After spotting a dead Burchell’s zebra foal in the Kruger National Park, we were privy to a series of touching and extraordinary events. Was what we witnessed a collective grieving ritual by a herd of zebras? Words and pictures by Abraham Mouton
It was December 2015 in the Kruger National Park and we’d had to endure extreme heat – the car temperature gauge exceeded 50˚C, the worst we as Capetonians had ever experienced. The severe drought was extensive and with most dams already empty, it appeared as if the Satara region was hit the hardest. Near the iconic rock fig tree on the first stretch of the S39 gravel road from the H7, a most touching event unfolded.
It was about 10:00 when we reached the S39 turn-off. We slowly made our way through the open savanna studded with a variety of trees. A few kilometres up the road we spotted a half-eaten black and white striped carcass lying in the tall dry grass. We recognised it as that of a zebra foal. There were no other animals in sight, nor any predators, which was very strange. We parked the car and decided to wait and see if a predator such as spotted hyena, cheetah, leopard, lion or wild dog might be responsible and return to continue eating.
The half-eaten carcass was neatly eaten, but only on the one end. We reasoned that perhaps a large piece had been removed and taken away by the predator to feast.
After thoroughly scanning the surroundings with five pairs of eyes, we’d come up empty. Then, suddenly, a zebra made its appearance from behind some trees close by. It stood there for a while, looked around and lifted its head to be able to see the carcass. The zebra moved closer, stopped again, looked around to ensure it was safe and then slowly walked towards the carcass. We guessed it might be the mother of the dead foal as it first circled around, seemingly inspecting the scene.
The zebra then moved closer, nudged the carcass with her nose a few times, licked it, nudged it again and looked around. It seemed the adult wanted the dead foal to show some movement and stand up. All of a sudden, something amazing happened.
The zebra turned around and made a loud, high-pitched “kwa-ha-ha” call, repeating it twice. A second or two later, we heard the answering call of another zebra in the distance. Soon after this, a number of zebras came trotting towards her. Some moved closer, looking at the dead foal, while others remained at a distance. Another zebra took up position right next to the first one, peering down at the dead foal.
The zebra we assumed to be the mother continued to nudge and lick the carcass. By this time, more than 20 zebras had moved in, surrounding her and the dead foal. We were all in awe of the emotional behaviour being displayed. The whole herd of zebras then did something even more astounding: for a few minutes, they all stood motionless.
Had we just witnessed a collective grieving ritual? Did the other zebras attend to pay their respects and give emotional support to the mother? We had goosebumps.
Following the ‘proceeding’, one of the zebras, presumably the stallion, took the lead and slowly walked off, with its head lowered, as if it continued to show respect. Some of the others followed in the same manner, whilst others remained behind and slowly approached the dead foal, looked at it and then turned and followed the others, also with their heads lowered.
During this time, one of the zebras remained with the mother, even touching her side with its body, as if reassuring her. Occasionally, the mother nudged and licked the lifeless body. Eventually, the two moved off, walking across the road in front of us. But the mother returned, eight times, as if pleading with us for assistance to revive the motionless foal. It was heart-wrenching to see. We were struggling to get rid of the lump in our throats.
As the zebras disappeared into the bush, we returned to Satara, deeply touched by this moment. We could not help thinking about the mother. We decided to return to the scene later that afternoon, but as expected, vultures had already located the carcass and cleaned the scene.
Although a lot has been written about how elephants, primates and dolphins react at the death of a group member, very little has been documented about the Burchell’s zebra. In hindsight, we have come to realise just how privileged we were to witness such a state of grief, both individually and collectively as a herd.
Have you ever witnessed something similar? Share your experience with us and your sighting could be featured in Wild’s bi-monthly newsletter.