Scientists have just discovered the longest-known terrestrial migration of mammals in Africa and surprisingly, it’s not in the Serengeti. It’s being completed by a population of zebras who have been traveling between Botswana and Zamibia without anyone noticing.
Researchers from the World Wildlife Fund and Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET), in partnership with Elephants Without Borders (EWB) and Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks, put GPS collars on eight adult female Burchell’s zebras and tracked their movements for two years in a row.
They discovered the zebras were traveling back and forth between the floodplains of the Chobe River in Namibia and the grasslands of Botswana’s Nxai Pan National Park, which is round trip of more than 300 miles (watch their movements tracked here). Even though a few hundred miles might not seem like a great distance for land mammals to travel, considering the increasing obstacles in their way, their journey is as impressive as it is surprising. According to WWF:
The zebra complete the first half of the trip over two to three weeks in November and December, probably in search of fresh grazing in Botswana’s Nxai Pan National Park. The rainy season’s ample rainfall allows the zebra to thrive away from permanent water sources for an average of 10 weeks before they return to the Chobe River along the Namibia/Botswana border for the dry season.
“This unexpected discovery of endurance in an age dominated by humans, where we think we know most everything about the natural world, underscores the importance of continued science and research for conservation,” said Dr. Robin Naidoo, senior conservation scientist at WWF, in a statement.
According to the statement, the migration is taking place entirely within the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) – the world’s largest multi-country conservation area, which spans 109 million acres across Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Angola.
The fact that we’re still being surprised by wildlife and discovering long-distance migrations hiding in plain sight is yet another testament to the marvels of nature in a world that’s increasingly dominated by humans and that even with all that we know, we still have so much more to learn. Migration studies, like this one, also help determine where critical routes are and highlight the importance of conserving large areas and keeping corridors open to help migratory animals survive. They will never understand, or abide by, the arbitrary lines we draw on maps.
“Wildlife like these zebra need the freedom to roam beyond protected cores, and sometimes even beyond humanity’s national borders. This is particularly important as climate change causes habitats to shift, forcing migratory and nonmigratory wildlife alike to move as the habitat rug is pulled out from underneath them,” Jeffrey Parrish, managing director at WWF, told National Geographic.
Researchers will reportedly continue to study the zebras to determine whether they take the exact same route every year and to try and figure out whether the routes are genetically coded, or whether they’re being passed down through generations by older animals who know them well.
“At a time when conservation news is inherently rather negative, the discovery of this unknown natural phenomenon should resonate with people around the world. The government’s commitment to secure key migratory corridors serves to underpin the growing wildlife tourism industry. We plan to continue monitoring the migration to try and conserve such increasingly rare natural events,” said Dr. Mike Chase, EWB’s founder.
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