A lion without a tail was an unusual sight unless you happened to be with the Tsalala pride. At one stage two of the lionesses hadn’t got tails. But given the often violent nature of life in the African bush, losing one’s tail is just one of the inherent risks out here. And one species on which you might see this phenomenon happening slightly more often than expected is the zebra.
We have a very healthy zebra population on Londolozi, with the bulk of them concentrated down in the open grasslands and clearings south of the Sand River. Their new name is Plains Zebra after all, which describes their habitat preference nicely.
Upon encountering a tailless individual, first-time visitors to Africa are far more likely to attribute the loss of the appendage to a predator attack than anything else. While it is certainly possible that a lion could take a zebra’s tail off, the most common cause, believe it or not, is another zebra!
Let’s just get the predator option out the way quickly. Should a pride of lions try and take on a zebra (not as easy as one might think for Africa’s apex predator), the last thing they’d want to do is hang around at the kicking end. A zebra’s flailing hooves can inflict a tremendous amount of damage, or even kill a lion if they were to connect it squarely in the head.
A takedown by lions invariably involves a throat- or muzzle-clasp to suffocate the zebra while it kicks its last. If lions are getting close enough to the tail to bite it off, they are either doing it when the zebra is pretty much on its last breath, or they aren’t being sensible, and might be about to learn the hard way. Losing a tail to lions would generally also be accompanied by some raking scars on the flanks of the zebra, or at least some other evidence of the encounter.
Yet zebras without tails tend to have just that. No tail, without too much other damage. And it will invariably be a male that has lost his tail. By far the greatest likelihood is that it has been bitten off by a rival male.
Zebra stallions will fight for females in often brutal clashes, rearing up and battering each other with their forelegs, or if their assailant happens to be behind them, kicking out with their rear hooves.
These fights can sometimes result in the death of one of the combatants. We have found dead zebra stallions on Londolozi before with no signs of predators in the area, and these casualties have almost certainly been killed by other males.
A zebra stallion’s secret weapon, however, is his teeth. Male and females actually have different dental structures, so one can even sex a zebra skeleton years after the animal died, so long as the teeth remain in the skull.
When fighting, males will nip at each other’s tails, and it is not uncommon to see the individual that is copping more punishment try and sit on his haunches in an effort to protect his tail.
Zebra teeth are sharp and their jaws are powerful. It wouldn’t take too much effort after the initial grab by a male to remove his opponent’s tail completely.
As in most aggressive male-male encounters in the wild, the fights are invariably over females. Zebras at Londolozi don’t really have a set breeding season, although we do see a slight peak in births during the summer months.
The exciting news therefore is that stallions are involved in year-round efforts to maintain their harems and ward off other males. The chance of witnessing a proper clash between two of them is there, whenever you happen to visit.