Mountain zebra (Equus zebra)

French: Zèbre De Hartmann, Zèbre De Montagne De Hartmann
Spanish: Cebra De Hartmann
GenusEquus (1)
SizeHead-body length: 210 – 260 cm (2)
Tail length: 40 – 55 cm (2)
Shoulder height: 116 – 150 cm (2)
Weight240 – 372 kg (2)

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1). Subspecies: the Cape mountain zebra (Equus zebra zebra) is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1), and listed on Appendix I of CITES (3); Hartmann’s mountain zebra (Equus zebra hartmannae) is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1), and listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

This evocative icon of Africa is an immediately recognisable member of the horse family, characterised by its striking pattern of black and white stripes, which continue through into its short, erect mane (2). The mountain zebra is discernable from other zebra species by the thin and relatively close-together vertical black lines on its neck and torso, which are narrower and more numerous than those of Burchell’s zebra (Equus burchelli), and by the wide, horizontal bands on its haunches, which are broader than both those of Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevui) and Burchell’s zebra (2) (4). Unlike Burchell’s zebra, the mountain zebra also lacks ‘shadow stripes’, and the stripes do not meet under the belly, which is instead white with a central black stripe (2). The most diagnostic features of this species, however, are the ‘grid iron’ pattern of narrow stripes across the rump and the square flap of skin, or dewlap, which exists on this zebra’s throat (5) (6). Aptly named, the mountain zebra is a good climber on steep, rugged terrain and has evolved exceptionally hard and pointed hooves compared to other equines (2) (4) (7).

The Cape mountain zebra (Equus zebra zebra) is the smallest living zebra, and differs from Hartmann’s mountain zebra (Equus zebra hartmannae) by its smaller size (5) (8), slightly thicker black stripes (6), and minor striping variations on the rump (5) (8).

Cape mountain zebras are endemic to South Africa (2), while Hartmann’s mountain zebras have a fragmented distribution across Namibia, Angola and South Africa (9).

Found on mountainous slopes and plateaus. Cape mountain zebras occur up to 2,000 metres above sea level, but move to lower elevations in the winter. Hartmann’s mountain zebras occupy a more arid region on the edge of the Namib Desert, where surface water is patchy and herds must wander between the mountains and sand flats in order to find patches of grass (2).

This gregarious species lives in breeding herds, consisting of one adult male, one to five adult females and their young (2) (5). All members occupy a position within a social hierarchy (2), headed by the dominant adult stallion, which is responsible for defending the herd (4). Breeding herds inhabit overlapping home ranges, with no evidence of territoriality, and sometimes herds will even join to form larger temporary populations of up to around 30 individuals (2) (4). Surplus males live in bachelor groups, from which individuals periodically attempt to establish a new breeding herd with young females or take over an existing herd by displacing the dominant stallion (2). Nevertheless, breeding herds often remain stable over many years (up to 20 recorded), with mares usually remaining in a herd for life. New stallions may need to go through courtship of up to three years before the mares in a herd will accept their new stud (2) (7).

This polygynous species breeds throughout the year, although regional birth peaks exist (2) (4). Females produce a single foal every one to three years, after a gestation of approximately one year (5). While most Cape mountain zebra young leave their maternal herds of their own choice between 13 and 37 months of age, or about three months after the birth of a sibling, Hartmann’s mountain zebra mares try to expel their 14 to 16 month old foals from the herd before the birth of a sibling. Young males may wander alone for a while before joining a bachelor group, while females are either taken into another breeding herd or are joined by a bachelor male to form a new breeding herd (2). If young females leave their maternal herd before adulthood they join bachelor herds until they are taken into a herd (2).

Both subspecies of mountain zebra are predominately diurnal, and are most active in the early morning and late afternoon to sunset (2) (4). The herbivorous diet primarily consists of grass but also includes leaves and bark, and individuals of all ages also visit mineral licks, particularly during the summer (2) (4). Cape mountain zebra must drink every day, whereas Hartmann’s mountain zebra can go two or more days without drinking during the wet season (2).

