Burchell’s (Plains) Zebra
With their distinct black and white pattern, zebra are one of Africa’s most iconic animals. Their distribution spans from Ethiopia in the north, down to South Africa. Burchell’s zebras are named after the British explorer and naturalist William John Burchell and are a southern subspecies of plains zebra.
Burchell’s zebra prefer open, arid savannah with access to water. In Namibia they are most often seen in Etosha National Park.
The black and white stripes of this horse-like animal make it easy to identify. Burchell’s, as opposed to Hartmann’s (mountain) zebra, have stripes that go around their stomach and lighter stripes between the solid black ones (called “shadow” stripes) especially around the hind legs and rump. The pattern on the legs of plains zebra is very faded, whereas mountain zebra have stripes that go all the way down to their hooves. Both sexes look very similar with males being slightly larger than females as well as having thicker necks. They are closely related to the now extinct Quagga.
They stay in social breeding groups or “harems” that consist of a single stallion, a dominant mare and several other females, typically unrelated, and a number of offspring. Fighting among males happens mainly over females that have just reached sexual maturity (2-4 years) as the winner then has mating rights for life. Males that are not in breeding herds form bachelor groups. Young males are chased out of the breeding group between the ages of 1-2 years. Zebras have acute vision and hearing which helps them detect predators early, although when on a self-drive safari in Namibia you will find them standing calmly next to the road, often close enough to touch. They bite and kick to defend themselves but it is also thought that their stripes may visually confuse predators. You can often tell a zebra’s emotional state from their ears – erect ears mean they are calm and happy; ears forward mean they are frightened and ears pulled back mean they are angry! Due to having to move frequently to find good grazing and water sources, they are not territorial.
They eat a variety of grasses as well as supplementing their diet with leaves, bark and roots, especially during the dry season. Their stomachs always look full (irrespective of the abundance or lack of food) due to a digestive system that creates a lot of gas. This system is better at converting low quality nutrients into usable fuel. Even though you will not see a skinny zebra, you can generally tell if they are healthy by their mane. If it is erect then they are in good condition, if it is limp then they may be sick.
Pregnancy lasts 12-13 months. A foal can stand almost immediately and run within a day. They suckle on their mother’s milk for up to a year but start eating grass after only a week or so. A foal will stick close to its mother for the first year. The average infant mortality is about 50%, mostly due to lions and hyenas.