• Kev Thomas Writes

A Zebra for Decor

Above: A Burchell's zebra skin makes for attractive decor.

During a Zimbabwe safari over two decades ago, a few PH colleagues and I were sat round the campfire chatting about hunting in general. We'd enjoyed a successful day out in the field, and our clients were all showering and readying themselves for dinner. Traditionally, we'd spend some quality pre-dinner time around the campfire with our clients, enjoying cocktails, chatting, and reliving the day that'd just come to an end. Most of those I guided, preferred to shower and rid themselves of the day's dust before enjoying this pre-dinner campfire ritual. My PH colleagues and I weren't so fussy, we preferred to relax with a few chilled beers before going to shower.

Earlier in the day on this particular occasion, one of our clients had shot a zebra. It hadn't been an easy hunt, and as we spoke, one of the PHs in the group mentioned that as far as he was concerned, trying to hunt a zebra could quite often turn into one of the most frustrating and difficult hunts of all. And particularly so if the safari was taking place on a game fenced ranch of about 10,000 acres or so.

I'd never thought of it that way, but his remarks got me thinking about hunting zebra, and I had to concur. On more than one occasion I'd also resorted to muttering the odd profanity when trying to outwit a wily zebra on a game ranch, and especially towards season’s end if the ranch has been heavily hunted. Obviously when hunting zebra on vast concessions like Zimbabwe’s Matetsi blocks or the Bubye Valley Conservancy, it's a different story. Under those circumstances a zebra is normally a fairly easy trophy to shoot, the biggest problem being to correctly sex the animal before shooting.

There certainly isn’t any stigma to shooting a mare, (they invariably have a cleaner skin with less shadow, and they're free of battle scars), however, some game ranches request stallions only be shot.

At this point I need to make mention that of our three Southern African zebra species, it's the Burchell’s zebra I'm writing about, and not the more scarce Mountain zebra, found in parts of South Africa’s Cape Province, or the Hartmann’s mountain zebra found in Namibia.

A zebra can also take a lot of punishment, and if the shot is incorrectly placed the hunter can be led on a run around. And at times, even if the shot is correctly placed. During the 2013 season I was on a Zimbabwe safari with a US client, and one of his wants was a zebra. Pete's a good shot and was using a scoped .375 H&H shooting 300gr Trophy Bonded Bear Claw bullets.

The Bubye Valley Conservancy has extremely healthy zebra populations which together with the blue wildebeest form an important food source for the many lion on the concession. Finding one wasn’t difficult, and after a short stalk Pete did the gunning exercise. His bullet was well placed and the stallion moved off slowly, its his right leg swinging helplessly from the shoulder down. This is normally a good sign, so we waited for it to fall. Rather bizarrely and while we patiently watched developments, it suddenly recovered and on three legs determinedly thundered off after the herd, caught up, and then disappeared into the fleeing mass of zebra. We were left looking at a cloud of dust.

Thereafter, followed a lengthy tracking exercise along a constant yet intermittent blood trail. Pete was adamant he’d placed his bullet in the heart, however, as time passed by he began to chastise himself and doubt his shot placement. Eventually though, the zebra broke from the herd and made off on his own, he was slowing down but the cover and the brief glimpses we had of him didn’t allow for an anchor shot.

After what we later estimated must have been at least a 1.5km zigzag through the bush, we heard something falling down heavily and then struggling to get up. It was Pete’s zebra, and as we closed with it, we saw it get up and then fall down. Twice more. So he gave it a coup de grace. When we reached the zebra, we couldn't believe what we were looking at, Pete's first shot was exactly where he'd aimed and it proved to be the perfect heart shot. Although I was completely baffled, Pete explained how a doctor friend of his had once told him this was possible if the ventricle was empty at the time of the bullet’s penetration. This seemed the only logical possibility, although it was a first for both of us.

As a trophy zebra are either high on the want list or fall into that category of, ‘How can I shoot a horse?’, when in actual fact they aren’t a horse or a donkey, they’re just another one of Africa’s wildlife species. And, just like your sable or even a male ostrich their distinctive black and white coloration, certainly compliments a trophy room, either as a rug mount or pedestal, although I always think of a zebra as ‘décor’ because a zebra rug will compliment any room, not just a trophy room.

As for being a sort of Disneyworld donkey in stripped pyjamas, zebra are a truculent species with an attitude problem and they're perfectly capable of using hooves and teeth to good effect, in either a defensive role, or an offensive role. A Rhodesian game warden back in about 1969 had a zebra stallion attack him for no apparent reason, while he was taking an early morning stroll and with one bite it broke his arm!

Their cryptic coloration too, is ideal camouflage in the environment they inhabit and trying to pick out an individual zebra when they’re standing motionless in scrub mopane woodland, isn’t very easy. Their black and white stripes blend with the streaks and patches of shadow and light and merely allow the animal to become part of the whole. Although there are a number of theories about the exact reason for zebra having stripes, I prescribe to the one whereby they are thought to be a defensive measure. Put simply, a predator like a lion has to basically ‘lock on' to an individual animal before it can launch it’s final attack. A herd of zebra all bunched at a waterhole or when fleeing en masse make this extremely difficult because they form a continuous pattern, and when they do flee this also affords them a chance to increase the distance between them and the momentarily confused predator.

Sexing zebra can be confusing and errors are made, however, I’ve been lucky and prefer going by the animal’s body language and behaviour. Stallions normally drop back, stopping and facing the source of disturbance once the herd has been spooked. What they’re doing is playing their role as the Alpha male wanting to defend their family unit. This behaviour coupled to curiosity invariably leads to them heading for the salt. Obviously solitary stallions or bachelor groups make it a lot easier.

By nature zebra are exceedingly alert and their sense of smell, hearing, and sight are excellent and more often than not they will group with other species, and particularly so blue wildebeest. Personally, I feel that in this symbiotic relationship it's more a case of the wildebeest relying on the senses of the zebra, rather than the other way round. Their wariness is particularly noticeable when they’re approaching waterholes in areas where a predator threat exists. They’ll invariably approach in single file and take their time, constantly stopping, listening, and looking for any threat because they are at their most vulnerable when they have their heads down drinking.

Always skittish at water, the slightest disturbance or perceived disturbance will see a herd of zebra gallop off in a cloud of dust with a lot of vocalization. Their vocal noise when excited is one of my favourite bush sounds, and it can be heard for some time after a herd has been disturbed, or one of their number killed. On more than one occasion too, I’ve seen zebra still grazing, although carrying the most horrific wounds as the result of a lion mauling. Africa is an unforgiving continent when it comes to survival of the fittest, and any animal carrying the wounds of a severe lion mauling won’t survive for very long.

Calibre wise, for hunting zebra, any of the .300s work well, as do the 7mm family provided you use a well constructed bullet although it always comes back to that old adage – correct shot placement. Failure to achieve that, no matter what you’re hunting will lead to frustration.

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