Derivation of scientific name
The species name burchellii is derived from the name of the British explorer and naturalist, William John Burchell.
Burchell’s zebra, zebra, plains zebra (Eng.), idube (Zulu); bontsebra (Afr.); lidvuba (Swati), idube (Ndebele); mangwa (Tsonga); pitse ya naga (Tswana) and iqwarhashe (Xhosa); mangwa (Xitsonga).
The striking black and white colours of the coat of the Burchell’s zebra are breath taking. The patterns formed by these stripes are unique to each individual; which is why you will hear people say that no two zebras are completely the same.
How to recognise Burchell’s zebra
Burchell’s zebra, which is also known as the plains zebra, has black and white stripes all over its body with only a few or fading stripes on the legs. Each zebra has unique stripes that can be used as an identification character to distinguish between individuals – similar to fingerprints in humans. The stripes on the sides run down and join under the belly. Burchell’s zebra can be mistaken for the mountain zebra, but the stripes on the legs (fading stripes in Burchell’s zebra vs. clear stripes on mountain zebra) and belly are distinct (in the mountain zebra, the belly is all white with no stripes).
Burchell’s zebra also have smaller ears when compared to those of the mountain zebra. There is a short mane down the back of the neck. The tail has long black hair at the end. Males are slightly larger than the females, and they have a narrow black stripe running vertically between their hind legs. In females this stripe is wider. Males grow to between 1.35 and 1.37 m at the shoulder and their weight is between 290 and 340 kg, while females weigh about 260 kg.
Zebras are quadrupeds – they have four legs. When moving, they step with left hind leg followed by their left foreleg, then the right hind leg finally followed by right foreleg.
Its alarm call is a high-pitched ‘kwa-ha’. They also make snorting, barking and baying sounds.
Burchell’s zebra is distributed from East Africa going down to the northern and eastern regions of southern Africa. In South Africa they are widely distributed in Mpumalanga (Kruger National Park) down to KwaZulu-Natal and in the Western Cape. They also occur in the Free State.
Burchell’s zebra occur throughout all habitats like open woodlands and grasslands except where there are dense shrubs and where there are tree thickets or dense riparian vegetation. They are strictly water-dependent; therefore they rarely move more than 12 km from waterholes.
The highest populations of zebras are found on open plains where they commonly associate with wildebeest. They adapt easily and are not discouraged by broken or mountainous terrain where they occur widely as well. Burchell’s zebra is a migratory species; their movements are largely determined by the availability of food, water and newly burnt areas.
Zebras are grazers and are capable of grazing grass shoots at ground level. Main periods of feeding are in the early mornings and late afternoons when it is cooler. They also commonly feed on ground-level grass that has been recently burnt and is starting to send out green shoots. During the dry season they dig out underground tubers and rhizomes. They are water-dependent, which means that they need to drink water often.
They prefer fresh, green grass shorter than 350 mm, but they will sometimes consume tall grass. Occasionally they browse on mopane leaves (Colophospermum mopane). Zebras are classified as unselective bulk feeders and are therefore less sensitive to food quality when compared to other large herbivores. They can maintain a good body condition even on very poor forage. They drink at least once a day and they strongly prefer clean water.
SEX and LIFE CYCLES
Reproductive receptiveness of the females is checked by the males, which they do by sniffing the mares’ urine. Receptive females will stand with their legs straddled, their tails held to one side and their mouth wide open with lips drawn back. The female’s vulva swells and discharges mucus. Females are sexually receptive for up to 5 days and if mating takes place during this period, it can lead to conception. Copulation is repeated once every 1–3 hours for about a day.
The female conceives one offspring; twins have never been recorded. The gestation period is between 360 and 390 days. Foals are born at any time of the year, with birth rates peaking during summer (October–March). The birth weight of a foal is 30–35 kg and it will gain about 0.5 kg a day. After birth they can stand up within 11 minutes, walk within 19 minutes and suckle within 67 minutes. Zebras can live up to 9 years and in captivity up to 40 years.
