Although closely related to horses and donkeys, zebras have never been domesticated. For me, they would quickly lose their mystique if they were seen pulling a cart down the road or dragging a plow through a field.
There are several subspecies (races) of zebras in Africa. Three are pictured here. The most commonly seen are the plains or Burchell's zebras. These zebras are related to horses and they are often found in the company of wildebeests. The two are complementary grazers, with zebras cropping and trampling the taller grasses to expose the shorter grasses that the wildebeest prefer. Zebras, like horses, are quite fast and have both the speed and endurance to outrun most predators (unless taken by surprise). When being chased, they can deliver a lethal kick from their rear hooves. Male zebras will fight to control "harems" of females. During the fights they try to bite one another with special teeth that only males carry.
The Hartmann's mountain zebra, is found only in Namibia (and perhaps parts of Angola, though it may now be extinct there). These zebras are quite shy and will not allow humans to come very close. They are distinguished from the plains zebras by larger ears, the absence of "shadow stripes," fully striped legs and a "gridiron" pattern of parallel stripes on the rump.
More rarely seen are the Grevy's zebras, which are related to asses or donkeys. These animals are larger than their plains cousins and are distinguished by their rounder ears, pure white bellies (no stripes on the stomach) and a "chevron" pattern on their hindquarters. Grevy's also have a brown spot on their noses. Their skin was especially prized for rugs and wall hangings. Today, they are found only in isolated areas, such as the protected Lewa Downs conservation area.
There are several theories about how the zebra came to evolve its distinctive stripes. Some say it provides camouflage in the tall grass. Perhaps that is true, but zebras are seen too often on the open plains for this camouflage to be of much use. The explanation that makes more sense to me is that the stripes serve to confuse predators by making it difficult to pick individuals out of a herd or even to tell which direction an individual is facing. Most predators are thought to see in black and white. In a running herd, a sea of swirling black and white stripes would create visual overload and make it difficult for a predator to focus on one individual.
Supposedly, no two zebras have the same pattern of stripes (just as no two people have the same fingerprints). Another bit of trivia is that the stripes continue into the zebra's mane. Even though the hair is standing on end, the pattern of stripes is unbroken.
For those who plan to visit Africa, a little zebra lore. First, the common pronunciation of "zebra" in Africa is with a short "e," so the word rhymes with the name Debra (or Deborah), rather than the U.S. pronunciation of "ZEE-bra." Second, sooner or later, your guide will ask you how to tell a male zebra from a female (assuming the distinguishing part of the male anatomy is not visible). The answer: a male is black with white stripes while the female is white with black stripes (or perhaps it's vice versa).