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Hunting the Zebra

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The Quintessential African Trophy

Sometimes unkindly referred to as the "pajama donkey", the Burchell’s zebra is one of the most exquisite trophies any bowhunter could wish for and this is one time when size is not really important, even a rug mount of a sub-adult is eye catching in it’s beauty.

They are sometimes erroneously referred to in Afrikaans as "kwaggas". The true quagga however, whilst closely related to the Burchell’s zebra, became extinct towards the end of the last century when the last living specimen died in captivity in 1883. The whistling intake of breath followed by nasal "kwa ha kwa ha ha" whistling of these animals is one of the unique and captivating sounds of the African bush. It is thought that the name "kwagga" originated from the call. Inhabiting open grass plains and well grassed woodlands this species must surely rank as one of Africa’s most elegant children.

Belonging to the horse family zebra have typical horse-like features. The general colour is white or buff with starkly contrasting dark brown to black stripes, which become broad and oblique over the hind quarters. Stripes extend very low down to the belly on the flanks. The height at shoulder is about 50 – 55" (127 – 140cm) and they weigh in at about 500 – 700lb (230 –320kg). There is no significant difference in size and weight between the sexes.

Stallions however tend to have slightly thicker necks. The Burchell’s zebra differs from mountain zebra in that the ears are shorter, a dewlap is absent, there is no "grid" pattern at the base of the tail and they have lighter shadow stripes between the black stripes on the hind quarters. Zebra always appear to be in good condition with shiny coats and well filled out bellies. This despite the fact that zebra carry one of the highest parasite loads of all wild animals. Most wild animals are host to many parasites but zebra have a particularly high load when compared to other species. Some zebra even have a parasitic worm that lives in the aortic arch of the aorta as it exits from the heart. Most internal organs harbour specific parasites.


Most authorities agree that that Burchell’s zebra has never occurred south of the Olifants river in South Africa. In the Southern African sub-region they are found in the north and north eastern parts of the Koakoveld in Namibia up to the Botswana border. They are widespread in Botswana north of Lake Ngami and the Makgadigadi pan and in the Tuli block. They are absent in the central plateau and eastern districts of Zimbabwe but occur north and south of the plateau.

They are found in the north and eastern parts of Mpumalanga, in parts of Gauteng, Northern province, North West province and in parts of Natal Kwazulu in South Africa. They also occur in parts of Swaziland. They are found south of the Zambezi in Mocambique but are absent in the south and more densely populated eastern parts of the country.


The Burchell’s zebra is a savanna species that is partial to open woodland, shrub and grassland where water is readily available. They avoid dense woodland if possible and although they occur in dry semi arid areas, they are not found in true desert country. Their particular habitat preferences and water requirements often result in seasonal migrations.


Zebra are gregarious animals that form small family groups consisting of a stallion, one or two adult mares and foals of varying ages. Family group size averages 7 – 10 animals. While herding mares a stallion keeps it’s head lowered and ears forward. Stallions who have no mares form bachelor groups or live alone.

Family groups remain distinct even in large aggregations of zebra. There does not appear to be any social organization above that of family groups.

Burchell’s zebra are often seen in the company of blue wildebeest. This is because they both favour short grass areas. Zebra have loosely organized home ranges and readily move to wherever food and water are available.

There is quite a lot of group interaction and social grooming in zebra. They often lean against each other. Vocal communication is important in this species. Courting stallions "nicker", animals will whinny or will snort by forcing air through the nostrils to warn of danger.

When attacked by predators a breeding herd bunches up. When they run, the stallions hang back or position themselves on the flank to ward off the predators, which they often do successfully. Scarred rumps from unsuccessful lion attacks attest to the effectiveness of their defensive kicks.

Zebra, to their own detriment, tend to be inquisitive, often returning to investigate a source of initial flight. This can sometimes give a bowhunter a second chance if he has "spooked" a herd of zebra.

