Survival of the fittest. A phrase that is often used, but not often observed. Even being out in the bush and spending time with animals on a daily basis, we as rangers use the term often, but don’t always get to see it in practice. When it does happen in front of you though, it’s pretty incredible!
We were having a rather relaxed morning a couple of weeks ago, spending time with birds and the smaller things, not expecting to encounter anything too “intense,” but as our old Irish uncle Murphy would have it, things were about to change rather quickly.
Peacefully observing some birds at one of the waterholes, piercing alarm calls of a zebra disturbed the silence we were enjoying. We rushed off in the direction of these noises; often zebra will give away the presence of a predator, so we were hoping to find a leopard or some lions.
What we found was not any predator, but just as amazing.
As we came up onto the crest we could see a cloud of dust billowing up, but could not see what this cloud was hiding. A few seconds later, out of the dust, a blur of black and white stripes emerged, it was clear to us that this was two zebra stallions battling it out.
I had heard before that zebra stallions were extremely aggressive towards each other when it came to dominance over a harem, but I had never been fortunate enough to see a “real” battle until this day. Everything I had heard was one hundred percent true, it was a battle of epic proportions!
We worked out who the dominant stallion was and who the challenger was rather quickly. We could see the dominant male had been through a few of these fights before, missing half his tail and bearing numerous scars on his face from previous challengers. One could see he had the upper hand for most of the fight; having the experience of previous battles certainly showed. The challenger though, put up an exceptionally courageous effort, and made the dominant stallion work ever so hard to retain his harem.
They jostled for about 30 minutes, biting and kicking one another with intense force. Wrestling each other to the ground in order to gain the advantage, each time sending a cloud of dust into the air which added to the drama of the situation. As spectators our hearts were racing and adrenaline was flowing. The zebras used the entire crest as a ring, racing around the small thickets of brush and dodging the Marula trees that were scattered around their battle field.
All this whilst other stallions and the mares of the harem looked on. The observing males no doubt wanting to see who they would have to challenge in the future, and the mares eager to find out who would be the one to lead them and protect them and their foals.
Eventually the pace of the battle started to slow as both fighters were tiring. The dominant stallion still managing to have the upper hand and not letting the other see how exhausted he was becoming. Finally the challenger decided it was time to admit defeat. He turned to show he was done. He dropped his head and ears in a very submissive manner; in order to admit to the dominant stallion that he was finished and was submitting. He was limping quite badly and had numerous new scratches and wounds. It was over.
The challenger returned to the rest of the stallions in the bachelor group defeated and injured. The dominant stallion returned to his harem with another victory, showing the females in his harem he was the right one to be in charge.
A few days later, driving through the same area we came across a lone stallion limping very badly. He was struggling to walk, only a few feet at a time. Not being able to keep up with the rest of the bachelor herd, he was very exposed and vulnerable to predators. For me, this sight showed the true meaning of the expression Survival of the Fittest.