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Zebra: Striped Horses in Trouble
There are three main species of zebra in Africa: Plains, Mountain, and Grevy’s. Differentiation between the species can be made by their coats, in addition to their social behavior and geographic distribution. However, despite their differences, all three species of zebra have been similarly affected by humans throughout Africa. The spread of civilization has caused habitat loss, increased competition for resources, and poaching, all of which have contributed to the troubles of wild zebras in Africa.
How Nikela Helps
Although Nikela does not have a project that directly protects zebras, many awareness campaigns address the plight of Africa’s endangered and threatened wildlife species as a whole. Nikela is for preserving all wild things and their wild places.
Facts about Zebras
Plains Zebras can be found in the savannas of East and South Africa, from southern Sudan and southern Ethiopia, east of the Nile River, to southern Angola, northern Namibia and northern South Africa. They are now extinct in Burundi and Lesotho and may also be extinct in Angola, as there is no information on their status there.
The Mountain Zebra consists of two subspecies, the Cape Mountain and the Hartmann’s Mountain Zebras. Historically, they resided in the mountain grasslands in southwestern Africa, from the southern parts of South Africa through Namibia and into south-western Angola. Today, surviving populations of Cape Mountain Zebra occur only in the Mountain Zebra National Park, Gamka Mountain Reserve, and Kamanassie mountains in South Africa. The Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra are sporadically distributed in four populations across Namibia and are also in three conservation areas in the Northern Cape, South Africa.
The Grevy’s Zebras are now mostly restricted to areas in the Horn of Africa, specifically Kenya and Ethiopia, and are regionally extinct in Somalia and Sudan. The species once had a much wider range throughout Kenya and Ethiopia, but suffered one of the most substantial reductions in distribution of any African mammal.
As equines, zebras have horse-like bodies with short manes, tufted tails, and a distinctive black and white striped coat. Each individual has its own unique pattern of stripes, which allows fellow zebras to identify one another and helps confuse predators by preventing them from singling out any one in a herd.
Differentiation between the three zebra species can be made by looking at their coats. Plains Zebras have thicker stripes that run down over their bellies, Grevy’s Zebras are characterized by thinner stripes and a plain white underbelly, and Mountain Zebras possess a combination of the two with thick stripes and a white underside.
Zebras are herbivores that graze on grasses, leaves, twigs, and buds. They rely heavily on water holes and must reside near one, especially if feeding on coarse, dry grass.
Zebras are social animals that live in groups called harems. A harem consists of one male stallion, numerous females and their young. While Plains and Mountain Zebras are more social, living in larger groups of up to three hundred individuals, Grevy’s Zebras prefer to stay in smaller herds of one male with up to six females and their young. Zebras stay close to their family units, protecting each other if one gets injured, and grooming one another with their teeth as a show of affection.
In harems, zebras look out for one another by alerting the other members of predators through a loud bark or whinny. When faced with a predator, zebras often choose to act upon the “flight” instinct, using their long legs and great stamina to outrun danger. However, zebras have been known to also use their legs and teeth to kick and bite attackers.
Role in The Ecosystem
Zebras play an important role in their native ecosystem in three ways. First, they maintain vegetation, eating old plants and stems as they migrate. Because they consume lower quality plant matter and reduce old growth, they clear the way for new leaves and grasses and increase the overall quality of vegetation for other herbivores. Second, zebras are an important source of food for many of Africa’s carnivores, with as many as 30% killed by lions and hyenas. In return, the carnivores limit zebra populations and remove the sick individuals, which would otherwise overwhelm the region’s food resources and spread disease throughout the harem, respectively. Lastly, zebras serve as insect population controls by consuming the same plant matter that insects do. Without Zebras, the insect populations would increase significantly, causing problems of its own.
Overall, Plains Zebras number around 750,000, but there are only an estimated 1,200-1,500 Cape Mountain Zebras, 13,000 Hartmann’s Mountain Zebras, and 2,500 Grevy’s zebras remaining today.