The primary threats to the mountain zebra include competition with domestic livestock, hunting and persecution, habitat loss due to conversion to agriculture (2), and the risk of the two subspecies breed with each other leading to a loss of genetic diversity (2) (10).

Hartmann’s mountain zebras live in direct conflict with livestock farmers, with available grazing ground becoming particularly scarce in many parts of Namibia where very little rainfall has occurred for several years. As a result, more and more Hartmann's mountain zebras are being culled, both legally and illegally. Furthermore, due to the region’s poor economy and scarce resources, poaching for food has increased rapidly over the last few years, since the zebra offers a relatively large amount of meat. The situation in Angola has been exacerbated by war, in which many soldiers and civilians have been in dire need of meat (9).

The Cape mountain zebra formerly inhabited all the mountain ranges of the southern Cape Province of South Africa, but by 1997 less than 750 were believed to survive (5). Reaching a devastating all-time low of just 91 individuals in 1950 (10), this subspecies is considered the largest mammal in South Africa to have come so close to extinction, a fate that sadly awaited the quagga (E. quagga). Although probably never particularly numerous, numbers declined as herds had to compete against sheep and cattle for grazing, and as habitat was increasingly converted into farmland. Hunting was also uncontrolled and this zebra was a popular victim, its hide (skin) allegedly much sought after for the manufacturing of ‘grain bags’. Thankfully, the Cape mountain zebra’s population eventually climbed back up to approximately 1,200 individuals in 1998 (7).

The non-profit organisation Etusis Foundation has been established in Namibia for the conservation of Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra. The foundation conducts research on the subspecies, and focuses on educating farmers and raising public and government awareness about the plight this subspecies faces (9).

Despite its bleak outlook over the last century, concerted conservation efforts mean that Cape mountain zebra numbers are now increasing. The Mountain Zebra National Park was established in 1937 to help save this subspecies, and there are a further two original sub-populations protected in Kamanassie Nature Reserve and Gamka Mountain Reserve. There are also currently about another 11 formally protected, reintroduced sub-populations, including those in Karoo National Park, Karoo Nature Reserve, Addo Elephant National Park, Commando Drift Nature Reserve, De Hoop Nature Reserve, Cape Point Nature Reserve and Tsolwana Game Ranch (2) (7) (10). Conservation efforts by the private sector have also had an important impact, such as the recent purchase by Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve of another twenty Cape mountain zebras from a private seller, making a total of over 30 animals held at the reserve, probably the largest privately owned herd of Cape mountain zebra in the world (7). Although this subspecies still occupies a precarious existence, the dramatic increase in its population over the last 50 years is considered a great conservation success story, and a testament to the ongoing, collaborative efforts of many individuals and parties committed to saving this African icon (7). The current conservation objective is to build up numbers to a target of 2,500 animals as quickly as possible in order to help ensure the long-term survival of the Cape mountain zebra (10).

For more information on the mountain zebra see:

Authenticated (02/09/08) by Dr. Rebecca Smith, Research Biologist.

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2009)
  2. Animal Diversity Web (August, 2006)
  3. CITES (August, 2006)
  4. The Ultimate Ungulate Page (August, 2006)
  5. Stuart, C. and Stuart, T. (1997) Field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Africa. Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
  6. Estes, R.D. (1992) The Behavior Guide to African Mammals: Including Hoofed Mammals, Carnivores, Primates. University of California Press, California.
  7. Man in Nature: Human Development in Harmony with Wildlife Conservation (August, 2006)
  8. World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (August, 2008)
  9. Etusis Foundation: for the protection of the Hartmann's Mountain Zebra (August, 2006)
  10. Novellie, P.A., Lindeque, M., Lindeque, P., Lloyd, P. and Koen, J. (2002) Status and Action Plan for the Mountain Zebra (Equus zebra). In: Moehlman, P. (Ed) Equids: Zebras, Asses, and Horses: Status, Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.