The zebra is an African equid found on the grassy plains of Africa’s game reserves. It’s a common herbivore found in great numbers, which means it rarely gets much attention. Particularly if there is the chance of spotting any of the Big Five.
A zebra is a zebra, is a zebra…But is it?
There are three species of zebra – Burchell’s (Equus burchelli), Grevy’s (Equus grevyi) and Mountain zebras (Equus zebra) – all of them characterised by wide horizontal black and white stripes.
The function of these stripes is still open to debate. Some people think it’s camouflage, whilst others site a socialisation function by which zebras are drawn to one another, to the exclusion of any non-striped equids (horses, asses).
The Cape mountain zebra is different from the other two species, however….
The vertical black lines on its neck and torso are thinner, more numerous and closer together than Burchell’s zebra. The black horizontal bands on its haunches are broader than either Burchell’s or Grevy’s zebra.
But its most distinguishable feature (and the one way to easily tell if you are looking at a Mountain zebra or not) is the dewlap, or extra fold of skin, at its throat (when a Cape mountain zebra lowers its neck to feed it makes the zebra’s neck look shorter and fatter).
Mountain zebras are also smaller than their counterparts, but unless they’re standing next to one of the other species this feature is not easily discernible.
The other noticeable characteristic of the Mountain zebra is that it occurs in small groups. Most groups are made up of a single stallion and anything from one to five mares, with their young. Stallions can maintain this group for as long as 15 years, depending on whether or not a younger male attempts a take over, or not.
Some people further divide the Mountain zebra into the Cape mountain zebra and Hartmann’s mountain zebra. The IUCN Redlist recognises the two as a single species made up of two subspecies, a species that is today Vulnerable (in 1996 the Mountain zebra was considered Endangered).
Cape mountain zebras used to roam widely along the southern mountains of the Western Cape and Eastern Cape. They were commonly found in the Roggeveld, Ceder and Amatola mountains of the Cathcart District, and west and north to the Kamiesberg in Namaqualand. Hartmann’s zebras lived in the mountains between the Namib Desert and Namibia’s central plateau where small groups are still in evidence.
Today there are only small surviving natural populations of Cape mountain zebra in the Mountain Zebra National Park, Gamka Mountain Reserve and the Kamanassie mountains.
Other populations have been reintroduced in the Karoo National Park, De Hoop Nature Reserve, Camdeboo National Park, Commando Drift Nature Reserve, Baviaanskloof Wilderness Area, Tsolowana Nature Reserve and the Gariep Dam Nature Reserve.
Five of the best places to spot the Cape mountain zebra:
If it were not for the Mountain Zebra National Park (MZNR) the Mountain zebra could very well be extinct today. The concerted effort on the part of the reserve to preserve the few remaining zebra in the early 1930s, by adding further zebra from an adjoining farm, paid off. By 1980 there were 220 animals in a herd that has remained stable ever since.
Every year up to 40 zebra are transferred from the reserve to re-establish herds in other reserves. MZNR lies just outside Cradock in amongst the Bankberg Mountains that gently slide into endless grassy hills hugging the vast plains of the Karoo.
The Gamka Mountain (GMNR) Reserve’s Cape mountain zebra population might be small, but it’s regarded as important because it represents a third of the entire gene pool of this species. GMNR was established in 1974 with the express purpose of conserving the 13 Cape mountain zebra remaining in the area. However six were shot by a local farmer before the fences could be erected.
Despite this, the population is 90 strong today, although it has been slow to grow relative to other mountain zebra populations. The 9 428 hectare reserve lies 33 km outside of Oudtshoorn, dominated by mountainous plateaus, deep valleys and fynbos.
The Kamanassie Nature Reserve (KNR) is a sanctuary for a small relict herd of Cape mountain zebra. What is important about this little group is that their gene pool is pure – they are descendants of the original herd that lived on the mountain. No other zebra have been introduced from one of the other protected populations.
Ensuring that each of the three populations remains conserved is really important to maintain genetic variety. The herd has been slow to grow, which could have something to do with the fact that mountain fynbos covers over 80% of the reserve.
Mountain zebra only appreciate Arid restioid fynbos and Waboomveld. The reserve is beautiful, receiving rain almost throughout the year (Kammanassie means ‘mountain of water’). It is here you can spot the Kammanassie blue butterfly, and take advantage of two incredible day hikes.
De Hoop’s Cape mountain zebra population is also important. Together with a neighbouring conservancy, the reserve is home to the most genetically diverse sub-population of the zebra, although the herd is ‘male heavy’.
The reserve, famous for its Whale Trail and whale spotting potential, makes sighting the zebra easy – they’re often in amongst the chalets.
Camdeboo National Park lies not far, as the crow flies, from the Mountain Zebra National Park.
The two are separated by the Mountain Zebra Wilderness Corridor – a series of protected grasslands and the Sneeuberg mountain complex of the central Karoo – that will ultimately link the two and assist in the protection of the Cape mountain zebra. Camdeboo’s population of Cape mountain zebra is rather elusive as they prefer the mountainous areas of the reserve.