Historically, the Cape Mountain Zebra was hunted to near extinction, down to a population of around just 100 in the 1930s. In 1998, the population was estimated to be 1,200 but there has been a steady increase in the populations to 1,389 in national parks and nature reserves. Also in 1998, the Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra was estimated at 25,000 with approximately 8,300 mature individuals. Limited data from Namibia indicates that populations are increasing in the north-western part of the country and from 2000 to 2006, numbers have increased from 6 to 27 individuals observed per 100 kilometers of road surveyed. The Grevy’s Zebra population was once estimated to be more than 15,000 in the 1970s but dropped to less than 3,500 by the early 21st century, a 75% decline.
Overall, the population trends for Plains and Grevy’s Zebras are stable, while those of the Mountain Zebras are unknown.
Modern man has a significant impact on the zebra. They were, and still are, hunted for their meat and unique skins, and they are losing their habitat, including access to water and food, to the growing human population and its livestock. Furthermore, climate change worsens the frequency and duration of droughts, which causes poses another threat to the species.
No major threats appear to be causing any wide-range population declines for the Plains Zebra, but habitat loss and overhunting are resulting in localized declines in some areas. Specifically, habitat loss appears to be more significant in the southern half of the Plains Zebra range and poaching is more of a concern in the northern half.
Although the Cape Mountain Zebra were once extensively hunted for their skins, their greatest threat today comes from the risk of crossing with Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra. The most significant threat to the Hartmann’s Mountain Zebras in Namibia is livestock production and farming activities that prevent access to food and water. In addition, there is a commercial trade trade in Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra skins that could provide a major threat.
The major threats to Grevy’s Zebra include habitat loss and degradation from overgrazing, the reduction of available water sources, competition for resources, hunting and disease. For instance, the primary cause of decline in Grevy’s Zebra in Ethiopia is killing the animal, while anthrax outbreaks in southern Samburu, Kenya killed several of the species.
Plains Zebras are the most numerous of the three species and are classified as Least Concern on the IUCN’s Red List, while Mountain Zebras are marked as Vulnerable and Grevy’s Zebras are Endangered. However, all three species have experienced declines in population over the past years, as all face the threat of habitat loss due to the spread of civilization throughout the African continent. The increasing encroachment of humans has caused the loss of grazing areas and water holes to livestock and for agriculture, making it more difficult for zebras to find sources of food and water. This results in many creatures flocking to one water hole in an area, which increases the transmission of diseases amongst zebras. Moreover, the hunting of Zebras for their distinctive coats has become a popular practice, placing Zebras in danger every day.
Policy, Laws and Conservation Efforts
The Plains Zebra is relatively resilient, demonstrating a remarkable ability to recover from population declines due to its major threats. Because of this, combined with their Least Concerned status, not many conservation actions are being taken. The Plains Zebra does occur in several protected areas across their range, including the Serengeti National Park (Tanzania), Tsavo and Masaai Mara (Kenya), Hwange National Park (Zimbabwe), Etosha National Park (Namibia), and Kruger National Park (South Africa).
Most surviving Cape Mountain Zebras reside in national parks or nature reserves, while the Hartmann’s Mountain Zebras occur in four key protected areas in Namibia. Population management efforts also help the species survive the major threats they face today.
Although the Grevy’s Zebra is listed as Endangered, less than 0.5% of the Grevy’s Zebra’s range falls under protected areas. The species is legally protected in Ethiopia, but official protection has been limited while community-based conservation efforts have been the most effective. However, Kenya has recently taken steps to develop a national conservation strategy for the zebra. The species was listed as a ‘Game Animal’ under the Wildlife Conservation and Management Act No. 376 of 1976, but is currently being designated as a legally ‘Protected Animal’ in Kenya. In addition, the species has been protected by a hunting ban in Kenya since 1977. Several other conservation actions focus on the species including protection of water sources, management of protected areas, community conservation and monitoring of numbers in the wild.
Contributed by Nikela Volunteer Mikaela Rakos
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