Nine out of 10 South Africans are meat eaters, so there’s a good chance they enjoyed a braai over the holidays. But there’s very little chance they ate zebra. That may soon change, though, because new evidence from animal scientists at Stellenbosch University shows zebras are an ideal species for meat production.

Zebras produce some of the leanest meats in the world, with an average of 0.5g of fat per 100g and high levels of protein, zinc, iron, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids.

The new findings come as the government puts the finishing touches to SA’s new game meat strategy, which aims to formalize, transform and expand an industry dominated by impala, springbok, kudu, wildebeest, and blesbok.

The meat and offal yield from a zebra compares favourably to many game, equine, and livestock species, says an analysis of 20 carcasses published last month in the journal Animals.

“The considerable contribution of the edible byproducts and the high muscle yield indicates that the Plains zebra can potentially be used as a valuable protein source, thereby contributing to food security in especially rural areas of SA,” it says.

The leanness and high nutritional value of equine meat make it popular in several European countries, and most zebra meat harvested in SA is exported. Locally, hunters target zebras mainly for their skins.

When student Angelique Myburgh realized little research had been done into zebras as a source of food, she launched her study with the assistance of lecturer Helet Lambrechts and the then-head of Stellenbosch’s animal sciences department, Louw Hoffman.

Eight zebra stallions were killed by a hunter with shots to the head in the winter of 2017 at a farm near Bredasdorp in the Western Cape, and another 12 were culled in January 2018 at the Quagga Project at Elandsberg Nature Reserve near Riebeeck Kasteel.

The valuable skin was removed, followed by the head, hooves, and offal, then the carcasses were quartered and seven muscles were removed and weighed. They included loin, topside, silverside, eye of the round, and fillet.

The highest-yielding animal produced 24.15kg of meat, and the average was 18.5kg. Edible offal, including the gastrointestinal tract, liver, heart, lungs, kidneys, and spleen, amounted to about 110kg on average, with a maximum of 136kg.

Offal is a low-cost, nutrient-rich protein, says Myburgh, and part of the traditional diet for most South Africans, meaning the contribution from zebras has the potential to improve food security, especially in rural areas.

The animals harvested in winter yielded more protein, and Myburgh says this is probably due to seasonal differences in diet and foraging behavior. “The differences found between the two groups are most likely due to the effect of the harvesting season on subcutaneous fat deposition and, as a result, body composition,” she says.

Zebras have other factors in their favour besides a good yield of healthy meat, says Myburgh. “They are physiologically and behaviourally adapted to survive in semi-arid conditions with low-quality forage. They are a good candidate for mixed-species farming and can be maintained at higher stocking densities than similar-sized ruminants in grasslands of poor nutritional quality.”

Last July, the department of forestry, fisheries, and the environment published a draft game meat strategy that says zebras make up 4.4% of SA’s game population.

The game meat industry has considerable growth potential, the document says, especially in the domestic market because of the ban on exporting meat from cloven-hoofed animals until SA is declared free of foot and mouth disease.

“The game meat industry performs predominantly in the informal market while about 10% of game meat enters the retail market,” the document says.

“The industry in general is very fragmented. The aim of this strategy will thus be to create a formalized game meat industry [and] to achieve economies of scale necessary for commercial ventures based primarily on game meat production, harvesting, processing, distribution, and marketing.

“The game meat industry is largely untransformed, and there is a very low participation rate of previously disadvantaged individuals. In addition, there are large areas of community-owned land suitable for plains game. [This] provides an opportunity for community-based enterprises to drive rural socio-economic development.”

A KwaZulu-Natal butcher who stocks zebra meat lists prices on its website as R105/kg for goulash, R110 for steak, and R190 for fillet.