There are in fact four species of zebra. These are the Plains Zebra, Grevy’s Zebra, Cape Mountain Zebra and Hartmann's Mountain Zebra. We have Plains Zebra at Taronga and Taronga Western Plains Zoos which are the most common of the four species in the wild.
Each zebra has a unique pattern of stripes, just like a human’s fingerprint. It is thought that this allows zebras to recognise individuals within their herd, and could be particularly useful for a mare and her foal, recognising each other . These stripes also help protect the zebra from predators. Together in a herd, the mass of stripes may help blur the shape of an individual zebra and so make it difficult to be singled out and chased by a lioness.
Zebras are highly social, living in family groups of five to 20. They sometimes mass together in their hundreds to migrate over the plains in the dry season. When migrating, the stallions travel at the front and the rear of the herd to protect the females and the young.
You will find zebras in the wild throughout Central and Southern Africa.
Distribution & Habitat
Plains Zebras are found throughout Central and Southern Africa (Southern Sudan through East Africa to the Zambezi River). Their primary habitat consists of grasslands, savannas, woodlands, thorny scrublands, mountains, and coastal hills.
Zebras reach sexual maturity at two to four years of age. Stallions will usually not have the chance to breed until they are four years old, due to older rival males. When competing for a mare, stallions will fight fiercely by kicking and biting. Once a dominant male is established in the herd, this hierarchy is rarely disputed unless the stallion gets sick or becomes unable to defend his position.
The gestation period of zebras is approximately 13 months (or 360 – 390 days). Since mares come into estrus postpartum, they can have a new foal almost every year.
Newborn zebra generally have wooly coats, brown stripes and are long-legged. The foal can stand within just 15 minutes of birth and can run within an hour. For the first 16 months of a zebra‘s life, the foal will suckle and therefore not stray for from its mother. All the zebras in the herd will work together to pretect any youngsters.
Zebra mortality in their first year is as high as 50%, largely because of hunting by lions and hyena.
Diet and Behaviour
Zebra are herbivorous. Their diet consists of a variety of grasses, bark, roots, stems and other browse including leaves and twigs. Availability of food is largely determined by the presence of water and, as such, it is important that zebras migrate to follow the rains. They are rarely further than 25 - 30 kilometres from a water source.
Plains Zebra are widely distributed and are classified as Least Concern by the IUCN (Plains & Grevy’s Zebra; Mountain Zebra: unknown status). Plains Zebra can be found throughout Central and Southern Africa and are locally common throughout this range. They are now extinct in two countries: Burundi and Lesotho. There is no information on their status in Angola, where they may also be extinct.
Human interference is the driving cause for the Plains Zebra reduced distribution and overall population size. Acitivites such as hunting for zebra hides and bush meat are key contributers. Humans also encroach on former zebra habitat. While human actions have not yet resulted in range-wide population declines, hunting and habitat loss is resulting in localized declines in some areas.
Individuals can make a positive difference to the increasing plight of zebraby not supporting the trade of animal products, such as products made from zebra hide.