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The Story Of... Zebra and the Puzzle of African Animals

Perhaps the most puzzling question Jared Diamond encounters as he investigates animal domestication is: Why were no large mammals ever domesticated in tropical Africa?

Africa, south of the Sahara, is home to the richest diversity of animal life on the planet, including some of the largest mammals on earth. So why did the Africans never domesticate the rhino? Why did they never farm the hippo? The elephant? Or the giant wildebeest? Perhaps most strangely of all, given the importance of the horse to European history, why did tropical Africans never domesticate their own species of wild horse, the zebra?

Zebra are closely related to the domesticated horse, sharing a genus (Equus) and a common ancestor. They stand nearly five feet at the shoulder, live in small family groups or herds, are sociable herbivores who breed well in public and live in harmony with their mammalian neighbors, like antelopes and wildebeest. They are even strong enough to carry an adult human on their backs.

Zebras are also notoriously difficult to catch. They have evolved superb early-warning mechanisms , such as peripheral vision far superior to other horses. Often bad tempered, they grow increasingly antisocial with age and once they bite, they tend not to let go. A kick from a zebra can kill — and these creatures are responsible for more injuries to American zookeepers each year than any other animal.

Pity the poor human, therefore, who might try to domesticate a zebra in the wild. During the colonial era, some adventurous Europeans tried to harness this African horse. Lord Rothschild famously drove a zebra-drawn carriage through the streets of Victorian London. Yet these creatures were never truly domesticated — they were never bred and sustained explicitly under human control.

Why is it so hard to tame the zebra? Survival of the Fittest.

Zebra and other African game evolved characteristics to help them survive one of the harshest environments on earth.

Africa was the birthplace not just of humanity, but also of much of our planet's plant and animal life. Species which remained on this continent rather than migrating to new lands, evolved alongside one another for millions of years, becoming highly attuned to the predatory nature of their environment.

Sharing their habitat with some of the most dangerous predators on earth, including lions and cheetahs, leopards and hyenas natural selection forced African wildlife such as the zebra to evolve clever survival techniques.

Similar antisocial characteristics have prevented the domestication of other African wild game. Rhinos, at over 5 tons in weight and immensely strong, could have been terrific beasts of burden for African farmers -just imagine the sight of a rhino-mounted cavalry! Yet rhinos are spectacularly bad-tempered and unpredictable. Although they have poor eyesight, their senses of smell and hearing are especially acute. Despite their bulk, rhinos are remarkably agile, and when provoked into a charge — often by little more than an unfamiliar smell or sound — an agitated rhino can reach speeds of up to 45 km per hour, even in dense undergrowth.

The hippo, could also have offered unique agricultural and military advantages to African civilization. However, the hippo's aggressive nature, crushing jaws and four-and-a-half ton size make them deadly. They are also extremely territorial — males often fight to the death over control of a harem. Hippos are said to account for more human deaths throughout Africa per year than any other mammal, except the lion.

A pattern emerged. African herbivores were simply too aggressive for human control. Elsewhere in the world, mammals evolved in isolation from human interference — after all, man only lived outside of Africa for a fraction of his existence on earth-- around 50,000 years. When man arrived in Eurasia and in the Americas, native herbivores were by nature less cautious and more receptive to human control.

But in Africa, man and beast have evolved alongside one another for millions of years. Large mammals have learned to avoid — or if necessary, attack — human beings, resisting capture with some of the most sophisticated physiological characteristics on earth.

Where to next?

Get more stories about animals including Cattle, Goats, Pigs, Horses, Llamas, or Sheep.


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