Day’s end and a gathering of Grevy’s zebra, the largest and most northerly race of zebra-kind. It was a chance encounter. For two hours Kevin, our Chagga guide had been driving us along the dirt tracks of the Lewa Downs reserve. It was new territory to us; our first trip to northern Kenya from our then home-town of Nairobi. The landscapes were breath-taking, sweeping rangelands, pale grasses, beetling gorges, the distant gauzy backdrop of the Matthews Range.
Earlier we had stopped to follow a Greater Kudu family on foot. They were moving in single file up a steep bush trail. We lingered under a thorn tree and in the late day light, watched as they melted one by one into dappled cover. Then it was back to the truck and more trail bashing, the only sign of wildlife, massive piles of elephant dung on the track, and some torn up thorn trees where the herd had passed.
We scanned the bush country all round for a glimpse of them, but they were gone, or at least we could not see them, which is not the same thing. Elephants are invisibility specialists. No matter. As I said, the country was magnificent, the light like liquid amber, and the air filled with the soothing scent of acacia blossom. Lemony with tones of jasmine. As ever, out in the bush, all felt like a dream.
And by now, too, the sun had dropped behind the mountains, the light fading fast. We headed back to camp, and it was then, as we rounded a bend on the trail, we met the zebra. There was only just enough light left to take their photo, but they obligingly stood perfectly still.
And just in case you’re wondering what the difference is between Grevy’s and the plains zebras, here’s another sundowner scene, this time from the Maasai Mara far to the south:
These are Common or Burchell’s Zebra, smaller than the Grevy’s. Their all-over, widely spaced stripes are thicker; ears pointed to Grevy’s endearingly round. Their social habits are different too, the plains’ zebra living in family groups with much grooming between members while their cousins appear to move in less structured gatherings.
But what about the stripes, you may ask: is every zebra’s livery unique?
It is hard to be sure from the Grevy’s portrait, though I’m thinking it’s highly likely. But when it comes to the plains’ cousins, I have told the tale before of how once in Zambia, on a New Year’s Day game drive, a rather tipsy guide waxed lyrical about the very particular patterns on each zebra’s ‘butticles’, and how it was by such means that zebra offspring recognised their respective mamas. I don’t know about the last bit, but these two photos from Nairobi National Park certainly prove a point, final blurry butticle shot aside: the stripes truly do not match.