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Can zebras be domesticated?

Answer by Rory Young:

Yes, Zebras can be domesticated but it is not necessarily practical or humane to train them to do so.

Lord Rothschild in his zebra-carriage in London.

When I was a child my father used to take me to visit the Brereton family who farmed in a place called Tengwe in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). They had a zebra that used to live with the dairy cows. It was just as tame as the dairy cattle and very relaxed, unless they tried to prevent her from walking through the dairy with the cows when they went to be milked. If that happened she would go completely crazy, trying to bite anyone she could through the gate and kicking at anyone or anything.

Many people suggested someone try to train this animal to be ridden but Mr. Brereton refused. He felt that her nature would not allow it.

Many efforts were made to train zebras for riding, drawing and carrying during the late 19th and early 20th Century. There were very practical reasons for doing so.

Many parts of Sub Saharan Africa were (and still are) inhabited by tsetse flies. These areas were known collectively as "the Fly Belts".

The tsetse fly carries animal trypanosomiasis  and human sleeping sickness.

Although sleeping sickness was and is quite uncommon, "tryps" was not. Domesticated animals such as cattle and horses are particularly susceptible, with horses being the most likely of all to die.

Trypanosomiasis therefore made large areas of Africa inaccessible to the European powers. 

A good example of this was the fact that when the explorer and hunter, Frederick Selous arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1871 and announced that he was going North to Matabeleland to hunt elephant he was laughed at. This was because most of the elephants outside the fly belt in Matabeleland had for the most part already been hunted out.

In 1871 he arrived at the Bulawayo and requested permission of King Lobengula to hunt elephant in his kingdom. Lobengula laughed and gave his consent, believing that the then nineteen year old would get nowhere near the elephants before his horse died under him.

Selous then set off on foot and began his slaughter of thousands of elephants.  He hunted entirely on foot and used porters to carry his equipment and the ivory.

Selous also hunted in nothing but a loin cloth and ate what the locals ate. He also married half a dozen local girls but that was hushed up in Britain.

This was a dramatic change from the norm and considered "savage". Explorers were expected to maintain the Britishness at all costs and impose their norms on the locals, not adopt the customs of the locals nor adapt to the local environment. For this reason it was believed that Europeans simply could not survive any extended amount of time in the African interior.

Selous wrote a book called A Hunter's Wanderings in Africa: Being a Narrative of Nine Years Spent Amongst the Game of the Far Interior of South Africa (1881) which was a huge best-seller.

This book dramatically changed British attitudes. It suddenly became popular in some quarters (although definitely not in most) to "go native". 

The book especially affected attitudes amongst white settlers in Southern Africa. Although they weren't interested in adopting the habits of the indigenous peoples, they did begin to experiment on a large scale with adapting their surroundings to suit them. There were faniciful and unrealistic dreams of farming Cape buffaloes and using leopards as guard dogs and other such ill-informed and ill-advised ideas.

Although game ranching, keeping the animals wild or semi-wild, was very much a practical solution (the carrying capacity is much better and the animals less susceptible to disease), very few seemed to have understood this. There was a need to dominate and control in the way European domestic animals were controlled. The wanted to try and farm wild animals the way European domestic animals were farmed.

Using the zebra to do the work of horses, mules and donkeys was a very popular idea and there were widespread attempts to do so.

One of the most famous of these attempts and the most succesful, was that of the accomplished but eccentric zoologist, Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild .

He put great effort into training zebras to pull carriages, eventually driving a carriage drawn by six horses to Buckingham Palace to prove the viability of doing so.

Rothschild did not train Zebras to be ridden. He realized that this was not practical for two reasons. Firstly they are small animals and have not had the benefits of thousands of years of breeding to produce animals with backs strong enough to support the weight of a man.

Secondly he must have quickly realized what many others would learn, zebras are aggressive. They have not evolved in tamer temperate regions, They have instead evolved to survive as a species in Africa where lions re their main predator.

There are many recorded cases of zebras killing lions. This is usually caused by a kick to the head, causing death or a broken death causing the lion to starve.

To give an idea of the power of a zebra's kick one need just point out that no horse has ever broken a lions jaw. Furthermore, few people have ever walked away after being kicked by a zebra.

A zebra doesn't just kick with the leg. Instead it looks between its legs in order to accurately place its kicks and then bucks and kicks violently with both back legs.


Zebras also inflict nasty bite wounds on each other  and on people when they are habituated or "tame" and people get too close.

In order to get them to draw a carriage Rothschild must have realized something imprtant about wild zebra behaviour. This can be seen in the following image:

(Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/)

Zebra herds are made up of groups of females and young with one adult male.

The females follow a strict order of precedence.  The most dominant female walks in front followed by the other females in order of dominance from most dominant to least dominant.

The male goes wherever he wants but usually stays in the side or back of the group. If there is any perceived threat he will put himself between the danger and the herd.

If a zebra passes or attempts to pass another zebra that is more dominant than themselves then they will be bitten or kicked ferociously by the more dominant animal. Passing is a challenge.

