Dazzling zebras in need of conservation


While conservation efforts have aided the Grevy and mountain zebra species, plains zebra research is a horse of a different colour.

Barcodes and pedestrian crossings are inspired by the zebra and this charismatic safari animal is the national animal of Botswana. Despite its photogenic appearance. the zebra is relatively overlooked. All zebras are not equal as there are three different species: the plains zebra that occur in open savannas, the mountain zebra of mountainous terrain, and the Grevy’s zebra in semi-arid areas.

Zebras play an important role in the function of grassland ecosystems. “Unlike most of the grazers on
the African savanna. zebras are not ruminants. They digest food differently and can get their nutrition from a high-bulk diet. rather than having to find the most nutritious vegetation.” says Dr Sarah King of the IUCN/SSC Equid Specialist Group. “They consume different grasses of different heights from other grazers. so they help maintain diverse grasslands.”


Cape mountain zebra

Cape mountain zebra

The Cape mountain zebra is a conservation success story due to effective management. Today. this Cape floral kingdom endemic species has been conditionally downlisted on CITES. In 207 5 the population was estimated at 4 797 individuals. “There is still concern about the loss of genetic diversity and the risk of hybridisation with Hartmann”s mountain zebra and plains zebra.” warns King. “Hybridisation is likely to have always happened at a low level in areas where both species are present. especially species like the mountain and plains zebra that have the same social system.” says King.

Hartmann’s mountain zebra

Harems of Hartmann’s mountain zebra can be found in escarpment areas with abundant grass species in Namibia. Angola and the Northern Cape province of South Africa. The mountain zebra species are recognisable by their distinguished dewlap.

Hartmann’s mountain zebra

There are five existing species of the water-loving plains zebra. and an estimated 500 000 plains zebra in Africa. The population has undergone a 24% decline since 2002. which is concerning. “There is surprisingly little information on the charismatic savanna fauna like plains zebra.” says King. “We badly need to know what is driving their decline.” While more is known about the Grevy’s and mountain zebra. it appears the common zebra species has been hiding in plain sight of research funding.

Maneless zebra

The maneless zebra subspecies has the northernmost range of the plains zebra. Its mane resembles a clipped polo pony. and it has particularly striking ebony and ivory markings.

Maneless zebra. Photo: Peter Prokosch

Grant’s zebra

The Grant’s zebra is the smallest and arguably the most well known of the plains zebra. as it takes
part in the Great Migration. There are an estimated 200 000 Grant’s zebra in the greater Serengeti/Mara ecosystem. according to the IUCN report compiled by King.

Crawshay’s zebra

Dazzles of Crawshay’s zebra can be seen in Zambia. Malawi. Tanzania and Mozambique. It is differentiated by its lower incisors. which lack the funnel shape of other plains zebra. and has thinner barcode-like stripes.

Crawshay’s zebra. Photo: Prabir Bhattacharyya

Chapman’s zebra

Moving south, the Chapman’s zebra is found in South Africa. Zimbabwe. Botswana. Namibia and Angola. It is recognised by its stocky build and shadow stripes.

Chapman’s zebra. Photo: Joaquín Romero

Burchell’s zebra

Geographically. the Burchell’s zebra has the southernmost range and is the only plains zebra species legally allowed to be consumed. It has prominent shadow stripes and is known for the longest migration routes of any zebra. prior to modern­day fencing. Surprisingly. a 207 7 study by Dr Hattie Bartlam-Brooks from the University of Bristol found that zebras resumed their same migration routes once fences were removed. even if the route had been blocked for over 30 years.

Prior to modern-day fencing, Burchell’s zebra is known for the longest  migration routes


The quagga became extinct in the late 19th century due to hunting. The Quagga Project has resulted in a quagga-like animal known as the Rau quagga by breeding plains zebra with quagga attributes.
A University of Copenhagen study revealed there is remarkably little genetic diversity between subspecies.
‘There is a danger in assuming that zebra do not need conservation as we are so familiar with pictures of massive herds migrating. but like the giraffe. cheetah and lion there are fewer than expected.” says King.

Grevy’s Zebra

The critically endangered Grevy’s zebra has large ears and is the closest to a field guide’s term of endearment of a  donkey in pajamas. The Grevy’s zebra occurs in Kenya and in small numbers in Ethiopia. It is regionally extinct in Sudan and Somalia. The Grevy·s zebra differs from other zebras as it is less dependent on water and has a fission-fusion (loose) social structure. says Belinda Low Mackey from the Grevy’s Zebra Trust.

The largest threats to zebras today are habitat degradation. competition with domestic livestock. reduced access to water. range restriction. and hunting for bushmeat and hides.

Written by Georgina Lockwood 

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