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Online Extra
September 2003



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Zebras: Born to Roam








By Jennifer Steinberg Holland
Splendor on the grassland, zebra mothers and foals rush through a pasture in Kenya on an endless migration.
 
Some graze while others gaze in the mist of Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve, where small family groups of plains zebras (Equus burchelli) unite to form herds of hundreds. This is the only one of the world's three zebra species not endangered.
 
Stallions may go for the throat in battle but rarely do serious harm. Such fights often ensue when a rival tries to filch a filly from another male's family. A stallion reigns over a group of up to ten females and offspring.
 
Perhaps it was a playful doodle by the Designer of Wild Things that led to the zebra: a horse in costume (candy wrapper? prison garb?) animating Africa's vast stage. Why the dizzying stripes, with no two coats quite the same? No one's sure, but the pattern may repel insects or distort the animal's outline in dim light, confusing predators. Celebrated for their epic migration of more than 300 miles (483 kilometers), some 200,000 plains zebras follow the rain, sweeping clockwise through Tanzania into lusher Kenya in the dry season, then south again to foal on the storm-soaked Serengeti Plain. Anup Shah and his brother, Manoj, spent a year photographing these flamboyant cousins to the horse, finding a visual feast in the animals' giant herds and athletic strides. "With zebras," says Anup, "you just point the camera at the fantastic view."
 
Bathed in dust and light, a zebra revels on a rough patch of ground in Masai Mara, scratching and cleaning its skin. Others wait their turn to romp and roll on this favored spot. 
 
Near Serengeti's southern edge a lioness eyed grazing zebras for half an hour, weighing her chances of taking one down alone. With cat stealth, chest low, she slunk closer, ignoring nearby wildebeests and watchful gazelles. Suddenly she burst into a run and leaped toward her prey. As startled animals scattered in panic, claws tore into the victim's rump; it stumbled and fell. In Masai Mara another lone lioness prevailed, catching a herd off guard to snatch a foal from its midst. Hyenas and wild dogs also have a taste for zebra. Says Anup, "The drama of life and death keeps us coming back."
 
Green grasses beckon from the far side of the Mara River in Kenya, enticing zebras to try a treacherous crossing. As they pile in and plow ahead, crocodiles lurk midstream, hoping for a kill. On dry land zebras mingle with like-minded masses—well over a million wildebeests and gazelles—sharing pastures but grazing on different plant parts, minimizing competition. With Serengeti rain zebras pause to foal, and new life rises on wobbly legs, soon ready to roam.

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