Bringing back the quagga

3 October 2006

Extinction is forever – or is it? On 12 August 1883 the last living quagga died at the Amsterdam zoo, and the world believed this unusual type of zebra had gone the way of the dodo.

But for the last 20 years a team of South Africans have been working to bring the beast back from the dead, with the third generation of specially bred foals now being born.

The quagga lived in the Karoo and southern Free State, and differed in appearance from other zebras: it was striped on the front half of its body only and was a creamy, light brown on its upper parts and whitish on its belly and legs.

The quagga was long thought to be a fourth species of zebra, and given a unique taxonomic name: Equus quagga. The other – still living – species are southern Africa’s plains zebra (Equus burchelli) and mountain zebra (Equus zebra) and the East African Grevy’s zebra (Equus grevyi).

If the quagga was a separate species, then its disappearance was an extinction: the animal was gone for ever.

But in the middle of the 20th century, some experts began to wonder if the quagga was perhaps a subspecies or local type of the plains zebra. If that were the case, then its genes were still around. With the right breeding programme, it might be possible to bring back the quagga.

Aggressively hunted
The indigenous Khoi people of the Cape named the quagga – with the double “g” pronounced as a guttural “ch”, as in the Scottish word “loch” – for its bark-like call, similar to that of the plains zebra.

Like other members of the horse family, the animals fed on a variety of wild grasses. With sparse grasslands in the Karoo and southern Free State, food was probably in short supply.

But the real reason for the quagga’s disappearance was aggressive hunting. Because the animals could not be tamed for domestic use, they were regarded as pests by colonial farmers, grazing scarce resources needed for their sheep. And South Africa in the 19th century was regarded as a hunter’s paradise, with colonial settlers wiping out huge numbers of indigenous wildlife.

Quagga meat was eaten by farm labourers and the skin used for grainbags and leather, with many raw animal hides sent out of the country. By the time the Cape governor banned quagga hunting in 1886, it was already too late – the last quagga, a mare, had died in the Amsterdam zoo three years before.

The extermination of the quagga

The extermination of the Quagga by Franz Roubal, 1931, oil on canvas (Image: Quagga Project)

The shabby foal
The quest to bring back the quagga began in 1969, when a German national named Reinhold Rau joined the South African Museum in Cape Town. As a young member of the museum’s taxidermy staff, Rau was charged with remounting the museum’s little quagga specimen, a shabby foal stuffed with straw. His fascination with the animal grew, and he toured European museums to examine and record the world’s 23 remaining preserved quagga specimens.

Rau became convinced that the quagga was a subspecies of the plains zebra. If this were true, he reasoned, the quagga could be bred back into existence.

The plains zebra is a highly variable species, with a distinct gradient in colour and a gradual reduction in striping as one moves from north to south.

Rau believes the fewer stripes and browner colour is a gradual adaptation to more open country – the Karoo has a semi-desert climate – with the quagga representing the extreme southern limit of the trend.

“The gene pool of which the quagga is part is still there,” Rau said in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor. “As a population in the Karoo, it is extinct, but as a species, it is not.”

Variation in the plains zebra

Plains zebra variability. Top row: (left) the mare Tracy from the quagga rebreeding programme; (middle) a plains zebra from the Etosha area; (right) Equus burchelli boehmi, a subspecies with pronounced striping and no brown coloration or shadow-stripes in the white parts. Bottom row: (left) the Munich quagga, one of the preserved specimens with the least striping; (right) the Tring quagga, one of the unquestioned quagga specimens with the most pronounced striping. (Image: Quagga Project)

In 1983 Rau was vindicated when DNA testing on a sample of dried quagga flesh extracted from a badly cured skin showed that there was no real difference between plains zebra and quagga genes, although there were significant differences between the latter and the mountain zebra.

The DNA test made history: conducted in 1983 by Russell Higuchi from the University of California, Berkeley, it was the first time anyone had managed to replicate and test DNA from an extinct animal.

Successful breeding programme
In March 1987 the Quagga Breeding Project was launched. Rau set up a committee of experts in zoology, livestock breeding, veterinary medicine, genetics and conservation. Nine zebras were selected and captured at the Etosha National Park, and taken to a specially constructed breeding camp at the Cape Nature Conservation farm Vrolijkheid, near Robertson.

“There are many people all over the world who are concerned about the destruction mankind is doing to the world and are trying to stop it. I am one of them,” Rau says. “Maybe I’m conservative, but I see a chance to rectify a mistake that was made.”

The breeding programme is almost on its 20th year. More than 60 animals have so far been bred and are being kept at 11 different sites around Cape Town and in national parks, including the Kruger National Park.

Many of the foals born in the last few years fairly closely resemble the quagga: they have no stripes on their rumps and only a small stripy patch on their legs. The breeding animals have produced their third generation of foals, which have even more advanced quagga-like features.

New evidence
The year 2005 saw the project reaching new highs: a more comprehensive DNA test added further evidence of the quagga’s relationship with the plains zebra – even providing a possible date for the evolutionary divergence of the subspecies – and the most quagga-like foal so far was born.

In early 2005 a team led by Jennifer A Leonard of Sweden’s Uppsala University isolated mitochondrial DNA from eight quaggas and a plains zebra, and found that the quagga displayed little genetic diversity and diverged from the plains zebra very recently – about 120 000 to 290 000 years ago.

“We’re trying to recreate in a short period of time what it took nature thousands of years to do,” says Rau.

And on 20 January 2005 the quagga project produced its most quagga-like foal so far. Named Henry, he is the youngest of the project’s third generation. The striped area of his body is not only much reduced, but the body stripes themselves are considerably narrower and fainter than usual, more so than in some quagga museum specimens.

Rau is vehement that the quagga can be returned. “The quagga is a quagga because of the way that it looked, and if you produce animals that look that way, then they are quaggas.”

SouthAfrica.info reporter

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