The quagga was a subspecies of zebra found only in South Africa’s Western Cape region. After the Dutch invaded, they hunted the quagga to extinction. While some were taken to zoos in Europe, breeding programs failed. The last wild quagga died in 1878, and the very last quagga died in an Amsterdam zoo in 1883.
Only one was ever photographed—the mare shown above, in London. Only 23 stuffed and mounted quagga specimens exist. There was one more, but it was destroyed in Königsberg, Germany, during World War II. There is also a mounted head and neck, a foot, 7 complete skeletons, and samples of various tissues.
The quagga was the first extinct animal to have its DNA analyzed. It used to be thought that the quagga was a distinct species from the zebra. After some argument, a genetic study published in 2005 convinced most people that the quagga is a subspecies of the zebra. It showed that the quagga diverged from the other zebra subspecies only between 120,000 and 290,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene.
In 1987, a natural historian named Reinhold Rau started the Quagga Project. He was goal was to breed zebras into quaggas by selecting for quagga-like traits, most notably the lack of stripes on the back half of its body.
The founding population consisted of 19 zebras from Namibia and South Africa, chosen because they had reduced striping on the rear body and legs. The first foal was born in 1988.
By now, members of the Quagga Project believe they have recreated the quagga. Here they are:
The new quaggas are called ‘rau–quaggas’ to distinguish them from the original ones. Do they look the same as the originals? It’s hard for me to decide. Old paintings show quite a bit of variability:
This is an 1804 illustration by Samuel Daniell, which served as the basis of a claimed subspecies of quagga, Equus quagga danielli. Perhaps they just have variable coloring.
Why try to resurrect the quagga? Rau is no longer alive, but Eric Harley, a retired professor of chemical pathology at the University of Cape Town, had this to say:
It’s an attempt to try and repair ecological damage that was done a long time ago in some sort of small way. It is also to try and get a representation back of a charismatic animal that used to live in South Africa.
We don’t do genetic engineering, we aren’t cloning, we aren’t doing any particularly clever sort of embryo transfers—it is a very simple project of selective breeding. If it had been a different species the whole project would have been unjustifiable.
The current Quagga Project chairman, Mike Gregor, has this to say:
I think there is controversy with all programmes like this. There is no way that all scientists are going to agree that this is the right way to go. We are a bunch of enthusiastic people trying to do something to replace something that we messed up many years ago.
What we’re not doing is selecting some fancy funny colour variety of zebra, as is taking place in other areas, where funny mutations have taken place with strange colouring which may look amusing but is rather frowned upon in conservation circles.
What we are trying to do is get sufficient animals—ideally get a herd of up to 50 full-blown rau-quaggas in one locality, breeding together, and then we would have a herd we could say at the very least represents the original quagga.
We obviously want to keep them separate from other populations of plains zebra otherwise we simply mix them up again and lose the characteristic appearance.
The quotes are from here:
• Lawrence Bartlett, South Africa revives ‘extinct’ zebra subspecies, Phys.org, 12 February 2016.
This project is an example of ‘resurrection biology’, or ‘de-extinction’:
• Wikipedia, De-extinction.
Needless to say, it’s a controversial idea.