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Zebra grazing at Shamwari game reserve in South Africa

Environment & Wildlife, General

How a Zebra Got its Stripes According to the World’s Oldest People

January 30th 2023

Tagged: Africa, Conservation, Namibia, Wildlife, zebra

Each year, the final day of January is dedicated to one of Africa’s most distinctive herbivores – zebras! International Zebra Day is an opportunity to learn more about zebras and to shine a light on the conservation needs of these iconic mammals.

Some experts say that there are three main species of zebra, Grevy’s, mountain and plains, though whether Hartmann’s zebra (a subspecies of mountain zebra) should be classified as its own separate species is a hotly debated topic amongst scientists. The largest zebra, Grevy’s, is also the most threatened and is considered Endangered on the IUCN Red List, with its population plummeting over 50% in the past 30 years.

What better way to celebrate these iconic animals than by diving into a question we all asked at some point; “But, why are zebra striped? And how did they get their stripes?”

Mother and baby zebras in South AfricaKariega Game Reserve | Volunteer South Africa | Working AbroadSo What is the Answer?

Zebras roam eastern and southern Africa sporting a coat of dark hair with white stripes, and while there are many theories out there for these colourations, the most popular is protection from predators, protection from biting flies and thermoregulation.

The San tribes of Namibia are said to be “the world’s oldest people”, due to them being the region’s earliest inhabitants having settled there at least 20,000 years ago. While scientists still debate the exact origin of their striped patterns, the San people have a particularly interesting fable for what happened.

The San People’s Story of the Zebra

Zebras at Limpopo Lipadi Game ReserveVolunteer with Leopards | Volunteer Botswana | Working Abroad

Long ago, when the earth was young and animals were still new in Africa, the weather was very hot, and what little water there was remained in a few pools scattered around. One of these remaining water pools was guarded by a boisterous baboon, who claimed that he was the ‘lord of the water’ and forbade anyone from drinking at his pool. 

One day, a pure white zebra came to quench his thirst. The baboon, who was sitting by his fire next to the waterhole that he built to keep watch at night, jumped up and barked “go away, intruder – this is my pool!”.

“The water is for everyone, not just for you! It belongs to everyone!” the zebra shouted back.

“If you want some water, you must fight for it,” retorted the baboon in fury, and in a moment the two were locked together in combat.

Back and forth they went fighting, raising a huge cloud of dust, until with a mighty kick, the zebra sent the baboon flying high up among the rocks of the cliff behind them. The baboon landed with a smack on his rear-end, taking all the hair clean off. To this very day he still carries the bare red patch where he landed.

The tired and bruised young zebra, not looking where he was going, staggered back through the baboon’s fire, which scorched him, leaving black burn stripes across his white fur.

The shock sent the zebra galloping away to the savannah plains and escarpments, where he has stayed ever since.

The baboon and his family still hold up their tails to ease the sore rock-burn of their bald, red bottoms.

Volunteers watching Zebra in South AfricaKariega Game Reserve | Volunteer South Africa | Working AbroadHow can You Help?

Seeing zebras, antelopes, giraffes, big cats and other native wildlife in Namibia can be a truly life-changing experience. If you’re thinking of booking a trip to see some of the landscapes and wildlife of southern Africa, spending some time on one of the incredible volunteer projects Working Abroad is involved with can be an enriching way to start or end your trip.

Across our African projects, there are multiple opportunities to see and work with Zebra. One particular project is the San Bushmen community project in Namibia. Here you can help by providing medical care in a local clinic, researching carnivores in the southern Namib desert, and working alongside the Anti-Poaching Unit to protect rhinos, zebras and more. Then in your free time, you can go wild yourself by sandboarding down the dunes of the desert before the sun goes down and sleep out under the sea of stars.

As Lene Fjeldgren, a volunteer from Denmark says you can “find your second home, in a place filled with people trying to make a difference, trying to put their handprint on the world and say, “I did something, I did not just stand and watch this beautiful world fall apart.”

There are seven projects you can pick from with more information found on the project details page, but if you’d like to know more please contact a member of the team. 

Written by WorkingAbroad Blogger Emily Bowen

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Blog articles about our volunteer projects, the wider world and from volunteers in the field are shared here for everyone to get inspired and learn more about wildlife conservation topics, volunteering abroad and much more.