Stallion zebras are not territorial and their ranges are unstable and temporary; these vary from 100 km2 up to 600 km2. In each herd there is a dominant stallion, a dominant mare that is a leader, and about four to eight mares with their young offspring of both sexes. Groups are bonded by mutual grooming. The herd size ranges from 50 up to 80 animals, though larger groups do occur in larger conservation areas. Young males are chased out of the herd by their mothers when they reach the age of 12–14 months.
Males that are not included in breeding herds form a bachelor group of about 15 males and dominance is determined by age or inhibited fighting amongst each other. When herd stallions meet they sniff nose to nose, then rub their necks together and sniff each others genitals, stamp their feet and toss their heads. If a stallion is being submissive, it then lowers it head, moves it ears backwards and makes chewing movements. Dominant stallions hold their heads up with ears cocked forward or turned inwards and back, showing the teeth and chasing. Stallions fight for breeding rights and access to herd females.
THE BIG PICTURE
Friends and foes
Zebras are grazers and therefore play a role in controlling the growth of grass. They are a source of food to many predators and are mainly preyed upon by lions and spotted hyenas, which hunt the adult zebras. Foals are preyed upon by lions, spotted hyenas, cheetahs and leopards. Zebras are usually found sharing the veld with wildebeest, blesbok and other antelope. Their competitors are mostly domestic livestock, as they compete for food and water.
Unlike antelopes, zebras do not have horns, but they have adapted to use their teeth and hind hoofs to fight with predators or other zebras. Zebras also use the striped patterns of their skin to distract predators; when being attacked, they all stick together and their skin patterns (zebra stripes) will confuse the predator. Zebras that move away from the group are more vulnerable to attack. The stallions defend their herd by running in the rear as they flee together kicking and biting any attackers.
Poorer world without me
Zebras are slowly losing their habitat, mainly because of the spread of agricultural activities. They are also hunted by humans for their skin and so that domestic livestock can have large room for grazing. If these activities are not reigned in, zebras will be lost to South African ecotourism; predator numbers also depend on the availability of prey, and a reduction in zebra numbers will therefore also impact big-5 tourism.
People and I
There is a common legend in indigenous folk lore is about how the zebra got it stripes. The story goes that there was a white donkey and a black horse that didn’t get along. One day they were brought together by the jungle goddess and turned into one: a black and white animal called a zebra. For years people have been enjoying telling this story.
People hunt zebra for their beautiful skin.
Conservation status and what the future holds
Burchell’s zebra is classified by the IUCN conservation status as Least Concern.
The closest relatives of Burchells’ zebra in southern Africa are the two subspecies of Equus zebra (Mountain zebra). The two subspecies of mountain zebra are Equus zebra zebra (Cape mountain zebra), which occur in the mountainous regions of the Western and Eastern Cape provinces, and Equus zebra hartmannae (Hartmann’s mountain zebra), found in western Namibia and southwestern Angola. Some experts do not support the recognition of two subspecies of mountain zebra as they are too close genetically. Mountain zebra’s conservation status is Vulnerable. Equus grevyi (Grévyi zebra) is Endangered, and is found in other African countries. The family of Equidae also includes Equus ferus (horses) and Equus africanus (donkeys).
Scientific name: Equus quagga burchellii
Species: E. quagga Gray, 1824
Subspecies: E. quagga burchellii
References and further reading
- Pienaar, U., Joubert, S., Hall-Martin, A., De Graaff, G. & Rautenbach, I. 1987. Field guide to the mammals of the Kruger National Park. Struik, Cape Town.
- Apps, P. 2000. Smithers’ mammals of southern Africa: a field guide. Struik, Cape Town.
- Bothma, J. & Du Toit, J.G. (eds). 2010. Game ranch management. 5th edition. Van Schaik Publishers, Cape Town.
Author: Charlie Maimela
Kwelera National Botanical Garden