Everyone has particular sightings they dream of when they head out on safari, and I can assure you that no matter how many safaris you do, if you love it as much as I love it, you never stop dreaming. Sometimes my dreams are simple for example ‘ I would love to see a pangolin’ (haha) and sometimes more complicated, say ‘ I would love to witness a birth’. And there is no better time to try for the latter dream than during the calving season in the Serengeti, where a couple of million wildebeest and a few hundred thousand zebra all congregate on the open plains to give birth together.
One of the reasons for this mass-birthing behaviour, is that there is a lot of relative safety to be gained by all dropping calves at the same time. While there will always be predators, hungry and on the prowl, if you flood the market with babies, supply exceeds demand and you have a higher proportionate chance of surviving your first weeks as a baby zebra or wildebeest. It’s a numbers game, this game of life and death, which plays out annually on the beautiful and vast Serengeti plains.
For a newly born zebra, this is just the beginning of an annual migration which will place him in the path of danger many times.
I love zebra, there isn’t much not to love. For starters, they look like stripy horses. In fact I’m fairly certain the Swahili word for zebra, punda milia, means stripy donkey. Isn’t that delightful? And they are beautiful, especially when seen in huge herds, where their patterns flow into one another, forming a sea of stripes and movement. The collective noun for zebra is ‘dazzle’, a perfect way to illustrate what it looks like when a large herd of them move at speed away from a predator.
Heading out one morning in the Serengeti, with my guide and good friend Waziri (AndBeyond East Africa head ranger, who had helped put together this trip, and guided me privately throughout - he is excellent!) we stumbled upon a zebra lying down in the middle of a small herd. Zebra do this sometimes, so its easy not to pay much attention, but fortunately we did, as she had just started the process of giving birth!
We watched, in awe, for over an hour as the little calf slowly slid out, and raised its head for the first time ever, blinking at the world around: a sea of grass and endless sky. It was tiny and wet, its fur not yet fluffy from exposure to the elements, which made it look even more stripy than your usual zebra calf. Given the helpless state us humans are born in, we can’t fully imagine what it’s like to view the world for the first time, and actually have to take in everything around us. To spend those first hours memorising your mothers stripes and scent so you can find her in the herd. Then there is learning to stand, something which it is vital for a zebra to master within the first few hours, and it never knows when it may be faced with the first predator. This little guy, who I nicknamed Harry (he looks like a Harry, and as I’ve said before, I can’t help but anthropomorphise animals) took 7 minutes and 4 seconds to stand up for the first time. Of course he promptly fell down, hoof over head, and then spent the next 30 minutes mastering the trick of standing on spindly, out-of-control legs!
Harry’s mom didn’t help matters much, by gently nudging him over each time he stood, but I’m sure it was to give him extra experience in the art of standing, and to strengthen those as yet unused muscles.
This sighting was incredibly special, and after an hour or so, the calf had managed his first drink of milk, and was becoming ever more confident on his legs, and receiving much attention from the other members of the herd. His mother was back to grazing, keeping a watchful eye on her calf and making sure he never got more than a metre from her side. And we left to enjoy a breakfast of muesli, fruit and eggs overlooking the endless plains, stretching as far as the eye could see.