The Zebra—Africa’s Wild Horse

BY AWAKE! WRITER IN AFRICA

A THOUSAND zebras run freely across the African grassland. Their striped flanks heave as their thickly maned necks rock to the rhythm of their powerful movements. The sound of their hooves pounding the parched earth rumbles across the plains. A cloud of red dust billows upward behind them and can be seen for miles. They run, free and wild, with no sense of restraint.

As if by some unseen signal, they begin to slow and then stop. With their strong, thick teeth, they tug at the dry grass. The herd is alert, occasionally looking up, listening, and smelling the air. Carried by the wind, the distant sound of a lion’s roar reaches their ears, and they tense. They know the sound well. With ears held high, grass hanging motionless from their mouths, the zebras look in the direction of the moaning cry. Sensing no immediate danger, they bend their necks again and continue grazing.

When the sun’s heat begins to intensify, they are on the move again. This time it is the smell of water that draws the wild horses toward a river. On a high bank, they stop and stare down at the slow-moving brown water, snorting and pawing at the dry dust. They hesitate, aware of some potential danger beneath the river’s placid surface. But their thirst is strong, and some begin to push forward. With one last headlong thrust, they run to the river’s edge. One by one they drink their fill, then turn and head back onto the open plains.

By evening the herd move unhurriedly through the tall grass. Silhouetted against the deep red  glow of the setting sun and framed by the beauty of the African veld, they look magnificent.

Striped and Social

The daily routine for zebras is always the same. Their constant search for food and water keeps them on the move. Grazing on the open plains, zebras look clean and fat, their striped skin stretched tight over their muscular bodies. The zebra’s stripes are unique, and as some claim, no two patterns are exactly alike. Their striking white and black stripes seem odd among the other animals of the plain. Yet, their appearance is appealing and belongs to the very wildness of Africa itself.

Zebras are extremely social in nature. Individual animals form strong bonds that can last a lifetime. Although a large herd may number several thousand animals, it is divided into many smaller family units that consist of a stallion and his mares. This small family unit maintains order by strictly separating its members by rank. The dominant female determines the family’s movements. She takes the lead, with the other mares and their foals following in single file according to rank. Ultimately, though, the stallion is in charge. If he wants his family to change course, he approaches the lead mare and nudges her in the new direction.

Zebras love to be groomed, and it is common to see them rubbing and nibbling at one another’s flanks, shoulders, and backs. Mutual grooming seems to strengthen the bond between individual animals and starts when babies are only a few days old. If another member of the family is not available to do the grooming, the itchy zebras find relief by rolling in the dust or rubbing their bodies against a tree, termite mound, or other stationary object.

The Struggle for Survival

A zebra’s life is fraught with danger. Lions, wild dogs, hyenas, leopards, and crocodiles all consider the 550-pound [250 kg] animal fair game. A zebra can sprint up to 35 miles per hour [55 kph], but it is sometimes caught off guard by predators that use surprise and stealth. Lions wait in ambush, crocodiles lurk beneath muddy waters, and leopards lie in wait under the cover of darkness.

The zebras’ defenses depend upon the alertness and community action of members of the herd. While most sleep at night, there are always some that are awake, listening and keeping watch. If a zebra spots an approaching predator, it sounds an alarm snort that signals the whole herd. Often, when one member of the herd is sick or old and cannot keep up, the other zebras will deliberately slow down  or wait until the slower animal can join the herd again. When danger threatens, the stallion fearlessly positions himself between the predator and the mares, biting and kicking at the enemy so as to give the herd time to escape.

Such family cohesion is illustrated by a remarkable incident that occurred on the Serengeti Plain in Africa, as witnessed by the naturalist Hugo van Lawick. Relating how a pack of wild dogs began chasing a herd of zebras, he said that the dogs were able to isolate a female zebra, her young foal, and a yearling. As the rest of the zebra herd galloped away, the mother and yearling bravely fought off the dogs. Soon the dogs became more aggressive, and the mare and the yearling began to tire. The end seemed certain. Van Lawick recalls the hopeless scene: “Suddenly I felt the ground vibrating and, looking around, I saw, to my amazement, ten zebras fast approaching. A moment later this herd closed its ranks around the mother and her two offspring and then, wheeling around, the whole closely packed group galloped off in the direction from which the ten had come. The dogs chased them for 50 yards [50 m] or so but were unable to penetrate the herd and soon gave up.”

Raising a Family

The female zebra is protective of her newborn foal and  initially keeps it from the other members of the herd. During this intimate period of isolation, the infant is able to bond with its mother. The young foal memorizes the white and black striped pattern that is unique to its mother. Thereafter, it will recognize its mother’s call, scent, and striped pattern and will not accept any other female.

Newborn foals are not born with the distinctive white and black stripes of their parents. Their stripes are reddish-brown and will only turn black with age. Within the larger herd, foals from various family groups gather together for play. They race and chase one another, kicking and running among the adults, who sometimes join them in play. Galloping on their spindly legs, the foals make a game out of chasing birds and other small animals. Baby zebras, with their long, slender legs, large black eyes, and lustrous, soft coats, are beautiful little animals and a delight to watch.

Wild and Wonderful

Today large herds of zebras can still be seen running wild and free over the vast golden grasslands of Africa. It is a spectacular sight.

Who would deny that the zebra, with its unique white and black striped pattern, fierce family loyalty, and wild and free spirit, is a majestic and wonderful creature? Learning about such an animal answers a question that was posed thousands of years ago: “Who sent forth the zebra free?” (Job 39:5) The answer is clear. It is the Designer of all living creatures, Jehovah God.

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Why Does the Zebra Have Stripes?

Those who believe in evolution find the zebra’s stripes difficult to explain. Some have thought that they may act as a warning mechanism. It is evident, though, that lions and other large predators are not in the least bit frightened by the zebra’s stripes.

Others have suggested that the stripes serve as a means of sexual attraction. However, since all zebras are striped in a similar way and their stripes are not specific to any one sex, this does not seem to be likely.

Another theory is that the white and black design evolved in order to help dissipate heat from the hot African sun. But why, then, do other animals not have stripes?

One prevailing theory is that the zebra evolved stripes to serve as a form of camouflage. Scientists have discovered that the rising heat from the African plains does indeed distort and blur the zebra’s image, making it difficult to see one from a distance. However, such long-distance camouflage would be of little advantage, since lions, the zebra’s main enemy, attack only at close range.

It has also been claimed that in a stampede the moving mass of striped zebra bodies confuse hunting lions, interfering with their ability to focus on individual animals. Yet, in reality, wildlife studies have shown that lions are just as skillful and successful when hunting zebras as they are when hunting other animals.

Adding more confusion to the question is the fact that the zebra’s stripes may at times even prove to be a liability for the animal. At night, out on the moonlit plains, the zebra’s white and black striped pattern makes it even more visible than other animals that are solid colored. Since lions usually hunt at night, this would seem to put the zebra at a distinct disadvantage.

So where did the zebra get its stripes? The key to understanding this can be found in the simple statement: “The hand of Jehovah itself has done this.” (Job 12:9) Yes, the Creator designed earth’s creatures with distinctive attributes and qualities that for reasons man may not fully comprehend marvelously equip them for life. The wondrous design in living things serves another purpose. It brings happiness, pleasure, and delight to the hearts of man. Indeed, the beauty of creation has moved many today to feel the way David did long ago: “How many your works are, O Jehovah! All of them in wisdom you have made. The earth is full of your productions.”—Psalm 104:24.