The late afternoon sky was broody and the scattered clouds hung in the sky like forgotten washing on a clothesline. The plains game were resolutely going about their business, when I came upon a scene that sucked the air out of my lungs and sent a jolt of pain through my stomach.
A zebra foal was lying prone on the ground while several fully grown zebras stood guard in squadron formation around him. I was convinced the poor mite was dead and joined the heart wrenching vigil over him from the safe distance of the Landy. From what I’ve read and understood in the past, zebras usually give birth at night and away from other zebras, so I wasn’t sure what had happened here.
Suddenly there was an almost imperceptible twitch. Was my imagination getting the better of me? The African Savannah was dead quiet. The zebra guard remained watchful.
The zebra foal attempted to stand and flopped straight back down again. The effort it took for him to move was so intense that I felt exhausted – as if just the act of watching and wishing him alive was overtaxing.
He remained on the ground and the seconds ticked on, morphing into minutes. With a massive effort he managed to manoeuvre himself into a standing position and stayed upright. He seemed as surprised as we were. He ventured a couple of tottering steps on his spindly legs. The co-ordination just to put one hoof in front of the other nearly set him back on the floor.
Zebra foals are born with inordinately long legs. This is a survival strategy that makes it more difficult for predators to identify the young in the herd. Their tummies line up with the adults and the black and white stripes blur into each other. The downside of this is that their legs are harder to control.
He made his way over to a zebra who seemed to be studiously ignoring him, while she grazed. She even moved slightly away from him. He stumbled closer to her and put his head on her neck. Then he walked a few steps away and collapsed on the floor again. His long ungainly legs folded up neatly next to him. He put his head down and seemed to give up.
The euphoria of seeing him stand up and move was quickly eclipsed by the overwhelming pathos of being back at square one.
Still the zebra guard observed.
Eventually after time seemed suspended for a spell, he stood up and walked over to his mother on marginally firmer footing. Once again, he rubbed his head on her neck and this time she responded to him. Once he had had a drink, the zebra guard visibly relaxed and the herd mustered and started to move across the plain with the littlest member staying close to his Mommy.
I realised that I had probably arrived a few minutes late for his birth, but I had still had the privilege of watching some of his very first baby steps. I was amazed that within a couple of minutes after all this drama, he managed to follow his Mommy and the herd to a new location.
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