Out of Place?

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I was not expecting them in such dense bush, but there they were – a small herd of zebra in a grassy clearing. They were unaware of me and completely at ease. Some were leisurely grazing, others stood dreaming with cocked hind leg, one or two were lying down. None jerked up a head to nervously scout around, or paused to test the breeze with wide nostrils. It made sense. I had not spotted any lion sign in the area nor heard any roaring at night since I got here three days ago. The largest predator I could pick up was sign of a lone female leopard and some brown hyena. There were no young among the herd that would be tempting to her. The zebras had, through their arcane ways, concluded that it was safe to relax. I guess they were not looking out for a lone human wanderer. It was just not in their playbook.

A young stallion was a little apart from the rest, closer to me. He would not have ventured from the herd if there were lions around, I mused as I watched him grazing ever nearer. The breeze was across my front and the cicadas were at full cry.  The stallion could not smell me or hear the tiny sounds I might make. He has acute eyesight, but If I stood absolutely still, he might not spot me.

He was in prime condition, almost at his full strength. A truly magnificent specimen, but probably a bit lucky at his age to have won the harem. He had scarcely a bite scar on his powerful neck. His adversary might have been an aged stallion – or might have been taken by predators, and the youngster walked in unopposed. He was full of confidence now. He nonchalantly plucked around him and occasionally swung back his head or stomped a hoof to chase flies from his shiny coat. As Mike Tyson might have said, he had not yet been hit hard in the face. “Oddly apt metaphor from another world,” I smiled to myself.

He was now so close that I could see the individual hairs of his eyelashes. I was hoping he would move on without spotting me, but he lifted his head and looked straight at me. He stopped chewing. I felt a stab of disappointment. He was going to break away in terror and stampede his herd. But he did not. His gaze was without alarm; more mildly interested. “Is he recognising me?” I wond`ered uncertainly. But no, somehow light and shadow and the few bits of foliage between us have conspired to hide my form from him. I was reduced to the status of a passing curiosity, apparently.

He shook his head indifferently, making the ridge of mane along his neck ripple like a wave, and continued grazing. I waited. I dislike influencing wild animals with my presence. Best he moves on and I move away quietly. It took an eternity of cramped muscles from being absolutely motionless and trying not to breathe at all, before he had worked his way past me. I stole away little by little, each time his head was turned or hidden in the grass.

But I was curious. At a safe distance I stopped to watch them. It was a breeding group of four mares and the stallion. Zebras prefer more open savannah. Further to the south I had come across several, but here, in the denser parts, barely a track. This group was making the best of it by seeking out the more open grassy patches, but why did they move here?

Could it have been lack of water or food? Zebras need to drink almost every day, but there seemed to be enough water and grazing just a little further south. Predation? The only predators I know that might cause that, are wild dogs. They strike a kind of irrational fear into the hearts of prey animals when their semi-nomadic ways bring them to an area. If they stay for any length of time, prey animals simply flee.

It made some sense. Wild dogs, even more than zebra, tend to avoid areas of denser vegetation. It does not suit their hunting habits. They were unlikely to come here. Could it be that the senior mare, which leads the movement of troops like this, deliberately brought them to this area, and relative safety, or did they just blindly end up here?

Oh, the ways of the wilderness…


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