The Zebra

How do you tell the difference between a male zebra and a female zebra? Well, the one is black with white stripes and the other is white with black stripes! In fact, embryological evidence has shown that the zebra’s background colour is dark and the white is an addition. All zebra have a unique stripe pattern, similar to fingerprints, allowing each zebra to be separately identifiable. The purpose of the stripes is a matter of much debate, with some believing that the unique stripes make it easier for young foals to identify their mothers, while the stripes also reputedly discourage biting flies with the stripes polarising light making it difficult for flies to pick out the animal. The stripes may also abet in camouflaging the zebra, especially in low light conditions, helping the zebra to blend in. This also ties in with the collective noun for zebra, being a “dazzle of zebra”, and in World War I warships were sometimes painted in black and white, or dazzle camouflage, in order make it difficult for the enemy to figure out exactly where a ship was and which way it was moving.

The zebra is a member of the horse family and resembles the domestic horse, so it is no surprise that there have been numerous attempts dating back to at least the eighteenth century to try and tame and train zebras as riding and harness animals. I remember the movie Racing Stripes, which was filmed in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Kwazulu Natal where I grew up, and in fact, some of my friends filled in as extras in the movie. The film tells the story of a circus zebra, aptly named “Stripes”, which is accidentally abandoned in Kentucky and raised on a farm next to a racing track. Believing he is a racehorse, Stripes dreams of training for and competing in the race. Unfortunately, zebras just are not suited to be domesticated, being as stubborn as a mule (a mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse) and, quite simply, being too wild, a trait necessary in the harsh African plains where the instincts of fight or flight mean the difference between life and death.

In fact, zebras were often trained and used to pull carriages, and there are numerous images circulating which depict zebras under harness in London and Paris. As with many things in life, owning a zebra was seen as a way of showing off wealth and novelty, much like the challenge we are now facing with rhino horn. However, the advent of motorcars gradually meant that horses, as well as zebras, were no longer used to draw carriages and the wealthy could instead show off their motor steeds. Interestingly, the term Horsepower is still in use today. This is a unit of measurement of power which was adopted in the eighteenth century by the Scottish engineer James Watt to compare the output of steam engines with the power of draft horses. According to Wikipedia, Watt determined that a pony could lift an average 220 lbf (0.98 kN) 100 ft (30 m) per minute over a four-hour working shift. Watt then judged a horse was 50% more powerful than a pony and thus arrived at the 33,000 ft⋅lbf/min figure. Think of that the next time you are looking at buying a black or white mustang.

Love from Thanda Safari.


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