Monday, October 24, 2011

Zebra - Its More than the Largest Size

Steve Erickson was one of the class clowns (if not the) class clown) in my seventh grade class. If ever there was a time when levity was needed Steve seemed to know instinctively what to say and how to say it to make everyone around him laugh. Steve and I were the acolytes for Faith Lutheran Church in the seventh grade. That responsibility meant that not only did we light the candles on the altar before a service started but we also extinguished the lights after the service. And, once a month, we were responsible for filling all of the little wine glasses used for communion. I remember one February Sunday morning in the seventh grade when we were filling the wine glasses and Steve said, straight faced, "You know Craig, wine can go bad. I think we need to test this wine to make sure its safe for everyone to drink." Not knowing any better I believed Steve and we tested the wine. We "tested" about one half of a bottle of red wine to confirm that it was safe and even broke into a second bottle of wine to make sure it was safe just in case. We had an uproariously good time bringing the wine glasses out to the altar for Pastor Vocke to distribute. And nobody came down ill that day. We had made sure they wouldn't.

On the day in September 2011 when I saw my first wild zebra I instantly thought of Steve Erickson (who, unfortunately, died of some form of cancer almost 3 years ago). There was a girl in our class (who will not be named but everyone from that class reading this knows who I am talking about) who was, let's say, at the front of the line when breast development was first handed out. Making matters worse, when boys are in the seventh grade our entire existence is controlled by raging hormones that seem to drip into our blood streams at the most inopportune time.

Like the day we found a crack in the window to the girls locker room where Steve, myself, and a couple of other classmates (who will not be named to protect the complicit) had staked ourselves out hoping to get a glimpse of not only her but of "them." As the tension grew to a crescendo Steve knew how to put everyone at ease when he asked "So, do you know what a zebra is?" Foolishly I said "Its kind of a horse that lives in Africa." Steve flashed his silver front tooth, snickered, and said "no you idiot, its what (she) wears. Its the largest size there is."

Plains zebra may not be the largest size there is but it is one of the species that upon seeing it you have no doubt in your mind that you are in Africa. My first wild plains zebra was a group of them foraging on a grassland near Polakwane, South Africa on September 9, 2011. They were the second large mammal I saw in that country and on my trip (Sable Antelope was first).

The discontinuous range of plains zebra in Africa
Plains zebra was fairly common throughout Kruger National Park and in other areas like Sani Pass, along the Indian Ocean from Durban to St. Lucia Wetlands National Park, at Addo Elephant National Park and on some private wildlife preserves near Cape Town. There is another species of zebra called Cape Mountain Zebra that is protected in an isolated national park that I never visited. I would have enjoyed seeing that species as well.

Like so many other savanna species, the coat of the plains zebra is perfect for helping the animal hide from predators. Look at these zebras photographed in Mozambique that are standing in a mopani forest that has yet to leaf out.

The black and white barring on the zebra coat blends nicely with the black and white background of this forest before it was completely leafed out. Predators would likely have to look twice to see a zebra standing still in this habitat. In fact, the most noticeable adaptation of plains zebras is its stripes. The stripes of the zebra may help to visually confuse its predators, mainly lions. There are other theories of why zebras have stripes; one being that the stripes may help regulate its body temperature.

One of the sources I read about zebras mentioned the propensity of young males to run around kicking their heels in the air for no other reason than they can. One morning at Satara Rest Camp I was stopped from traveling by a large herd of zebra who were crossing the road at their own speed. In the herd was at least two young males who were doing just that - kicking their heels and braying. This went on until an obviously older member of the herd walked over and bit one of the young males on the neck. The kicking stopped immediately.

Zebra are one of the principal prey items for lions and leopards. Their anti-predator defenses are simply to run (with their fingers crossed) and to kick or bite. Biting at lion that is hell bent on making you into lunch is definitely a career-limiting move but kicking a lion might send a message. Not only are the young zebra blowing off steam when they run around kicking the air I think they are also learning how to defend themselves from being lion fodder.

My most favorite plains zebra picture. This was taken at the St. Lucia Wetlands National Park north of Richard's Bay
As with so many other wildlife species in Africa it was refreshing to see plains zebra in as much apparent abundance as I did. I found them before I arrived in Kruger National Park and in many places outside of that huge park as well as other private areas. One day near Sani Pass when I was watching a herd grazing on the side of a mountain I had a fantasy that they were actually American bison and I was actually on the prairie in North Dakota and all around me was nothing but native grassland. The zebra-bison grazed from dawn to dusk in an almost endless parade across the prairie finally disappearing at sunset.

None of us will ever see that spectacle again on the great plains of North America because bison have been relegated to second class citizenship and are tucked away on national wildlife refuges and national parks and some private conservation areas. Now what they used to roam freely on has been converted to hard-red spring wheat, or sunflowers, or corn or soybeans.

However you can still get a feeling for what it was once like back before plows and European settlers spoiled everything by heading to southern Africa and finding herds of zebra and herds of impala and other species that still live sort of as it used to be. I hope they always do.