Relicts of Africa: Grevy’s Zebra

Extinct Pleistocene Zebra Rediscovered:  Whenever an extinct Pleistocene animal is unearthed it is always surrounded by much mystery and the question “what did they look like?” invariably comes into the equation.  As the species faded into extinction so went the clear answers to this question of external appearance, until the species is miraculously rediscovered very much alive and well!
Carried within the genes of this stallion is the same DNA that marked the Cape zebra. (Photo Credits: Mpala Wildlife Foundation)

My native South Africa, the southernmost country on the African continent is a place that has always been well endowed with tremendous biodiversity!  It has become world renowned as a safari destination that never fails to deliver an immense collection of megafauna.  Of these large mammals, the zebras (Equus species) are certainly some of the most iconic species of our wilderness.  Today the country boasts with two species of zebra each of which are further represented by two subspecies – namely the Cape mountain zebra E. zebra zebra, the Hartmann’s mountain zebra E. zebra hartmannae, the Burchell’s zebra E. quagga burchellii, and the recently “revived” Cape quagga E. quagga quagga.  However, during a time now long forgotten these striped denizens of the African plains were joined by a third widely distributed equine species, one so large that it briefly became known as the Cape horse.

During the 19th century when the first large remains of wild equids were unearthed in the dune-covered regions surrounding Cape Town, South Africa, they were believed to belong to modern horses Equus ferus that arrived along these shores with the Dutch settlers since 1652.  Further investigation of these robust fossils however proved that these remains did not belong to any modern horse breed, but rather to a distinct species that was named Cape horse and more aptly Cape zebra Equus capensis during the course of 1909.  Since those early days, Cape zebra remains have been found further afield throughout South Africa, and in Zimbabwe, Zambia and Egypt, and later it was found to be conspecific with the large extinct East African Pleistocene zebra species known as Equus oldowayensis.

The Cape zebra was one of the largest wild equids to have ever existed, with individuals even reaching the proportions of a good sized Clydesdale horse.  But although much is known about the skeletal dimensions of this zebra that once ranged almost all the way from the Cape to Cairo, quite a few questions still remained.  What was their habitat preference?  With which other herbivores did they most often associate?  What did they look like?  And many other questions, not the least of which how did such a large animal totally disappear from the face of the earth?

Answers as to their ecology came through the field of archaeology and a reconstruction of the past.  Wherever Cape zebra remains were common in the Western Cape Province of South Africa the accompanying species often included long-horned buffalo Pelorovis antiquus, giant hartebeest Megalotragus priscus, blue antelope Hippotragus leucophaeus, bontebok Damaliscus pygargus, black wildebeest Connochaetes gnou, and plains zebra Equus quagga.  All of these species were grazers by nature and preferred for grassy environments.  Three of the Cape zebra’s companions, namely the long-horned buffalo, the giant hartebeest and the blue antelope, has since suffered a similar fate as they faded into the realm of extinction.

But what of the other questions that relate to the physical appearance of the massive Cape zebra and their apparent disappearance from the African continent?  Since the Cape zebra was first discovered in 1909 much has been speculated about their life history, their relationship to other zebra species and their extinction.  Seeking answers to these questions has led to the exciting revelation that the Cape zebra survived as a relict population!  The truth being that although the Cape zebra became extinct across most of its once widespread range, the species had indeed survived as a relict population in East Africa – a relict population of zebra that was named Grevy’s zebra Equus grevyi.

Grevy’s zebra breeding herd. (Photo Credits: Mpala Wildlife Foundation)

Today this relict population now known as Grevy’s zebra are thinly distributed across Kenya and limited areas of Ethiopia.  Across this range the entire wild populations amounts to 2,500 animals, and an additional 600 individuals within zoological institutions in North America and Europe.

So it came to be that the Cape zebra – the once widespread denizen of the Cape – disappeared from South Africa and retreated ever northward from the Cape until only the now endangered relict population known as the Grevy’s zebra remained.  But there is hope that one day the Cape will once again see the break of dawn illuminating the sight of a herd of Cape zebra restored to their ancient range!

Marcel van der Merwe II

Cape Town  |  South Africa


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