Whilst on a recent game drive we came across a battlefield. Two zebra stallions were duking it out in the company of a harem of female zebras and their young. Fighting in the animal kingdom is certainly not uncommon but we often forget just how ferocious the usually docile zebra can be. Zebras are high up on most guests’ lists of animals they are hoping to see on safari, and for good reason. Their stunning black and white stripes mixing against a lush green landscape as they graze are a sought-after sighting. It’s also not uncommon to see a zebra missing a tail or sporting some bite marks on their rumps or cheeks. But what might surprise some is that this is often because of fights between zebra as opposed to a close shave with a predator.
On the afternoon in question, Tracker Rich Mthabine and I, together with our guests witnessed a zebra battle for the ages. We had stopped to look at a hornbill nest, a fascinating sighting in itself when the peaceful bush sounds were interrupted by the distinctive distress call of zebra. Thinking it might be a predator that had disturbed them we rushed over there and came across two stallions on their hind legs fighting it out. We continued to watch for at least half an hour as they chased each other up and down the grassy crest.
We worked out that an outside stallion had approached a dominant stallion and his harem, and was trying his best to out-compete him to attract the females in the group. Male zebra will form a harem as a mating strategy. It allows them to maximize their chances of reproductive success by mating with as many females as possible. They form these harems through a combination of physical prowess and social behaviour. Fighting and intimidation are used to establish dominance over rivals and once a harem is formed the stallion will fiercely defend it against other males using physical aggression and vocalizations.
It was also interesting to note how the females in the harem stuck together during the fight. Female zebras in a harem have a close social bond and will sometimes even help the dominant stallion fight off the intruder. We often talk about the social bonds of zebra on a game drive but to see it play out in front of our eyes was fascinating. Watching the dominant stallion defend this group of females really showed the importance of the harem bond. He wanted to protect his best chance to reproduce which was with his harem, and the females did not want the stability of the group threatened with a rival male entering the fray as it wouldn’t be conducive to safely raising their young.
As the defeated stallion walked off to lick his wounds it was another reminder about how fascinatingly brutal the bush can be and how privileged we are to witness the complex dynamics of mother nature play out over the 8.6 million acres of wilderness that we are part of.