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The Remarkable Revival Story of the Extinct Quagga

Born and raised in South Africa, Jana loves sharing the unique and special aspects about her home turf with the world.

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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 were stripe-free.

Their hides had an earthy colour that also tinted the mane, tail and body. For centuries, the animals were classified as 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 in South Africa. The demise of the herds began when European farmers first arrived in the nineteenth century. The farmers viewed the animals as vermin because they grazed on land “meant” for livestock. As a result, the zebras were hunted relentlessly.

The Quagga that survived the slaughter were captured and packed off to European zoos. One Quagga lived at the Amsterdam Zoo and died on 12 August 1883. Three years later, the hunting of the species was banned and people searched in vain to count their numbers in the wild. Then the terrible reality hit home - the Amsterdam mare had been the last Quagga alive in the world. The species was extinct.

London Zoo Photo

One of the last  zoo Quaggas to be photographed. Pictures of living animals are very rare.

One of the last zoo Quaggas to be photographed. Pictures of living animals are very rare.

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 was stuffed 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. Employed by the University of California, he gave the foal the honour of being 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 a Plains Zebra into a Quagga.”

Breeding Program and a New Foal

When Reinhold Rau, the man who discovered the foal's preserved flesh, heard about this, he started 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. Each zebra that belonged to the tiny herd 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 in the Western Cape. Over three decades later, the project is still going strong. Now at the twentieth generation of selectively bred animals, many of the zebras have reduced striping of the hindquarters. But the best of all? A recent foal is said to be the spitting image of the Quagga.

Plains Zebra

This species is also known as the common or Burchell's Zebra.

This species is also known as the common or Burchell's Zebra.

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Official Status

Whether the Quagga is a revived extinct species is a thorny question. For some, the identical DNA shared with the Plains Zebra is proof enough that it exists, along with the Quagga Project specimens clearly showing the return of its unique colouring.

However, even Rau advised that caution must be taken before deciding either way. As DNA tests become more advanced, they may still show a difference between the two zebra 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. The word means "zebra."
  • Similar to zebras today, every Quagga's stripes was as unique as a fingerprint.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Jana Louise Smit

Comments

Jana Louise Smit (author) from South Africa on August 18, 2018:

Thanks for your great comment! Appreciate the feedback. :)

RTalloni on August 12, 2018:

So interesting on several layers. This different design of zebra is a beautiful animal. I often wonder what would happen if scientists said "what if" about the theory of evolution more often. The western cape project reminds a bit of Laban's efforts to cheat Jacob in that the proof God sustains His creation as He sees fit, that His timing is always perfect, and He truly is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent no matter what mere man says or does is proved time and again. Thanks for sharing about the Quagga's journey. Lots of food for thought here!

Jana Louise Smit (author) from South Africa on August 12, 2018:

They really are, you're so right. :)

Alexander James Guckenberger from Maryland, United States of America on August 12, 2018:

The Quagga is beautiful.

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