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Grevy’s Zebra

The Grevy’s zebra is the largest, wildest and most untamable of the three zebra species remaining in Africa. This beautiful member of the horse family was named after Jules Grevy, a nineteenth century French president who received one from Abyssinia as a gift. In ancient Rome they were trained to pull ceremonial carts during parades. In recent times, Grevy's zebras have suffered one of the most substantial reductions of range of any African mammal, leading them to be classified as Endangered. In the 1970s, the total wild population was approximately 15,000 animals. Presently only 3,000 - 5,000 remain in the wild and they are restricted to Ethiopia and northern Kenya.

This long-legged equid is different from the other two zebra species: the plains or Burchell's zebra and the mountain zebra. It is taller, measuring up to 60 inches, and heavier, weighing up to 990 pounds. Its beautiful stripes are narrower and more numerous; they are perpendicular to the backbone, and they curve around the tail in a triangular form. The head is large in proportion to the body and the ears are broad with striking black markings. Its mane is stiff and stands up, and its tail ends in a tuft of hair. Its coat is shiny and helps to dispel about 70% of incoming heat from the sun. No two zebras have the exact same stripe pattern. The stripes are said to confuse predators, distorting depth perception and making it difficult to pin-point individuals.

Historically, Grevy’s zebra inhabited the semi-arid scrublands and plains of Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Kenya in East Africa. However, due to a rapid decline in their population, they are now restricted to the northern parts of Kenya and a few pockets in southern Ethiopia.

Grevy’s are social animals. The basic social unit is comprised of a female mare with one or two young. Units often combine though herds are unstable and do not establish rank hierarchies. However, mixed groups of 100 to 200, sometimes up to 450 zebras, are not uncommon during migration and around water points in the dry season.

Social grooming plays a large role in social bonding. They communicate using facial expressions and sounds, and groom each other by biting and nibbling each other to scratch and remove loose hairs.

The male Grevy’s holds one of the largest territories known of any herbivore, ranging from 1 to 4 sq. miles. Males guard access to prime feeding and watering sites, breeding with females who enter their territories. However, unlike territorial males in other species, Grevy’s males can be tolerant of other males within their territories, but only under the condition that these males do not attempt to breed with females.

Grevy’s are consummate survivors, spending as much as 60 - 80% of their time feeding, day or night. With teeth built for chewing and cropping, they mainly feed on grass, but sometimes feed on leaves and stems from bushes. Though they require less water than other zebra species, proximity to permanent water is a very important to them and during the dry season they may walk up to 20 miles from their water hole to find grass. Adults can tolerate between two to five days without water. Competition with livestock for water and food has led to human-wildlife conflict.

Grevy’s mate throughout the year, but the peak birth and mating periods for the Grevy’s zebra are usually July through August and October through November. Grevy’s zebras breed in 2 year intervals starting at the age of 3 for females and age 6 for males. Newborn foals are russet-colored with a long hair crest down the back and belly. The mother keeps other zebras at a distance while the offspring imprints on her and they spend time playing, nuzzling, and nursing. Newborns can walk just 20 minutes after they are born, which is an important survival adaptation for this migrating species. Young Grevy's are especially vulnerable to predators, and foal survival has been directly related to the extent to which their mothers move.

Stripes to a zebra are like fingerprints to a human. No two patterns are identical. Researchers use the unique stripes to identify individuals. Grevy's zebras can run up to 40 mph. Foals can run with the rest of the herd within an hour of their birth. They can also recognize their mothers using their eyesight and their sense of smell


Zebras, horses and wild asses are all equids, long-lived animals that move quickly for their large size and have teeth built for grinding and cropping grass. Zebras have horselike bodies, but their manes are made of short, erect hair, their tails are tufted at the tip and their coats are striped.

Three species of zebra still occur in Africa, two of which are found in East Africa. The most numerous and widespread species in the east is Burchell's, also known as the common or plains zebra. The other is Grevy's zebra, named for Jules Grevy, a president of France in the 1880s who received one from Abyssinia as a gift, and now found mostly in northern Kenya. The third species, Equus zebra, is the mountain zebra, found in southern and southwestern Africa.

The long-legged Grevy's zebra, the biggest of the wild equids, is taller and heavier than the Burchell's, with a massive head and large ears.

Zebras have shiny coats that dissipate over 70 percent of incoming heat, and some scientists believe the stripes help the animals withstand intense solar radiation. The black and white stripes are a form of camouflage called disruptive coloration that breaks up the outline of the body. Although the pattern is visible during daytime, at dawn or in the evening when their predators are most active, zebras look indistinct and may confuse predators by distorting true distance.

The stripes on Grevy's zebras are more numerous and narrow than those of the plains zebra and do not extend to the belly. In all zebra species, the stripes on the forequarters form a triangular pattern; Grevy's have a similar pattern on the hindquarters, while others have a slanted or horizontal pattern.

Burchell's zebras inhabit savannas, from treeless grasslands to open woodlands; they sometimes occur in tens of thousands in migratory herds on the Serengeti plains. Grevy's zebras are now mainly restricted to parts of northern Kenya. Although they are adapted to semi-arid conditions and require less water than other zebra species, these zebras compete with domestic livestock for water and have suffered heavy poaching for their meat and skins.

Family groups are stable members maintaining strong bonds over many years. Mutual grooming, where zebras stand together and nibble the hair on each other's neck and back, helps develop and preserve these bonds. Family members look out for one another if one becomes separated from the rest, the others search for it. The group adjusts its traveling pace to accommodate the old and the weak.

The females within a family observe a strict hierarchical system. A dominant mare always leads the group, while others follow her in single file, each with their foals directly behind them. The lowest ranking mare is the last in line. Although the stallion is the dominant member of the family, he operates outside the system and has no special place in the line.

Zebras are avid grazers. Both Burchell's and Grevy's zebras are in constant search of green pastures. In the dry season, they can live on coarse, dry grass only if they are within a short distance, usually no farther than 20 miles away, of water holes.

When a foal is born the mother keeps all other zebras, even the members of her family, away from it for 2 or 3 days, until it learns to recognize her by sight, voice and smell.

While all foals have a close association with their mothers, the male foals are also close to their fathers. They leave their group on their own accord between the ages of 1 and 4 years to join an all-male bachelor group until they are strong enough to head a family.

Zebras are important prey for lions and hyenas, and to a lesser extent for hunting dogs, leopards and cheetahs. When a family group is attacked, the members form a semicircle, face the predator and watch it, ready to bite or strike should the attack continue. If one of the family is injured the rest will often encircle it to protect it from further attack.

Romans called Grevy's zebras 'hippotigris' and trained them to pull two-wheeled carts for exhibition in circuses. At first glance zebras in a herd might all look alike, but their stripe patterns are as distinctive as fingerprints are in man. Scientists can identify individual zebras by comparing patterns, stripe widths, color and scars.