Competition between rival stallions can sometimes erupt into full scale fights with biting, kicking and rearing. Burchell’s zebra are not territorial. Lion and hyaena are the main predators of zebra. Mortalities also occur through disease. Zebra are very partial to taking dust baths and it is common to find areas within their habitat where they roll in the sand or bare ground.

Because they are preyed upon by lion, especially around waterholes, they are wary when approaching to drink.


Zebra are mainly grazers, but occasionally will browse on leaves and scrub. They also dig for grass rhizomes and corms during the dry season. They graze on short grass and are able to survive in areas with poor or coarse grass cover.

Zebra have a strong, mobile upper lip which helps to channel food between the incisors. Two of the favourite grass species selected by zebra are Cynodon dactylon and Themeda triandra. They have been observed feeding on the singed leaves of mopane (Colophospermum mopane) and round leaf teak ("dopper kiaat") – Pterocarpus rotundifolia.

Zebra are very partial to green flushes which occur after a burn or following rain. They will also feed on the devil thorn Tribulus terrestris , a herbaceous pioneer plant growing on disturbed or overgrazed ground, which is poisonous to sheep.

They are very dependent on water and never wander very far from water holes. Zebra require approximately 14 litres of water per day to meet their physiological requirements but will drink an average of 21 litres at a time as the drinking frequency is in the region of once every 36 hours.

Zebra are not ruminants. They have a single stomach and a very enlarged portion of the large intestine – the caecum – fulfills the fermenting function of the four stomachs of ruminants. Zebra are referred to as hindgut fermenters.



Rug mounts make beautiful and eye catching trophies with their starkly contrasting black and white stripes. As the hide is the trophy in this animal it is important to ensure that field preparation and skinning is carried out in a professional and thorough way.

Signs to look for


If you have been following the series of articles on tracking you will recall that sign does not only include visual clues but also those picked up by your other senses as well – such as sound, smell, touch and taste. Zebra are very vocal animals and will frequently betray their presence by "barking", whinnying, and snorting. These sounds can carry a long way in the bush and can lead you to zebra long before you have a visual sighting. Listen for these signs.

Tracks and droppings

The tracks of zebra are those of the typical horse-like hoof. The general hoof structure is well known and should be familiar to anyone who has seen a horse. The horse family only have one "toe" (the third) on each leg and only the tip of the toe (the hoof) comes into contact with the ground.

The tracks of Burchell’s zebra resemble those of a small horse. The length of the track is about 120 – 140mm with the hind track being slightly longer and narrower. On hard ground only the edges of the hoof and the frog will be visible. Zebra dung is kidney shaped with each individual pellet about 50mm in length. It is usually deposited randomly because zebra are not territorial.

Grazing areas

Areas heavily grazed by zebra are often characterized by trampling and by grass having been cropped fairly close to the ground. Signs of digging with hooves in search of underground corms and rhizomes can sometimes be observed.

Dust baths and rubs

Zebra enjoy rolling in sandy areas and they leave bare, dusty patches behind. They also sometimes choose a convenient object such as a rock or log to rub themselves on. Hair will be left behind on the object. See Figure 5 and 6.

Figure 6: A zebra rubbing against a tree. Hair will be found on the tree.

Hunting techniques for bowhunters

Zebra will be found in well grassed woodland or in fairly open grassland. It is relatively easy to stalk up to zebra in woodland but can be quite difficult in open habitat. To the advantage of the bowhunter zebra are not easily spooked. They are inquisitive and will sometimes stand to watch an approaching intruder. They might even approach closer to investigate.

Even after having been stampeded they will stop after having run off a short distance. It is not unusual for them to return to the site of disturbance to investigate the source of their fright. Although zebra will allow you to approach them in open habitat their flight distance is too far to fall within bow range. It is therefore advisable to try, as far as possible, to approach without being seen or to position yourself to intercept a herd along its direction of travel.

Zebra have a keen sense of sight, hearing, and smell.

Always approach downwind if possible. Zebra are successfully hunted using spot and stalk and walk and stalk techniques, or using hides or elevated platforms. In open areas the use of a ground blind or even hiding in a disused aardvark burrow are further options open to the bowhunter.

