Every year as the seasonal rains return to Botswana, thousands of zebra begin their annual migration from the Savuti marshlands of northern Botswana into the Nxai Pans of the central Kalahari. They’re drawn by the promise of the mineral-rich grasses that fill the pans after the first drops of rain awaken their dormant seeds. Through the dry winter months, Botswana’s zebra populations stay along the banks of the major river systems – the Boteti in the center, and the Chobe, Okavango, and Kwando-Linyanti in the north. These regions offer the safest promise of water and grass – the two things that zebras really need to survive. But as the rains return, they’re able to roam freely in search of more nutritious grazing lands.
An afternoon thunderstorm rolled into the Savuti after a morning of searing heat. The air was intensely humid as rain evaporated off the sun-baked sands. African sage scented the balmy air, and the vibrating hum of a thousand insects resonated in our ears. We were lurching our way down a sandy track, each of us lost in our own thoughts when we suddenly found ourselves amid a large herd of zebras. Our guide, Metal, cut the engine and we sat in silence as a hundred zebras wandered around us. The shifting layers of stripes disoriented your brain in a strangely hypnotizing way. They parted around our vehicle, rejoining on the other side and continuing on in their eternal quest for better grazing.
But not all of the zebras were so singularly focused though. The males were distracted by their crazed need to mate, leaving them unsettled and irritable. For zebras, it’s not as simple as finding a female and courting her. Dominant males control and protect their own group of females, called their harem. If younger males want to mate, they have to challenge a dominant male in hopes that they will defeat him and gain access to their very own harem.
For the most part these challenges consist of a lot of chasing, braying, biting, and snorting. It’s not a terribly impressive display of strength as far as mating rituals go. As the males chase each other in little circles, the females just go about their business, chewing on mouthfuls of leathery grass and flicking away flies with a disinterested look on their faces.
We were incredibly lucky to experience this wildlife spectacle, and bonus points for getting to see one of these comical displays of testosterone. While the general cycle of the migration doesn’t change much, the timing is entirely dependent on when the rains arrive. Based on typical rainfall patterns, we shouldn’t have seen it given our time and location. But that’s the magic of going on safari. You never know what incredible things you’ll get to see.
All photos by Kelsea Lee