to swipe away pesky flies.

On some occasions, they might even fight to the death - the dominant stallion will use his kick and trample force on the other stallion as soon as it falls down to the ground and continue to ensure the neck or back is broken.

As if this brutal scene didn’t paint a horrible picture already, they are also known for infanticide. Like other animal species, for example the lion that will kill cubs when the pride is being taken over by a new male, zebra stallions do the same. And for a newborn foal or young colts, there is no defence against such an attack.

There is one subtle manner on the part of the stallions that does portray a sense of kindness though. If the defending stallion gets old or weary, a new bachelor stallion will start shadowing the herd and will eventually push the older stallion out without challenging him or fighting for dominance.

The first lady

The mares in a harem also have different status ranks. The hierarchy is determined mainly by age but, to some extent, on a “First here, then second, then third” basis as well.

New mares that comes into the harem are not welcomed with a friendly gesture by other mares, and are treated like outsiders for a while before being accepted as part of the herd. After a couple of weeks of being kept at a distance from the other mares, they will then join them.

When new mares joins a harem, they are most likely stolen from another herd. A female zebra or filly will stay with the male who impregnates her and they develop a very strong bond thereafter. Mating and birthing can happen all year round after a gestation of roughly 12 months.

For any prey species, it is all about survival, each and every day. And more so for the young of these species. A zebra foal will be able to stand within 10 minutes of being born. It will start walking by its mom side within half an hour and can even run within its first hour!

Keeping clean

Zebras perform allogrooming, like impala, to keep themselves clean. They also enjoy a dust bath on a regular basis to get rid of parasites - and they are able to roll over completely onto their backs to make sure the dirt gets to all the right spots. Another favourite area to roll in is one that has burned recently. Oxpeckers also aid them with the cleaning process.

A good scratch or back rub is a fond favourite among zebras. They will look for anything good to use - a branch, a rock or termite mount - anything that reaches and eases an itch that occurs on the neck, ears, head… basically, all over!

We’ve witnessed a zebra used a cable that was holding an electricity pole up from the ground, as its desired rubbing post. It started with its front head, cheeks, neck and throat. Then, it moved onto the shoulders, back, ribs and rump before ending on the hindquarters. The zebra even moved itself halfway over the cable and rocked back and forth over it while the cable was between its hind legs! When he was satisfied with his scratch, he turned around with the higher part of the cable between his front legs so he could scratch his chest! This was extremely entertaining to watch and clearly this task has a pleasurable effect on their skin - who wouldn’t like a full body massage now and then?

Safety in numbers

Zebras are usually associated with other species like blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus), impala and giraffe (giraffa camelopardalis) in that they have a very acute sense of smell, sight and hearing, which some prey species often use to their advantage. Most of the time, other prey species will rather react to the warning calls of a zebra, than an impala.


Like most other species, they will always have one or two members looking out for danger while the rest are grazing. Perhaps, one of the most photographic scenes of zebra is when two members of the herd are standing head to tail with each other and resting their heads on each others backs. This way, they have a resting spot for their muscular heads, can look out for danger and chase the flies away from the other zebra’s face!

They are very water dependant and are also fuzzy drinkers - meaning they prefer clean water and will not venture too far from a reliable water source. If a waterhole is more of a mud wallow, they might do the same as elephants whereby they dig in the sand or soil next to a pool of water to let cleaner water, that they can consume, filter through.

Due to their water dependant lifestyle, they have a natural instinct to migrate to some areas, to find fresh water sources. This is a world-renowned phenomenon that happens every year in Eastern Africa, in Kenya and Tanzania specifically, but also here in the Kruger National Park. Zebras would often move towards the rivers during the drier seasons, instead of staying in vast areas where the water holes have dried up.

Males vs females

With antelope species like kudu (Tragelaphus strepsiceros), eland (tragelaphus oryx) and waterbuck (kobus ellipsiprymnus), it is easy to see who is male and female due to the horns. But what about zebra? Here are a couple of factors to look out for.

When the herd is moving, most of the time, the stallion will be at the back with the main female in front. It is not a given that it is always like this but most of the time, the stallion will be at the back.

If there is any danger and the zebras are running, the stallion might stand its ground for a little while to make sure the rest of his herd has a chance to escape the danger, before running himself or fighting off the danger. Due to this courageous act, the mortality rate of male zebras is much higher than females.

A stallion will have a thicker, stronger neck than a mare - something that is very easy to distinguish when you see a herd standing together. The thicker neck gives a stallion more resistance when fighting with other males. It is also because of this muscular neck that attempts made to domesticate zebras, have failed - it makes it nearly impossible to try and steer a zebra and it, in return, will not allow a person to control it.

Another factor to look out for is the stripe running between the back legs, underneath the tail. During the day, a zebra wags its tail almost non-stop to get rid of the irritating flies around it and this creates the opportunity to see the backside. Males will have a narrow black line and females will have a much more broader line.

Stripe patterns on each zebra are unique and no one has the same stripes. It has been proven though, that stripe patterns are heritable and it is easy enough to notice similar stripe patterns between a mare and her foal!

Different species

There are 3 main species of zebra in Africa, with various subspecies. With the plains zebra, these include: Quagga (Equus quagga quagga) which is now extinct; Burchell's zebra (Equus quagga burchellii) including the Damara zebra; Grant's zebra (Equus quagga boehmi); Selous' zebra (Equus quagga selousi); Maneless zebra (Equus quagga borensis); Chapman's zebra (Equus quagga chapmani) and Crawshay's zebra (Equus quagga crawshayi).

With the Mountain zebra (Equus zebra), subspecies include Cape mountain zebra (Equus zebra zebra) and Hartmann's mountain zebra (Equus zebra hartmannae).

The third species of zebra is the Grévy's zebra (Equus grevyi).

All these zebras have various stripe patterns and are found in various geographical areas around Africa. In the Kruger National Park, you will get to see the Plains zebra.

All zebra species have been allocated on the IUCN Red List and are listed from the quagga, that is now extinct, as being vulnerable to near concern, due the loss of their habitat to humans.

Folklore on how the zebra got its stripes

There once was an arrogant baboon, a self-appointed "Lord of the Water". He guarded one of the only sources of water that remained during times of drought - a small pool - and forbid any of the other animals from drinking there.

Legend has it that one day a zebra and his son arrived at the pool. The weather had been very dry and hot, and there was little water to be found anywhere. They went to have a drink when suddenly a voice boomed "Go Away! I am the Lord of the Water, and this is my pool"! The zebras looked up, startled, and saw the angry baboon sitting by his fire.

"Water belongs to everyone, not just to you monkey-face", shouted the young zebra. "Then you must fight me for it if you want to drink" challenged the baboon, and he attacked the young zebra. The two fought savagely for what seemed an eternity until with a furious kick, the zebra sent the baboon flying through the air, until he landed among the rocks. Till this day, the baboon has a patch on his bottom where he landed.

African legends tell us that the tired zebra staggered, and fell through the baboons fire, scorching his white coat and leaving him with black stripes across it. The terrified zebras dashed away back to the plains where they forever remained.

The arrogant baboon and his family still live among the rocks and spend their days challenging intruders, holding their tails aloft to ease the pain of the bare patch of skin where they landed. So goes the legend of how the zebra got its stripes.

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