The Rarest Zebra in Africa

The first striped horses recorded from Africa were called kwaggas Equus quagga (a Khoi word from their cough-like vocalization: kwa-gga! kwa-gga!) They used to be the rarest of zebras, since Boer hunters through the 18th and 19th centuries shot them to extinction.

But then clever lab work revealed the quagga to be a color variant, and possible sub-species, of the plains or Burchell’s zebra. This news not only resurrected the animals but also led to a name change from E burchelli to E quagga.

Next contender for “rarest” was the mountain zebra, E equus, with one sub-species occurring in the Cape and the other in the Namibian highlands. The Cape’s population was shot to near extinction by the early 20th century, but conservation efforts have seen their numbers rise from tens to hundreds, and now an estimated population of some 2,500 individuals.

Numbering perhaps as many, or slightly more (or as few, depending), is the Grevy’s zebra of Kenya, with a small and fast declining population in Ethiopia. They were named after French premier Jules Grévy, to whom one was gifted by the government of Abyssinia in 1880.

The fundis (Swahili for experts) classify the mountain zebra as “rare” and the Grevy’s as “endangered” because in the case of the former population, the glass is half full, whereas for the latter it is half empty, if you get my drift.

Another thing the fundis have discovered is that zebras are black animals with white stripes and not the other way round. The collective noun for zebras is a “dazzle” and a most appropriate one: it is believed the vivid patterning is a survival adaptation, making it extremely difficult for predators to target one prey animal when the herd is galloping all adazzle.

If you visit Africa on safari you will want to see wildlife that is big and impressive (otherwise known as the Big Five), but nature cognoscenti will also want to see the rare and elusive. If you are visiting Kenya, that would include the Grevy’s zebra and the gerenuk, or long-necked gazelle. Both inhabit the harsher, drier northern areas such as Samburuland, Buffalo Springs and the Laikipia Plateau where monumental, ice-tipped Mount Kenya (Africa’s second highest peak) jabs its twin spear tips into the heavens.

Although well protected in conservation areas, the decline of Grevy’s zebras can be attributed mainly to human-wildlife conflict or, put another way, cattle-wildlife competition.

Grevy’s zebras need to drink only once every several days in order to survive, (unlike their plains cousins which must take water every day), which allows them to thrive in marginal areas. However, pastoralists such as the Samburu who live in the arid areas of Kenya, will fence or otherwise cut off watering places for the exclusive use of their herds, thus denying zebras and other wildlife of the region that essential resource.

The rarest zebra in Kenya, and indeed in Africa, is holding on, but it could do with a long hard drink – in both the collective and figurative senses.

The first version of this article was posted on 24 Dec 2019 at 10:46 PM.