Zebras crossing

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The most famous migration is no doubt the wildebeest participation in the Great Migration of the Serengeti-Masai Mara Ecosystem. The second largest wildebeest migration takes place in Liuwa Plain National Park, Zambia.

But wildebeest are not the only animals that migrate. New research has revealed that Botswana’s zebra undertake one of the longest mammal migrations in the world.

Robin Naidoo, PhD and lead scientist for wildlife conservation at World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and Mike Chase from Elephants Without Borders, simultaneously observed a seasonal migration of Burchell’s zebra (Equus quagga burchellii) from Chobe National Park and the adjacent Salambala conservancy in Namibia to Nxai Pan National Park in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. This is the largest transfrontier conservation area in the world.

Signalled by the first rains, the zebras complete the first part of the journey over two to three weeks, typically in December. “The rainy season allows the zebra to thrive away from permanent water sources,” Naidoo explains. They remain in Nxai Pan for approximately 10 weeks before returning to the Chobe River along the Namibia-Botswana border for the dry season. The round trip is close to 500km.

“Up to several thousand zebra take part in the migration,” he adds. “It is likely the migration remained unnoticed because the zebra numbers are relatively small.” Satellite tracking collars were crucial to the discovery, and eight adult female zebras were collared in Naidoo’s study.

During the study, Naidoo determined there were several other suitable grazing destinations closer to the Chobe River that the zebra could have chosen. Instead, the Burchell’s zebra opt to migrate further distances to the Nxai Pan. This information suggests this is cultural and/or genetic behaviour on the zebra’s part. Cultural behaviour in animals is socially learned information that is passed down from one generation to the next.

Animal migrations during the wet season allow vegetation to regrow near permanent water sources like the Chobe River. “Vegetation can become trampled during the dry season when animals come to drink,” Naidoo explains. “We can preserve iconic wildlife migrations only if we are aware of them,” he adds. In other parts of Africa, fences and changes in land use threaten zebra migrations, and the vegetation and wildlife suffer as a result. “Phenomena like this newly discovered migration show these animals need large, wide-open spaces to survive,” Naidoo says.

Sketch: Graham Kearney

Written by Georgina Lockwood

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