Circling vultures led me to find the young zebra nuzzling the cold body of his mother, trying to nurse. He is holding vigil as scavenging jackals and vultures dart about, ignoring him, fighting for access to her corpse. There is nothing else that he can do; zebras don’t adopt orphans and the rest of the herd has moved off to the waterhole. The young zebra lets me approach and pet him when I go over to collect samples from the carcass to determine the cause of death and pound in metal stakes to mark the location of the body. He is young and playful, still bearing the brown and furry coat that helps baby zebra blend into the golden-colored grassland. Some time in the night, he is chased from the carcass by lions. The lions probably killed him because this time he doesn’t return.
This young zebra and his mother are both victims of anthrax, a deadly disease that principally affects grazing animals. I was in Etosha National Park, Namibia (in Southern Africa), investigating how infectious hot spots persist to infect zebras and other grazers. After four field seasons and hundreds of carcasses, you would think that I would have become inured to such losses. Instead I became sensitized to the struggles facing young (and old) zebras. When I started the project, I saw a carcass as a data point rather than someone’s mother. Now, as I tell a friend later over a gin and tonic at the bar in the tourist camp, I have to squelch the overwhelming desire to take the poor orphan home and rescue him from his fate. This has also become a problem for me in watching nature shows.