International Zebra Day (January 31st)

International Zebra Day (January 31st)

Posted on Thursday 31st January 2019

Categories: Wildlife

Amazing animals; Zebra’s utilise their incredible memories to recognise friends and family and to guide them during migrations

Zebra is one of the most iconic of all of Africa's grazing animals. They are social animals that live in small harems to large herds. The most common species is the plains zebra, which roams grasslands and woodland of eastern and southern Africa. The Grevy’s zebra can be found in dry, semi-desert areas of Kenya and Ethiopia, and the mountain zebra lives in mountainous and hilly habitats in Namibia, Angola and South Africa.  They are recognisable across the world for their striped coats which come in different patterns, unique to each individual.

The stripes are an effective control mechanism used to reduce the number of insects bites, and due to these unique body marks, they receive less bites than animals with a single fur colour. The effectiveness of the stripes is also used by tribal people living in similar regions, painting their bodies with stripes to also reduce the number of bites they receive.

As the stripes provide an individual marker for each zebra, they also play a key role in individual recognition, with zebras being able to recognise individuals and remember the relationships they have had with those individuals over time. This is particularly important for animals which live in such large numbers.

Each year, zebras are part of one of the most spectacular sights in the animal kingdom,  as thousands of animals, including zebras, wildebeests and gazelles, migrate in turn with the seasons between foraging grounds, in search of sufficient and highly nutritious forage. For many years it had been assumed that these migrations were based on the availability of the resources, but recent research has shown the dominating factor in such movements may in fact be based on an animals memory.

Zebras use memory as the primary driver over the environmental conditions to guide this migration each year. Zebras appear to migrate to the location where foraging conditions were best in the past. They navigate to their destination based on memory.

Researchers modelled migration routes of zebras using computer simulations. Zebras migrate around 250 kilometers from the Okavango Delta, Botswana to the Makgadikgadi grasslands in November. They tested two mechanisms which can influence the direction. Simulated zebras could use perception and sense, for example, the vegetation in their current surroundings. Alternatively, zebras could use memory, i.e. information from previous migrations, to forecast where to go.

The researchers compared the simulated tracks with real-life tracks from GPS-tagged zebras which were collected by other researchers. Memory using past average conditions was able to predict the migration destination of the model. However perception is still important and studies have shown that perception of current local conditions plays a key role on the timing and speed of the zebra migration, but it appears that these may be less important for zebras in terms of direction.

This use of memory as a key driver means that they could be far more inflexible than previously thought. Migration routes of zebras are threatened by climate change and land use changes, yet these routes must remain open for the survival of the species in the long term.


Zebras have been hunted for their meat and their skins and continue to suffer due to habitat destruction. Grévy's zebra and the mountain zebra now both endangered species due to such persecution. The Cape mountain zebra was hunted to near extinction, with less than 100 individuals by the 1930s. The population has since increased to about 700 due to conservation effort and effective habitat protection.

The Grévy's zebra is also endangered. Hunting and competition from livestock have greatly decreased their population. Because of the population's small size, environmental hazards, such as drought, are capable of affecting the entire species. Plains zebras are much more numerous and have a healthy population. Nevertheless, they too have been reduced by hunting and loss of habitat to farming. 

For details of zebra conservation measures see;

African Wildlife Foundation; 

Grevy’s Zebra Trust; 

Zebras in captivity

Zebras require specialised conditions in captivity to ensure that their physical and behavioural needs are being met. They are likely to suffer considerably if they are not provided with an environment which allows them to express their innate natural behaviours.

It is therefore crucial for animal managers to understand the natural history, behavior and social structure of zebras to maximise their welfare within captivity.

The American Zoo Association have developed best practice management guidelines for keeping Equids (including zebra’)s in captivity, these are available at

Good captive management practices for zebras include those that provide the following conditions

  • Zebras occupy large spaces and varied habitats in the wild. The native habitat occupied by zebras is in direct relation to their adaptations and their social and dietary needs. Enclosures/exhibits should be as large as possible and should try to mirror these natural habitats and meet the social needs of the species whenever possible (Hartmann’s mountain zebras are the least gregarious of all zebra species and must be given more space than other equids due to aggression).

  • Outdoor enclosures are improved when planted with grass, bushes, ornamental grasses and trees. The addition of plant material provides individuals with shade, visual barriers, a varied enclosure and a more natural habitat. 

  • Natural (planted areas, tree groves, deadfalls, brush piles, etc) or manmade (shelters, hay feeders, structures, etc.) visual barriers should be provided to allow subordinate herd members to escape or rest.

