The Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana might be familiar to viewers of the BBC TV motoring programme Top Gear. During a 2007 edition of the show, presenters Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May became the first people to cross the Makgadikgadi by car. This was no mean feat as the pans are remnants of an inland sea and heavy vehicles tend to sink below the muddy surfaces and salty crusts found in the area.
It was a good job that the three drivers didn’t make their record-breaking attempt from December to March as this is the time when the rains come and the pans fill up with water. The rains attract water-reliant migrating wildlife such as wildebeest, gemsbok and springbok.
African safari specialists Safari Consultants offer tailor-made holidays across Africa to places including Makgadikgadi Pans. Botswana Safaris offer the chance to see the pans’ water birds; including flamingos and pelicans.
Zebra, Botswana’s national animal, also visit the pans – the environment is the perfect habitat for the species (the Plains Zebra) which come to the plains.
While the Plains zebra are the most common in Africa, there are also two other species: the mountain zebra and Grévy’s zebra. Both species are currently under threat of extinction with the Grévy’s population dropping as low as 3,000 at the turn of the 21st century.
Botswana is not the only place travellers can expect to find the Plains Zebra. Those embarking on a Zambia safari would be advised to explore the game-rich Luangwa Valley for a chance to see these animals up close.
The Plains Zebra is smaller than the other two zebra species but, in common with all zebras, have bold black and white stripes. No two zebras ever look identical – the stripes are as unique a form of identification as human fingerprints are but it can take a little effort to distinguish between zebra; when a zebra is born the mother keeps the foal concealed from other zebras until she has memorised the patterns.
Water and grass are essential to the zebra’s existence. They will migrate up to 700 miles to find the best grass and water and are often the first grazing species to appear in a well-vegetated area. The zebra is also a pioneer grazer; without them eating longer grass, animals like blue wildebeest would not have such easy access to the shorter and more nutritional grasses.
A family group of zebra is called a harem and usually consists of a single stallion, several mares and their recent offspring. There are also larger groups of male bachelor zebras roaming the pans in groups of up to 15 members.
These bachelors are not yet old or savvy enough to form their own harem; when they are they will try and abduct a mare from an existing harem.
It is the job of the mare’s harem leader (normally her father) to chase off or fight these bachelor stallion suitors.
Cunningly, a stallion will often remain still on the ground during a fight – in an imitation of surrender – before suddenly getting up and surprising their opponent.
Not that life is all fighting between harems and bachelor groups – zebra often join together to form a herd and it is highly unusual for a healthy stallion to have their position as harem leader usurped.
The rainy season is the time when most foals are born. When a foal takes its first steps – which, in common with horses, is very soon after it is born – the mother, as explained earlier, shields the new-born from other zebra.
This behaviour might seem highly atypical as zebra are extremely social but it is not long before order is restored as the new addition bonds with the rest of its new extended family.