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ZZebras, with the cheeky way they trot and their mesmerising stripes, are great animals to watch and photograph – and it’s always fun to introduce the kids to ‘horses in pyjamas’ on family holidays. Two species of zebra predominate in South Africa. One is so common that it is startling to find a nature reserve or park without it, while the other was almost driven to extinction by humans. 

The most common species is the plains zebra, of which the Burchell’s zebra, plentiful in South Africa, is 1 of 6 extant subspecies. Their distant cousins, the Cape mountain zebra (1 of 2 mountain zebra subspecies), are much rarer – in fact, a few decades ago, they looked as if they were on track to mirror the tragic fate of the quagga, another plains zebra subspecies, which was wiped out by human hunting in the 19th Century. 

You’ll see Burchell’s zebra almost everywhere – as a plains zebra subspecies, 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. 

Zebras form herds either in bachelor groups or ‘harem’ groups, each led by a dominant stallion. Harems will also be led by a dominant mare, although she remains subordinate to the stallion. 

Unlike many fussier grazers, Burchell’s zebra are happy to chew on whatever grass is in front of them. They can digest it thanks to a kind of bacteria in their digestive tracts. The same bacteria also bloats their stomachs – 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 in an area of the mountainous Karoo now called the Mountain Zebra National Park. 

Its numbers have yet to rise above 2 000, but 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 the evolution of large mammals. 

Did You Know?

TTravel 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 eponymous Mountain Zebra National Park near Cradock in Eastern Cape, or at De Hoop Nature Reserve near Hermanus in Western Cape. 

Best time to visit  

Zebras are visible all year round, but in late spring (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. A hat and sunscreen are also advised year-round. 

Where to stay  

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

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