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The Burchell´s zebra

5 December 2013



Scientific Name : Equus burchellii

Weight (Adult Stallion) : +/- 313 kg

Weight: (Adult Mare) : +/- 302 kg

Size of a breeding herd : +/- 7 to 8 members per 1000 ha habitat

Gestation period : From 360 to 390 days

Weight at birth : From 30 to 35 kg

Foal wean age : +/- 11 months


Burchell’s zebra Equus burchellii, a member of the horse family Equidae is also known as the plains zebra. It was named after the traveller and naturalist W J Burchell who sent the first specimens to the British Museum of Natural History in London. Some scientists have named it Equus quagga after the extinct Cape zebra, but the most recent genetic analyses still support the above name as being valid, while Equus quagga is deemed to be extinct. There have been attempts to breed quagga look-alikes from aberrantly coloured Burchell’s zebras but this will never replicate the exact genetic make-up of the extinct quagga. The only result will be a Burchell’s zebra that looks like a quagga.

Burchell´s zebra occurs widely in southern, central and eastern Africa but has probably never occurred in South Africa south of the Orange River except if the quagga was one of its subspecies.

www.leopard.tvBurchell´s zebra was originally regarded as a type of donkey Asinus burchellii in 1822 by W J Burchell who first named it scientifically from near Kuruman in the Northern Cape, although the name Equus was already used by Linnaeus in 1758. It was renamed Equus burchellii by Gray in 1824 in honour of the explorer W J Burchell who first described it and the name of the donkey was changed to Equus asinus following Linnaeus who first named it in 1758. There are six known subspecies.

The adult stallion weighs 313 kg and the mare 302 kg. Burchell´s zebras from East Africa lack the yellow-brown shadow stripe between the black stripes on a white skin as is found in South Africa. Burchell’s zebra also does not have the dewlap and the grid pattern on the rump that the mountain zebras have. The coat pattern of the animals is not bilaterally symmetrical and differs individually. Individuals can therefore be identified with a bar code on the basis of their coat pattern. The stallions can be distinguished in the field from the mares by having a thinner black band between the buttocks than in the mares.

Burchell´s zebra is a typical grazing ungulate of the bushveld and feeds on grass taller than 100 mm near water. It prefers to be near water. Although predominantly a grazer, Burchell´s zebra will browse to some extent. It has strong, sensitive and mobile upper lips which it uses to push herbage under the incisors which then cut if off. A green flush of grass after a fire or a rainstorm highly attracts it.

It occurs in small breeding herds consisting of a stallion that is at least four years old and stays with the breeding herd until it is 12 years old, a few mares and their foals. The foals leave the family group when they are from one to four years old and either stay alone or join stallion herds. Large herds are formed at times and the breeding herds are not territorial. The size of a breeding herd depends on the quality of the habitat and there are usually seven to eight members per 1000 ha of habitat. However, in the Ngorongoro Crater of Tanzania there can be as many as 192 members per 1000 ha. In dense bushveld, such as currently in the Kruger National Park, the breeding herds are small. The breeding herds have ranges that overlap and vary in size from 49 to 566 km2 depending on the quality of the habitat. The breeding herd stallion moves around the periphery of the herd and defends it against intruders.


Burchell´s zebra stallions breed when they are 5 to 6 years old, but the mares already when they are 2.5 years old. The gestation period is 360 to 390 days. Single foals that weigh 30 to 35 kg at birth are born at any time of the year and the mare rarely eats the afterbirth. The foal weans when it is 11 months old. Burchell’s zebras readily interbreed with donkeys and the probably infertile offspring have in the past been used with mules as draft animals for ox wagons and the Zeederberg coaches that once linked Bulawayo with South Africa.

Young foals are sometimes kicked to death by stallions and a case is known where a stallion was killed by an elephant at a waterhole during a drought. Burchell’s zebras are often preyed on by large carnivores and are hesitant to enter rivers and waterholes. They cannot swim well at all.



Grubb, P 2005. Order Perissodactyla. In: D E Wilson and D M Reeder (Eds), Mammal species of the world, third edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 630.

Skinner, J D and C T Chimimba (Eds) 2005. The mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 543 - 546.

article by: Prof J du P Bothma

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