Young animals take the position of the mother in the hierarchy but are allowed to move ahead of the mother in order to accompany another youngster. However, when they do so they adhere to the position of the more dominant zebra's young.

In the 1980s a herd of zebras was captured for relocation in Zimbabwe. Sixteen animals were loaded into a truck and driven off. When the truck arrived at its destination only one zebra was left alive. The others had kicked each other to death.

Attempts were made by the Zimbabwe Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management to train and use zebras for work in the 1970s and 1980s but it was determined that in order to train them it was necessary to first drastically change the natural instincts of the animal.

The project was abandoned with the conclusion that changing the animals natural instincts and aggression inevitably required harsh treatment which was deemed to be inhumane.

So, yes, they can be trained to be ridden and work but to do so is cruel. I wonder what the poor animals in the pictures below went through to be trained to placidly allow a young lady to sit on its back or a fat man to jump with one?

Whilst checking the facts of my own answer I cam e across the following amazing story:


An American teenager called Shea Inman bought and trained a zebra to be ridden.

She didn't use harsh treatment but instead it seems she used persistence and lots of treats; "According to Shea, zebras have short attention spans, and are not as good as retaining information as horses. She said that she uses a lot of treats to train Joey, such as rubbing peanut butter on the bit to help Joey take it easier."

What a wonderful story. No doubt if the colonials had been more gentle and persistent we might have been riding zebras in the Zambezi Valley today.. I find the idea of doing a zebra-back riding safari intriguing.

Here is a picture of a friend and fellow guide Mike Woolford on a horse-back safari. Could he do this on a zebra some day? I will ask him for his comments..

Photo: Mike Woolford

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What is it like to poach animals?

Answer by Rory Young:

I was arrested when I was seven years old for fish poaching.

My friend and I were caught fishing in the Rhodesia National Botanical Garden.

We had no idea what we were doing was wrong until a couple of workers saw us, started shouting, grabbed us by the wrists and then hauled us off to the officer in charge.

Our mothers were called and we were fortunately let off with a fine. The penalty for fish-poaching was up to two years imprisonment and/or a two thousand dollar fine for the first offense.

It is important to differentiate between those who poach out of ignorance, those who do it out of desperation/hunger and those who do it out of greed.

Yes, Rory Young the poacher..

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Is the zebra black with white stripes or white with black stripes?

Answer by Rory Young:

During the colonial era all zebras were white with black stripes. They are now all black with white stripes.

Seriously though, they used to be believed to be white with black stripes because the underbelly is white. They are now however believed to be black with white stripes.

Melanocyte skin cells "activate" the dark hair pigmentation. In the case of the white stripes this development is inhibited. Therefore the colour of the hair/fur is black and the white stripes are a lack of colouration.

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Which animal would win in a battle between a Wolverine and a Honey Badger?

Answer by Rory Young:

Both of these animals are the largest and most successful mustelids in their respective ranges.

They are equally renowned for their ferocity, their ability to take punishment and their unbelievable gluttony.

The honey badger measures up to 96 cm is length, up to 28 cm at the shoulder and weighs up to 16kg.

The wolverine is much larger; up to 107cm in length, up to 45cm at the shoulder and weighs up to 25kg.

I will break down the respective weaponry and defenses for each species.

Firstly the wolverine.

Northern Bad Attitude

The wolverine's teeth are unique. They have a special molar that is revered ninety degrees which is used for breaking through bone. Their jaws are powerful and the combination of strong jaw muscles and special molars allow them to eat every part of the animal including hooves, bones and teeth.

Wolverine Dentition

According to Dr. Jens Persson from the  Swedish Wolverine Project, wolverine claws are believed to be semi-retractable but are actually fixed. However, the toe biomechanics effectively allows them to perform a similar action which of course allows them to be kept sharp. These claws are also curved and therefore ideal for hooking and shredding.

In terms of behaviour, the wolverine is fearless. It has been recorded killing a polar bear by latching onto the throat with its jaws and suffocating the animal. Its primary means of killing is suffocation by biting the throat and not letting go, and also by crushing with its powerful jaws and specially adapted molars.

Wolverine arguing with a bear.

The wolverine's main defense against predators is its ferocity.
It uses this together with its sharp claws, sharp teeth and powerful jaws and thick skin and fur protect its kills against much bigger predators, including wolves and bears. There is a record of a polar bear having been killed by a wolverine after one latched onto its throat and suffocating it to death.

Although the wolverine is known to have a thick hide, wolverines have been recorded killed by North American porcupines' quills in a number of instances.

Now let's look at the honey badger.

Cheeky Little Shit From The South

Other than its willingness to fight to the bitter end, the honey badger's defenses are fourfold.

Firstly, it is built to take a beating. Honey badgers live in an environment inhabited by many much larger predators, including lions, leopards, hyaenas, Cape hunting dogs, cheetahs and of course, as they both evolved in Africa; man. It is normal for predators in this environment to attack and kill any other predator. This is most likely to reduce food competition. That means that honey badgers have evolved to survive in the same environment as these much larger and well equipped carnivores.

