And The Most Photogenic Animal in the African Savanna is?

The zebra…


“There is a place where the grass meets the sky, and that is the end”
-Maasai saying

Now you probably wonder, why? or how did you arrive to this conclusion? Well, first as I always say when I begin a post about something that not everybody will agree with, this is my own opinion based on my experience…and you are most welcome to disagree with me.

So this is how it all began….Most people visiting Africa for vacation normally spend a couple of weeks jumping around between different wildlife reserves, trying to see a much as they can. This is understandable since it is not a cheap experience and worst of all, unless you come from Europe you are doomed to spend almost two days traveling until you get to your final destination.

I bet you can

Because I love to visit one or two places at a time spending quality time exploring those places I decided to stay a whole week at the Serian camp located in the Mara North Conservancy. My decision proved to be great; it not only gave me the opportunity to return several times to areas where certain animals are commonly found increasing my probabilities of getting great shots of them and of the breath-taking landscape, but most importantly allowed me to meet different and very interesting people every day.

It was indeed a very delightful experience; depending on the time you decided to go out to watch some game, some of us would see each other at breakfast or lunch, but it was at night, when the the whole camp would get together for dinner like a big family that the real fun began. During those beautiful African nights we would exchange day experiences, share our pictures (thanks to the iPad), laugh, drink and eat great food while submerged in deep and some times heated discussions.

Gravy Zebra at the Smithsonian National Zoo. Gravy zebras are very endangered

On my very last night at the camp a documentary producer with whom I was chatting about ideal camera equipment suddenly asked me, “well so which is your favorite animal to photograph?” I have to say that I had a sudden blank; of course my thoughts immediately focused on my favorite animals…but that is not what she really asked. So I began to rationalize and said “well, I love elephants and lions and cheetahs and giraffes, but giraffes are so difficult to photograph because they are too tall and you need to learn to position yourself in order to get a good shot of them…and lions and cheetahs, well you have to be lucky because they sleep most of the day”…she interrupted my rumblings and said “I love to photograph zebras, there is something about them”…I said “umh I can see that,” and although I had taken literally hundreds of pictures of zebras during that week I suddenly remembered a picture I had taken early this year of one of the National Zoo Gravy zebras, there was something magical almost unreal about that picture.

Back in the U.S. I began cataloging my pictures, had to go through more than 5,000 images, and to make the process easier I put each species in its own folder and that is when I really saw my zebras…

Zebras Mingling with Wildebeest before crossing the Mara River
Drinking water before crossing the Mara River

At the heart of the Serengeti ecosystem lies an ancient phenomenon that is the largest movement of wildlife on earth. For many millenniums the wildebeest followed the rains and used the Serengeti ecosystem with its mosaic of grasslands and savannahs in pursuit of food and water. This migration is so attractive and profitable in terms of survival that hundreds of thousands of zebras and Thomson’s gazelle join the million and a half wildebeest in their annual 310-mile journey.

Zebra and Wildebeest crossing the Mara river together

During the migration it is very common to find plains zebras marching and grazing next to the wildebeest, they complement each other preferring different parts of the same grass. But zebras are definitively smarter (I know I should not say this), and with their superior vision and hearing, they function as an early warning system for the wildebeest. In turn they somehow know that given the choice, predators prefer wildebeest meat to zebra. So zebras are very happy with the status quo.

Watching me watching them…

I guess all this information doesn’t answer your question, why did I pick the zebra as the most photogenic animal in the African savanna?

Well because of their coat! No animal has a more distinctive coat than the zebra, in fact, growing up this striped horse-like mammal was the ultimate symbol of an African safari in my mind. Each animal’s stripes are as unique as fingerprints are to humans -no two patterns are exactly alike.

Resting on each others back: Head resting is one of this animal most typical and curious social behavior

Scientist don’t have a clear idea as why zebras have stripes, at this points there might be more more theories than zebra in the wild. Many of those center on their utility as some form of camouflage. The patterns may make it difficult for predators to identify a single animal from a running herd or provide some kind of “invisibility shield” at down and dusk when color-blind predators like lions and hyenas normally hunt. Another theory says that stripes may act like a natural repellent by confusing insects like the tsetse fly that only recognizes large areas of singled-colored fur. Other say that because of their uniqueness, stripes may also help zebras recognize one another.

Learning about the behavior of animals in the wild can be very helpful to a photographer. It gives us a frame of reference as what to expect or what to look for when using your camera to describe an animal

Maybe the reason zebras have stripes is a combination of all the above or none at all. Regardless, it probably has to do with survival of the species and natural selection since everything in nature happens or exists for a reason.

Funny thing is that in Africa a herd of zebra is commonly refer to as a “dazzle of zebra” the scientific explanation of that name is because their pattern probably confuses predators. This explanation is probably not true, in fact, they are so conspicuous that when you see them on a picture most times they don’t even look real. If anything the contrast of the zebra’s coat pattern against their background is so amazing that they do dazzle humans.

Mom and Young Grazing

As a biologist I do find intriguing that scientist have not been able to pinpoint the main reason as why zebras have stripes, but as a photographer I could care less because I do believe that those stripes are the reason as why the dazzling zebra is the most photogenic animal of the African savanna.

To see more pictures of zebra please visit the album A Dazzle of Zebras

5 responses to “And The Most Photogenic Animal in the African Savanna is?”

  1. A great perspective and fantastic photos along the way – the zebra is truly dazzling. Thanks for sharing, keep shooting! 🙂

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