  • exhibit furniture (browse, deadfalls, stumps, scratching posts, etc.) should be provided for additional enrichment. Furniture should be moved or changed on a regular basis to alter pathways and elicit interest

  • A relatively flat or slightly rolling outdoor terrain is preferred, though slopes are utilized as well if available within the enclosure.  A natural substrate of dirt and/or grass is preferred for outdoor enclosures. If softer substrates are utilized (dirt, grass, etc), sufficient hoof wear may not occur naturally and supplemental hoof trimming/care may be required to control excessive hoof growth

  • Zebras enjoy rolling/dusting themselves, so a rolling area of dirt,  mulch or similar material is necessary.

  • The most common surface within an indoor and/or holding enclosure is concrete with a broom-swept finish to prevent slipping and to control excessive hoof growth.  Bedding such as straw, dust-free sawdust and wood shavings can be used within indoor enclosures to provide comfort and insulation, absorb urine and prevent slipping.

  • protection from temperature/weather extremes with adequate shade provided in hot conditions which all members of the herd can access, and protective shelters and/or barns available during the winter months to provide protection from rain, snow, sleet and wind chill. Bedding should be provided within winter holding shelters and/or barns to provide comfort and adequate insulation during periods of inclement weather

  • Fresh, clean, potable water supply available at all times which is protected from extreme temperatures. Multiple water sources may be necessary to ensure that all herd
    members have access to water at all times.

  • Access to good quality, clean grass and a combined diet of good quality dried hays and commercial herbivore concentrate pellets

  • Zebras spend a majority of their day foraging for food in the wild. When possible in captivity, the daily ration should be offered at several feedings throughout the day to mimic the natural feeding habits, to avoid boredom and to reduce the risk of stereotypical behaviors such as pacing, cribbing, coprophagia.

  • Additional foods including browse)  are appreciated on a random schedule and provide stimulation and enrichment to the dietary routine. Care should be taken to ensure that food enrichment items are not offered in such quantities as to decrease consumption of the carefully balanced base diet. 

  • Seasonal temperature changes may increase or decrease appetite. Consumption should be monitored closely and daily rations altered as necessary to meet these seasonal changes. Overfeeding and obesity can be a problem with captive wild equids. Obesity can lead to reduction in reproduction and in health problems and should be avoided

  • Plains and mountain zebras live in stable family groups which consist of a single stallion and one or more mares and offspring. Adult membership of family herds is relatively stable and breeding herds may stay together for extended periods of time. Bachelor herds also occur.

  • The social system of the Grevy’s zebra is quite different than other species, with permanent bonds between individuals which should be respected.

  • For small enclosures, a trio (1 stallion and 2 mares) with space for offspring is ideal. For larger enclosures, it is possible to zebras in large herds consisting of one stallion and multiple mares with offspring. 

  • Multi-species exhibits are possible. Plains zebras have been commonly exhibited with other ungulates (African antelope, giraffes, etc) and birds. In general, mares are more compatible than stallions within mixed species situations. It is important not only to carefully assess mixed species situations and select compatible species, but also to provide adequate space for animals to voluntarily separate themselves when desired/necessary. Zebras can be  aggressive and/or fatal to antelope newborns and precautions should be taken to separate the species at calving time to prevent injury or death of calves

  • Zebras are susceptible to ecto- and endoparasites and these infections can be debilitating and may cause death. Commercially available anthelmintics are generally effective and safe for use. Regular fecal parasite ova checks (quarterly or biannually) should be performed to monitor parasite load and to treat infections as needed.

  • Proper hoof wear can be a concern and a health issue for zebras in captivity. Routine anaesthesia for hoof care and trimming is sometimes necessary. 

  • Hand-rearing of foals is, in general, not necessary. If possible, hand rearing should be avoided, as hand-reared equids are likely to be more aggressive towards and less intimidated by humans as adults. Hand-reared stallions can be particularly aggressive and dangerous. 

  • Contraception is an acceptable means of managing equid populations in captivity. Separation of sexes is the most commonly used and most recommended method of preventing breeding in wild equids. 

  • Informal operant conditioning and acclimation techniques have been often 
    successfully applied to the routine husbandry and daily care.  Zebras learn quickly and are easily trained to a daily routine with acclimation and positive reinforcement.

For enclosure and enrichment ideas and examples see:

Marwell Zoo - African valley and 

Auckland zoo - feeding enrichment 

Paradise Wildlife Park - feeding enrichment 

Disney Animal Kingdom - general enrichment 

Oakland Zoo - behavioural training 

Related News