Honey badgers need to be exceptionally tough to survive.  Lions, leopards and hyaenas are all well known to attack and attempt to kill honey badgers.  These attempts are sometimes successful but very often they are not. The honey badger will fight non-stop until it is dead or the attacker tires, at which point the honey badger will make a break for it.

The honey badger has an exceptionally tough, thick and loose hide, specifically evolved to defend it against biting, clawing and stinging. It is almost 6mm thick and extremely tough. A good example of how tough is the fact that African porcupine quills rarely penetrate it. Bear in mind that African porcupines are three times the size of their North American cousins.

Their second defense is tirelessness. They can literally keep fighting for hours on end. This is a problem for a predator already battling to gnaw through the skin. The effort is tiring and the whole time the honey badger is struggling and counterattacking with its own claws and teeth.

Never Say Die. F****ing Ever.

The third defense of the honey badger is that when attacked it will go for its attacker's groin. There are records (Stevenson-Hamilton 1947) from the Kruger National Park in South Africa of adult male Cape buffaloes having bled to death after being savaged by honey badgers in this manner.

Lastly the honey badger has a reversible anal gland. The smell produced by it is described as "suffocating".

The honey badgers weaponry includes a set of much smaller but sharper teeth than that of the wolverine, sharp claws and equal ferocity and stubbornness to that of the wolverine.

In my opinion it boils down to whether the wolverine could get through the honey badger's defenses to kill him and whether the honey badger even has the tools to kill a wolverine.

Whilst the wolverines weaponry is formidable, it does not approach that of lions, leopards or hyaenas. Below is a link to a video of a leopard battling to kill a honey badger. It succeeds in the end but takes one hour to do so.

Another video shows a honey badger fending off six lions and then making good his escape.

Now let's look at a hypothetical fight between the two animals.

I think we can pretty much discount either animal's claws doing much other than superficial damage to the other.

The wolverine's greater strength and powerful jaws and teeth would very likely enable it to overpower the honey badger.

However, like the much more powerful leopards and lions it would very likely have a very hard time getting through the honey badger's hide. This would take it possibly hours to do. Would it have to have the stamina to keep fighting the struggling honey badger which would not give up till the death.

As for the honey badger, its teeth, although smaller than the wolverine's would very likely be able to penetrate the wolverine's hide. However, it would not be able to kill the wolverine by biting it to death.

There is of course the question of whether the wolverine could suffocate the honey badger via biting the throat.

This is highly unlikely because of the same loose, thick hide, which is also why lions and leopards take so long to kill them and they have more powerful jaws and wider gapes.

In my opinion honey badger would either rip off the wolverines genitalia, thus causing it to bleed to death or both would die via prolonged mutual mutilation .

After all this talk of these animals' strengths I would like to point out the one big weakness they both possess. They are worse than pigs.

They will eat anything and everything they can their greedy gobs ahold of.

In the case of wolverines they are so greedy that they have been recorded dying after stuffing themselves full of porcupine without taking the time to remove the quills.

I have witnessed the disgraceful and the debilitating extent of honey badger gluttony after one got into a store room at a safari camp I once worked at.

After spending the entire night gorging himself on every foodstuff imaginable he was discovered by one of the workers who ran to tell everybody.

We were of course worried about how we would get him out of there. We needn't have worried.

When we opened the door he literally crawled out on his belly. He had eaten so much that he went straight past us without even glancing left or right and groaning not growling. I wouldn't have been surprised if he had died as a result.

We didn't see him again for a week and when we did he had a very embarrassed look about him.

So, if you ever have to kill one of either of these species the easiest way would probably be to just feed the buggers to death..

A Hungry Honey Badger is an Angry Honey Badger..

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What are some really cool ways animals defend themselves?

Answer by Rory Young:

The honey badger uses raw courage to defend himself.

Whilst other animals use all sorts of weapons and tricks, the honey badger just uses his attitude.

Here is one example of their fearlessness; the naturalist Jonathan Kingdon recorded three Ratels taking a kill away from three sub-adult and four half-grown Lions.

Here is a video that shows six lions attacking a honey badger. What does the honey badger do? He turns around and attacks them! And then he escapes!


It is no wonder they have been called the world's toughest animal.

Here is another example; they are known to attack animals of any size to protect themselves and amazingly there are records from the Kruger Park in South Africa of them killing adult male Cape buffaloes!

So how does an animal that weighs just fifteen kilograms kill a fearsome buffalo weighing nine hundred kilograms, with inch-thick skin and overlapping ribs for armor?

The  answer I'm afraid will make any man cringe and live in fear of honey badgers forever after.

They go for the groin. Eish..

That's right. No queensbury rules or any other rules with these little buggers. They are the street fighters of the bush.

Of course such an animal couldn't be content to eat anything mundane either. One of their favorite snacks is cobra no less.

One thing that always makes me chuckle when I watch a honey badger wander past is the swagger. They really do swagger when they walk and they bloody well deserve to!

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