Grevy's zebra

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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Native to Ethiopia and northern Kenya, the endangered Grevy's zebra must travel farther and farther for food and water as its habitat shrinks.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

What is a Grevy’s zebra?

Grevy’s zebras are the largest of the zebra species. Like their relatives, the plains zebras, Grevy’s zebras have distinct black and white stripes. Their stripes, however, terminate around the belly area, which is usually white. Grevy’s zebra stripes are also usually taller and more narrow than plains zebras. This species also has the largest ears of any zebra, which, when combined with a long neck, contribute to a mule-like appearance.

This species’ common name comes from a royal gift given in the 19th century. In 1882, Menelik II was the emperor of Abyssinia, which was in present-day Ethiopia. He considered his local zebras to be regal creatures and, as a sign of respect, sent one to the president of France, Jules Grévy. A French zoologist noted that the animal represented a species of zebra not yet known to European scientists and dubbed the lineage Equus grevyi in honor of his leader.

Habitat and diet

Grevy’s zebras are native to Ethiopia and northern Kenya. The species is on the decline, however, and used to also be found across Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia.

This species is well-adapted to life in dry, semi-arid scrub and grasslands, where it grazes on grasses, forbs, and even bark, fruit, and leaves. Grevy’s zebras can often be found in large collections of other grazers, such as wildebeest, ostriches, and antelopes, which they help out by nipping off the dry, hardened grass tips that are too tough for other herbivores to digest.

While plains zebras require habitats with lots of water and wild asses need nearly none, the Grevy’s zebra’s needs lie somewhere in between. The species has been documented going up to five days without taking a sip of water.

Social structure

While other zebra species form long-lasting herds, Grevy’s zebras tend to be more fluid with their social interactions. Females will often band together in loose-knit groups, but they can be subject to change at a moment’s notice. Young males also form intermittent packs.

Reproductively mature males establish home ranges stretching up to nearly four square miles. Boundaries are marked by dung piles laced with pheromones and are usually defended by loud vocalizations. Physical clashes also occur. These include pushing, kicking, and biting. For a male to court females into his territory, his spot must include ample food and water, which entices the females to stick around. The most successful males have been known to maintain their territories for up to seven years.

Threats to survival

The habitats Grevy’s zebras need to survive have been badly degraded or lost entirely to livestock grazing. Cattle and other livestock can also transmit diseases such as anthrax and babesiosis to the wild equids. Grevy’s zebras are also sometimes hunted for their meat, skins, and medicinal purposes.

As the species’ habitat declines, the zebras must roam over larger and larger areas in search of food and water. This can have a particularly devastating effect on pregnant and nursing females and their foals, which are more fragile and require more resources to survive.

Conservation

The Grevy’s zebra is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, with about 2,500 adults in the wild. Both Ethiopia and Kenya have laws in place protecting the species. They live mostly outside of safe-havens, with just 0.5 percent of their range overlapping with protected areas.

There are ongoing efforts to re-seed grasslands necessary for the species’ survival, as well as efforts to restrict the effect livestock grazing has on their limited range. Supplementary water and food are also sometimes administered in times of extreme drought.