The Plains Species are many and varied and studying these animals during your programme in South Africa is a dream come true.
Below you will find information on some of the plains species you may encounter during your programme in Africa as well as links to other sites such as Wikipedia, AWF and WWF for more information.
(Zebra, Giraffe, Cheetah, Wild Dog, Jackal, Spotted Hyena)
The Burchell’s Zebra(Equus burchellii)
Burchell’s Zebra conservation status: Least concern
Both mountain zebra subspecies status: Endangered
Grevy’s zebra status: Endangered
Gestation period of 350-400 days
Female zebras mature earlier than the males, and a mare may have her first foal by the age of three. Males are not able to breed until the age of five or six.
Plains zebras have shiny coats that dissipate over 70% of incoming heat and some scientists believe the stripes help the animal withstand intense solar radiation. Zebras move quickly for their large size and have teeth built for grinding and cropping grass. Zebras have horse like bodies, but their manes are made of short, erect hair, their tails are tufted at the tip and their coats are striped.
Three species of zebra still occur in Africa, two of which are found in East Africa. The most numerous and widespread species in the east is Burchell’s, also known as the common or plains zebra. The Burchell’s zebra is built like a stocky pony. Its coat pattern can vary greatly in number and width of stripes. The stripes are a form of disruptive colouration which breaks up the outline of the body and acts as a good camouflage. At dawn or in the evening, when their predators are most active, zebras look indistinct and may confuse predators by distorting distance.
The Giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis)
Conservation status: Least Concern
Rothschild’s Giraffe Conservation status: Endangered Species
Gestation period is 400 – 460 days
The giraffe is the tallest of all land animal species and is also the largest ruminant. The tallest male ever recorded was nearly 6 meters (20 ft) tall.
Giraffes usually inhabit savannas, grassland or open woodland and prefer areas with plenty of acacia growth. Giraffe can drink large amounts of water which allows then to live in more arid areas. The giraffe has one of the shortest sleep requirements of any mammal, an average of 4.6 hours in every 24 hours.
Both sexes have horns, although the horns of a female are smaller. The horns are a reliable method of identifying the sex of giraffes, with the females having tufts of hair on the top of the horns, whereas male giraffe horns tend to be bald on top due to the hairs worn away as a result of necking in combat. Males sometimes develop calcium deposits which form bumps on their skull as they age, which can give the appearance of up to three additional horns.
When hunting adult giraffes, lions try to knock the animal off its feet and pull it down but giraffes are difficult and dangerous prey. The giraffe defends itself with a powerful kick. A single well-placed kick from an adult giraffe can kill a predator. Lions are the only predators which pose a serious threat to an adult giraffe.
The Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus)
Conservation status: Vulnerable species
Gestation period is 90 – 95 days
After 6 weeks, the cub leaves their den, and is strong enough to join hunts with the pack. When they are 6 months old, the mother is known to capture live prey and for the cub to practice its kill technique.
The cheetah is the fastest land animal, they can run at speeds of up to 113 km/h
The cheetah is a carnivore, and generally eats small animals. They have keen eyesight, and use this primarily when hunting. They stay almost camouflaged in grass, or climb a tree and scan for their prey. If the prey animal is small, such as a hare, the cheetah will simply maul the hare to death, but if it is larger, the cheetah will go for the throat, and block the windpipe until the animal stops breathing.
The African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus)
Conservation status: Endangered species
Gestation period is approximately 70 days.
The African wild dog is also called the hunting dog and is a vanishing and endangered species. Throughout Africa, wild dogs have been shot and poisoned by farmers and hunters. Even though protected in parks and reserves, wild dog populations are dangerously low.
Field studies have shown that the wild dog is a highly intelligent and social animal. Like most predators, it plays an important role in eliminating sick and weak animals, thereby helping maintain a natural balance and ultimately improving prey species.
The African wild dog has a colourful, patchy coat, large bat like ears and a bushy tail with a white tip that may serve as a flag to keep the pack in contact while hunting.
Wild dogs hunt impala and other antelopes, warthogs, wildebeest calves, rats and birds. They have a peculiar, playful ceremony that occurs before each hunt. They will circulate among themselves, vocalizing and touching until they get excited. When prey is targeted, some of the dogs run close to the animal, while others follow behind, taking over when the leaders tire. They can run long distances at speeds up to 35 miles per hour, wearing the prey down until it is exhausted or too injured to carry on. Prey rarely escapes once the chase is on.
Black Backed Jackal (Canis mesomelas)Conservation status: Least concern
Gestation period of approximately 60 days
The black backed jackal is recognized by the black hair on the back that contrasts with the rust coloured body. The tail is black tipped, as is that of the golden jackal. The black blacked jackal is usually the most frequently seen of the other jackal species.
Jackals live on their own or in pairs, but are sometimes found in loose packs of related individuals. They are among the few mammal species where the male and female mate for life.
Jackals can best be described as opportunistic omnivores. They cooperatively hunt small or young antelopes and also eat reptiles, insects, ground-dwelling birds, fruits, berries and grass. They will pick over kills made by large carnivores.
Increased habitat loss causes them to infringe more and more on human settlements, where they may be viewed as a danger to livestock and poultry.
Spotted Hyena(Crocuta crocuta)
Conservation status: Least Concern
Gestation period is approximately 110 days
Spotted hyenas are the largest of the three hyenas (spotted, striped and brown) and could have existed for over 5 million years. The spotted hyena is also known as the ‘laughing hyena’ due to it’s unusual call.
It is often said that hyena are only scavengers and live off what they can steal from other predators. In fact hyena are also accomplished hunters and quite capable of hunting in a pack or as individuals to bring down medium sizes antelope. The spotted hyena has incredible strength in it’s jaws which can be used for crushing bone before digestion and a long neck which enables it to carry even the heaviest prey easily and swiftly when necessary. The only parts of prey not fully digested are hair, horns and hooves. The high mineral content of the bones hyenas consume make their droppings a highly visible, chalky white after only a day or two.
Hyenas mark and patrol their territories by depositing a strong smelling substance produced by the anal glands on stalks of grass along the boundaries. Members of a clan will also deposit their droppings in certain area called latrines to mark their territories. Hyenas are social animals that communicate with one another through specific calls, postures and signals.
The males are the smallest of the sexes, are often picked on by the females and are completely subordinate. The females have also evolved to have a seven inch long clitoris which looks almost identical to the male penis and is regularly displayed and strangely it is completely up to the female when mating takes place.