Only in South Africa — the Quagga
A Species that Came Twice
The Quagga was a species of zebra, certainly, but what made it so gorgeous was its looks. Unlike the black and white patterns that wrap around the bodies and legs of zebras today, the Quagga's hindquarters was stripe-free. Lines were more a case of white stripes on a brown hide and the earthy colour also tinted the mane, tail and body. For centuries, it was officially considered extinct but a chance discovery and a dedicated breeding program recreated a herd of what might very well be true Quagga.
A short History Lesson
Large numbers of Quagga once roamed as the most southern species of zebra in Africa. Unfortunately, with the arrival of the first European farmers in the nineteenth century, so did the Quagga's marching orders. The farmers viewed the herds as vermin that used grazing land “meant” for livestock and hunted the zebras relentlessly. Those that didn't die during the years of wholesale slaughter were captured and packed off to European zoos. One Quagga arrived at the Amsterdam zoo and eventually died on 12 August 1883. It took another three years before the hunting of the species was banned but when none turned up anywhere, reality hit – the Amsterdam mare had been the last Quagga alive in the world. The species was subsequently declared extinct.
London Zoo Photo
The Stuffed Foal
One might never know how she died, but a young filly became one of only 23 mounted Quagga specimens. Today, she stands in a glass case at the South African Museum. A little scruffy looking, this foal could be the saviour of her species.
In 1969, natural historian Reinhold Rau was given the task of remounting the foal. She had been done rather badly the first time and the museum wanted to spruce up the display. During the process, Rau discovered something that would turn the story of the Quagga around. Attached to her pelt, were pieces of flesh. Rau preserved the tissue and in 1983, a man called Russell Higuchi took a renewed interest in the samples. He was from the University of California and was responsible for making the foal the first extinct animal to have its DNA analyzed.
A Surprise Subspecies
In the years before the DNA study was done, it was believed that the Quagga was a distinct species of zebra. However, when the results came in, so did a big surprise. The Quagga was a subspecies of today's Plains Zebra. As a matter of fact, the DNA of the Quagga and the Plains Zebra are identical. The only difference was the coat colour. It didn't take long before someone said something along the lines of “Hey, if both are identical, then we can turn the Plains Zebra into a Quagga.”
Breeding Program and a new Foal
When Reinhold Rau, the man who discovered the foal's pieces of flesh, heard about this, he decided to start a breeding program to bring back the Quagga. He called it the Quagga Project. Rau began in 1987, capturing nine Plains Zebra at the Etosha National Park in Namibia and also, from parks in Kwazulu Natal, in South Africa. Together, they formed a tiny herd but each had something special – they all resembled their extinct cousin in some small way.
The “founding” members were rehomed in a number of public and private reserves as well as national parks. However, they all remained in the Western Cape. Over three decades later, the project is still going strong and at the twentieth generation of selectively bred animals. Several show reduced striping of the hindquarters and one recent foal is said to be the spitting image of the Quagga.
Whether the Quagga is truly a revived extinct species is a thorny question. For some, the identical DNA shared with the Plains Zebra is proof enough that its back, along with the Quagga Project specimens clearly showing the return of the unique colouring. However, even Rau advised that caution must be taken before deciding either way. As DNA tests become more advanced, it may still show a difference between the species that couldn't be detected in the 1980s. This is highly possible since the Quagga's genome (the entire genetic code) is not known. Despite that the animals now grazing the African plains look like Quaggas and have DNA like Quaggas, they may very well not be them. Until better tests can solve the mystery, the Quagga is — in some weird way — both extinct and alive.
Did You Know?
- Not every zebra born in the Quagga Project show the desired qualities for the next generation. These animals are homed in national parks, especially in the Eastern Cape's Addo Elephant National Park where visitors can view the oddly-striped zebras
- The word “quagga” comes from the Khoikhoi language for zebra
- Similar to zebras today, every Quagga's stripes was as unique as a fingerprint
- The rarest species alive today is the Grevy's Zebra and is believed to be the first zebra species to appear – around four million years ago
- Different species don't interbreed in the wild and when the Grevy's Zebra was artificially crossed with others, most pregnancies miscarried
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Jana Louise Smit