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Zebras

Namibia is purported to have some of the most beautiful postage stamps in the world. But what’s more fascinating are the stories behind the artful images they depict—plant and animal life, traditional cultures, history and landmark events. Many people are unfamiliar with Namibia—until they visit on our motorcycle safaris and fall in love with it.

This month we honour the zebra.

Black on white or white on black? No matter what your perspective, the Zebra is one of the most recognizable symbols of Africa.

Africa hosts two species of zebras: Burchell’s (or plains) and Hartmann’s (or mountain) zebras. To the untrained eye they may look the same but there are distinct differences between the species.

  1. stamp hartmann zebra - paul bosman webMountain zebras have solid stripes while the plains variety, like those in Etosha National Park, have an additional faint shadow superimposed on the white.
  2. Mountain zebras’ stripes don’t join on the abdomen. Plains’ stripes meet in the middle and often extend down to the hooves.
  3. Mountain zebras have a prominent pattern on their rump and throat that is absent from their plains cousins.
  4. As indicated by their name, they generally prefer different habitat, although they can overlap.
  5. Plains zebras are more social, congregating in large groups around good grazing spots, often in the company of other species such as wildebeest. Mountain zebras are shy, living in small groups camouflaged by vegetation.

Like a fingerprint, the pattern on each zebra is unique. But the big question remains. Why?

Children are told they’re horses wearing pajamas, while an African legend claims the stripes were burnt in when Zebra fell into a fire chasing a baboon.

stamp zebras - jj v ellinckhuijzen 11-10 webWe’ve come up with six more scientific reasons why zebras have stripes. Believe what you will.

  1. Camouflage.This holds true for the mountain zebra but black and white stripes clearly stand out on the plains. Here the benefit is in being part of the herd. When viewed from a distance, predators, who prefer to tackle a single prey, have trouble distinguishing the size of a striped group, especially when they’re tightly bunched together for safety.
  2. Confuse. The stripes distort the animal’s shape, making it difficult for a predator to know one end from the other, which direction they’re traveling, and how fast they’re moving.
  3. Guide. When fleeing a predator the bold stripes are easy to see, especially at night and in dust. Staying with the herd may be the difference between survival and a big cat’s dinner.
  4. Attract. Some studies show that zebras like another’s stripes, an asset which helps keep the herd together. It’s possible they may even attract mates, or identify members of a herd.
  5. Cool. It’s possible that the black and white differences in heat absorption create convection and cooling air currents.
  6. Repel. A hypothesis discussed in The New Yorker and substantiated by recent evidence,  shows that biting insects, like the malaria carrying tse-tse fly and other biting insects avoid landing on striped surfaces.

The next time you’re in Africa and a zebra appears, see if you can identify the species. Observe them from a distance and never let their seemingly social nature deceive you. A zebra’s powerful kick can deter a lion, break a jaw, or kill a spotted hyena.

You’re likely to see zebras on any Renedian Motorcycle Safari:

Source: Stamps and Stories, Vol. 1, 50 Stories on Namibia’s Postal Stamps, Gondwana Collection Namibia, & NamPost, 2012, p.88