THE first day I came into close proximity with a zebra was in the year 2002 at the Dar es Salaam International Trade Fair (DITF) also known as Saba Saba Day.
The Ministry of Tourism and Natural Resources had brought wildlife and set up temporary zoo for an exhibition intended to give the visitors a taste of what walking into a national park feels like. My mom firmly held my hand for obvious reasons and I was so tempted to touch a zebra and get a feel of its fur.
I wanted to know if there would be any difference in texture between the white fur and the black fur on its skin but they wouldn’t let me. I doubt even the zebra itself would let anybody come close to it, let alone touch it because their survival instinct is built around fear- Run.
Fifteen years later after traveling and seeing a lot, I came to realization that zebras are one of the animals that I truly find amusing and that was when I asked myself one mind-boggling question, “Are zebras black with white stripes or white with black stripes?”
Visiting national parks, doing game drives and wildlife photography as I continued expanding my knowledge from wide array of sources have helped me crack open the zebra code and find the answer to my question which I will share with you in this black and white feature but first let’s get to understand what a zebra really is.
Zebras scientifically belong to the Equus genus in the Equidae family together with horses and donkeys and apparently one does not need a zoology degree to spot the similarities between them.
Types of zebras
There are three recognized types of zebras. The first type is the Grevy’s Zebra. This is the strongest and calmest type of zebra and back in the days was used to carry cargo just like donkeys.
They have a huge body build and their most preferred habitat is the arid lands. The second type is the Mountain Zebra and as its name suggests, this type of zebra habits the mountains.
The mountain zebra has a relatively smaller body build than the grevy’s and its belly does not have any stripes underneath. Mountain zebras live in small groups and on most occasions the male owns a couple of females while other unfortunate males live in separate groups.
Plain Zebra is the third and my personal favorite type of zebra. This type of zebra lives in the savannah plains of East and Southern Africa and intermediate in size between the grevy’s and mountain zebra and tends to have broader stripes than both. They are the most common type of zebras found in our national parks and their bellies are striped.
Spoiler alert: Zebras are black mammals with white stripes. Unless there is a pigment deficiency or environmental adaptation, most zebras have dark skin beneath their black and white fur, if we shave the fur off the zebra then one might as well think it’s a black horse. All the fur grows from follicles that contain the pigment-generating melanocyte cells.
It’s just that in the white fur, these melanocytes are deactivated. This implies that black is the default color of the fur and that’s why most authorities and experts describe zebras as black with white stripes. Zebras can weigh between 200kg up to 400kg making them the most favorable meal for the hunting lion pride because the steak is enough for the whole team.
Zebras live up to thirty years and sometimes they exceed to thirty years when life risks are lower or when kept in captivity. A zebra calf is able to walk twenty minutes after it’s born and can start running just after a few hours.
Zebras move at a maximum speed of 60km/h and this leads to the estimation if it starts a trip from Dar Es Salaam to Bagamoyo, it will arrive at its destination in an hour. Zebras are pretty good swimmers too.
Whenever in danger, the zebra’s primary protection mechanism is to run away from the danger and that does not usually end well because predators like lions, leopards and cheetahs are faster than the zebra, making it the most favorable prey above the fast paced gazelle, the fibrous meat wildebeest and the tough unbothered and buffalo that takes at least three lions to take it down.
More than 200,000 zebras participate in the annual great wildebeest migration from Serengeti National Park in in Tanzania to Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya and it is the oldest zebra that leads the convoy- Protocols are in place.
Zebras join antelopes and wildebeests in search of pastures up north leaving behind a scarcity of ungulates, hence causing a trail of predators who follow the migration in search of prey. About 3,000 lions follow the migration keenly. Zebras graze together in groups as their secondary protection mechanism. How?
See, when zebras are numerous and close together it becomes extremely difficult for predators to spot their body parts hence causing a blinding camouflage effect. Lions get blinded all the time and when they take their chances in the herd of zebras, it is always a sad story about a lion getting kicked to the point of losing its life if it does not flee the scene early enough.
There is a Swahili proverb that says, “Gratitude of a donkey is a kick,” and this has everything to do with the zebra who is the donkey’s cousin.
Zebras, donkeys and horses are globally acclaimed for their strong limbs where for centuries they have been trusted by our fore fathers as the most reliable means of transport back in the medieval times and they have never disappointed the human race when it came to shipping passengers and cargo to long distances.
Humans have for long tried to domesticate zebras without success, these striped ungulates are indomitable. Personally, I’ve thought about domesticating a zebra for research purposes so as to study and discover new groundbreaking knowledge about these beauties.
One thing that I find so intriguing about zebras is the fact that they sleep while standing. Have you ever tried to voluntarily sleep while standing? Let me know when you try because I have and you don’t want to know how it went down.
Nasibu Mahinya is the Co-founder of Hookit, a Dar Es Salaam-based Multimedia, Digital Marketing and Information Technology Company. Nasibu@hookit.co.tz