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The Makgadikgadi Pans National Park is part of a rare African open wild land. The environment is so harsh that zebras have to cover a lot of ground to survive. (Adrian Bailey)

Nothing Can Stop the Zebra

A 150-mile fence in the Kalahari Desert appeared to threaten Africa's zebras, but now researchers can breathe a sigh of relief

We finally come upon Seretse. “She’s a beautiful zebra,” Bradley says fondly. And indeed she is—strong and fat and pregnant, with bolder stripes than the others. Soon we’re on a roll, locating three more mares. I calculate that we’ve seen roughly 4,000 zebras so far. So where are the other 16,000?

In spite of recent rains, there’s no standing water in the grasslands, and Bradley suspects the zebras may be heading back to the Boteti until more rain arrives. We drive to the river, and I see the fence cutting through it, running along the far shore. It’s no longer electrified and sections of it float, unhinged, in the water. There are few zebras, though; Bradley later finds most of the population east of where we had been tracking the collared animals, an indication of how unpredictable their movements can be. At the Boteti, fat cows graze brazenly against the fence.

Upstream, we meet a safari guide named Patrick Keromang. He tells us that three lions crossed the river the previous night, breached the fence and killed eight cows. One lion was shot dead by villagers.

I cross the Boteti with Keromang in an aluminum boat and then we drive along the fence. He points out where honey badgers have tunneled beneath it on their nightly rounds. This is where the lions escaped the reserve. Thorny branches plug the holes, a makeshift repair by villagers and lodge staff to render the fence less porous.

Ten years into the zebra-monitoring project, Bradley and his colleagues can report that the species is thriving. Early indications are that the Makgadikgadi fence does not restrict their migration, which is largely east of the river, and has actually had a positive impact on the park’s wildlife. “Shortly after the fence went up, the behavior of zebras changed rapidly, and they relaxed a little more,” Bradley told me. Farmers no longer chased the zebras away, and there was more water to go around. “Zebras were seen resting within the riverbed itself—something which didn’t happen before the fence.” Reduced competition from cattle has meant more grazing for zebras inside the park. More zebra foals are surviving beyond their first year, and the population appears to be growing.

“Fences have been generally viewed as a disaster for large migratory herbivores,” says Ken Ferguson of the University of Pretoria in South Africa, who specializes in studying the effects of fences on wildlife. But the zebra research project, contrary to expectations, “underlines the fact that not all fences need be ‘bad’ for conservation.” In fact, what he calls “responsible” fencing can benefit wildlife by keeping it in dedicated enclaves or preventing conflicts with humans.

Bradley can’t say for sure whether the zebras are benefiting from the fence, the return of the river, the recent higher rainfall or some combination of all three, but he says the health of the population means that, “given the chance, animals will often be able to respond to cycles of good and bad years and bounce back.”

That evening, overlooking the river, Keromang tells me that just the week before, processions of zebras were overrunning the banks, arriving at midday and drinking into the night. It was a noisy affair, the air thick with their whooping, barking calls. Less than an inch of rain was all it took for distant water holes to fill up and the herds to vanish overnight. The sandy, rain-pocked shores are silent now. And empty. Except for the faint scrawl of zebra tracks meandering up the bank and into the grasslands beyond.

Robyn Keene-Young and her husband, photographer Adrian Bailey, have spent the past 15 years documenting African wildlife. They are based in South Africa.

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