The Migration of the Plains Zebra

A mass migration of several thousand zebra travelling 500km has been recorded in Africa. This is the longest known terrestrial migration in Africa. Eight adult Plains zebra were tracked using GPS collars over a period of two years by WWF, Namibia’s Minitstry of Environment and Tourism, Elephants Without Borders and Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks. The route showed that the Plains zebra travelled between the Chobe River in Namibia and Botswana’s Nxai Pan National Park.

Burchell's zebras (Equus quagga) migrate through Chobe National Park in Botswana. Source - National Geographic

Burchell’s zebras (Equus quagga) migrate through Chobe National Park in Botswana. Source – National Geographic

“This unexpected discovery of endurance in an age dominated by humans, where we think we know most everything about the natural world, underscores the importance of continued science and research for conservation” said Dr. Robin Naidoo, senior conservation scientist at WWF.

It seems impossible that this migration has not previously been recorded or well understood and that, for the time being, is not rivalled by fences or other human constructs. When the world for animals paints a dim picture, this is an amazing discovery and now that this migration route has been studied, it can be safeguarded. ┬áThe migration pathway occurs completely in one multi-country conservation area;The Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA). This conservation area is the template and the ideal way that the great terrestrial animals will be preserved, allowing for natural migration pathways and behaviour over the 109 million acres. The problem most conservation areas suffer from is a lack of space or no ‘migratory corridors’ that allow for natural migratory patterns.

It is unclear if this migration pathway is fixed and whether the zebra instinctively know to migrate (i.e. the pattern is genetically coded) or the pathway is passed from mother to offspring from a repetition of animal behaviour.

Although the migration may not compare to those of the Serengeti in numbers, the length is astonishing. What is even more surprising is that, at least in the scientific community, a migration of this scale what completely unheard of. Unusually the migration also takes place in a north-south direction as opposed to the typical east-west path. Even more interestingly is that the zebra by-pass alternative wet-season destinations on their migration. It is suspected that the zebra are following a migration route down to the nearest metre rather than changing the route. The cause is uncertain and calls for more monitoring of their behaviour.

It is discoveries like this that remind us that we know so little and there is so much we still need to learn.


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