Zebras, with the cheeky way they trot and their mesmerising stripes, are great animals to watch and photograph. The most common is the plains, or Burchell’s zebras. Their distant cousins, the Cape mountain zebras, are not nearly as plentiful, and a few decades ago they nearly became extinct.

Did you know?

Of all creatures in a typical zoo, zebras are the most likely to bite zookeepers.

There are two species of zebra in South Africa. One is so common it is startling to find a nature reserve or park without it. The other had a brief and almost calamitous flirtation with extinction.

The Burchell’s zebra is the species you’ll see almost everywhere. Also known as the plains zebra, it favours the largest ecosystem in the country – savannah.

Its distinguishing characteristics include a distinct portliness, a shadow stripe between the black stripes, and a fading of the markings on the leg and sometimes the rump. It is also unmistakably horsey. Anyone familiar with equine body language will immediately understand the dynamics of a zebra herd.

Zebra groups are either in bachelor groups or ‘harem’ groups, led by a dominant stallion.
Unlike many fussier grazers, Burchell’s zebras are happy to chew on whatever grass is in front of them. The reason they can digest it is thanks to a kind of bacteria that lives in their digestive tracts. The same bacteria also bloats their stomachs somewhat – hence their portliness, even during the gravest droughts.

Then there’s the Cape mountain zebra, which was saved in the very nick of time from extinction in the 1930s and 1940s in an area of the mountainous Karoo now called the Mountain Zebra National Park.

Its numbers have yet to rise above 2 000. Apart from that, the differences between the two species are quite clear. Unlike the plains zebra, the Cape mountain zebra prefers the rocky uplands.

Mountain zebras are much smaller than any other kind, have a chocolate orange colour on their muzzles, a small dewlap on their necks, larger ears, narrower stripes with no shadow stripes, fully striped legs, a white belly and a fetching gridiron pattern above their tails.

The reason zebras have stripes has been the subject of many theories, all of which may have an element of truth to them. The stripes confuse predators trying to cut individual animals out of a herd, says one theory. The tiny convection currents between white and black stripes keeps them cooler in summer, goes another. And because each zebra’s markings are slightly different, it is a kind of distinctive bar-code that helps foals identify their mothers, says a third.

A fourth theory was the subject of a study in 2012 that showed that blood-sucking flies bite striped pelts the least. The stripes seem to reflect light in a way that confuses the flies’ eyes. It seems even tiny creatures can affect evolution.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

SANParks reservations
Tel: +27 (0)12 428 9111

How to get here

Burchell’s zebras favour grasslands and savannahs and are found in practically every park, large or small. The Cape mountain zebra is much more specialised in its habitat preferences. The best place to see it is at the eponymously named Mountain Zebra National Park or at De Hoop Nature Reserve near Hermanus.

Best time to visit

Zebras are visible all year round but in early summer (October and November) you’ll be able to see foals.

Get around

Most of the parks where you’ll find zebra are suitable for self-drive game-viewing, although they’ll also be plentiful in more exclusive private parks.

What to pack

Bring along a long lens with your camera. Even if you get close to the zebras, their stripes can make amazing close-up patterns.

Where to stay

Your choices are more or less open if you want to see Burchell’s zebras. Practically all game reserves have them. To see mountain zebras, go to the Mountain Zebra National Park near Cradock, or to the De Hoop Nature Reserve in the Western Cape. They can also be seen at the Karoo National Park.