The dependence of zebra on water make waterholes and the approaches to waterholes good ambush sites. A good hunter can sometimes call zebra in by mimicking the "kwa ha kwa ha ha" call.

Shot placement

Quartering away and broadside shots into the heart lung area should be the target area of choice. See Figure 7. Frontal and rear end shots are not advised. When taking a broadside shot be careful of placing the shot too far forward as the shoulder blade (scapula) and upper bone of the foreleg (humerus) are quite substantial and will definitely have a detrimental effect on arrow penetration. Concentrate on the top of the crease at the back of the foreleg or slightly behind it for good arrow placement.

Zebra are fairly broad animals and arrow pass through is not always guaranteed. Incomplete pass through will result in a poorer blood spoor. Fortunately the open to semi-open habitat frequented by zebra usually makes follow up fairly straight forward after a good shot.

Follow up

Wait a minimum of 30 minutes before following up after a heart/lung shot, at least 2 to 3 hours after a liver shot and 10 to 12 hours before you begin looking for a gut shot animal.

Zebra have a fairly slow blood clotting time. Blood clots in about 9 to 11 minutes.

They lose a lot of blood therefore before the clotting process becomes effective. This works to the bowhunters advantage.

Choice of equipment

Any efficient bow of 60lbs or more will be able, with the help of a good broadhead tipped arrow, and good shot placement, to dispatch a fully grown zebra. Carbon, wooden and aluminium arrows have all been used with good effect when matched to the right bows.

A complete arrow weight of at least 500 grains is advised. The arrow / broadhead combination must be able to deliver a momentum of 0.4 or a kinetic energy of 60 – 70 foot pounds.

Don’t go too light. A heavier arrow having higher momentum will penetrate better through tissue and bone than will a light arrow.

A strong, well constructed , one-piece broadhead of high mechanical advantage and cut on impact point is suggested.

Remember that two-blade broadheads will generally have better penetration than three or four blades. Three blade broadheads will however keep the wound channel open and give a better blood trail to follow.

Hunting techniques for rifle hunters

It is relatively easy to get within rifle range on foot when hunting zebra. A heart lung shot would be a good choice of shot if the range is a bit far as it presents the biggest target.

When using a scope or at closer range the neck and brain shot are also options.



7mm Remington Magnum

150 or 160 grain SP, NP

.308 Winchester

150, 165 or 180 grain SP, NP

30-06 Springfield

150, 165, 180 or 200 grain SP, NP

.300 Winchester Magnum

150, 165, 180 or 200 grain SP, NP

.300 Weatherby Magnum

150, 165, 180 or 200 grain SP, NP

.338 Winchester Magnum

180, 200, 225,or 250 grain SP, NP

.340 Weatherby Magnum

200, 225 or 250 grain SP, NP

.350 Remington Magnum

200 grain SP

.375 Holland & Holland Magnum

250, 270 or 300 grain SP, NP

378 Weatherby Magnum

270 or 300 grain Barns –X or RN expanding

* SP – Soft Point NP - Nosler Partition RN – Round Nose

One thing to bear in mind when choosing the neck shot as an option is that there is a thick ligament running in the top of the neck above the spine which if hit will cause the animal to drop in its tracks as if with a spinal shot.

Don’t be surprised if, when approaching the animal it suddenly gets up and runs off!

Cleve Cheney holds a bachelor of science degree in zoology and a master’s degree in animal physiology. He is a wilderness trail leader, rated field guide instructor and the author of many leading articles on the subjects of tracking, guiding, bowhunting and survival. Cleve has unrivalled experience in wildlife management, game capture and hunting, both with bow and rifle.
Click here to visit his site

Reading in the history books of the old west there are records of cowboys actually using this technique to capture wild horses.

The idea is to place a neck shot at about the midpoint of the thickness of the neck and not aim too high in the neck.

Choice of equipment

There are a wide range of calibre and bullet choices for hunting zebra. Some of the many possibilities are listed in the next table.

Avoid using solids. Soft point bullets will work for brain neck or heart lung shots.

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