A hundred and thirty-five years ago this Saturday, the last quagga drew her final breath in Amsterdam Zoo. Even more tragically, we didn’t even know it at the time.
Back then, pretty much any striped horse gallivanting about the Karoo and Free State areas of South Africa was labelled a “quagga”, so we didn’t realise how many we were shooting for fur, fun and larks (yay humanity) or making into grain bags. You’d think someone would have noticed that some of the zebras were brown and got bored of stripes halfway down their bodies, but then again this was the 19th Century, and we were probably too busy chest-beating our superiority over nature or putting chimps in party dresses.
As a result, quagga remains are hard to find – with just seven in existence it has the rarest skeleton in the world, and there are only a few taxidermy specimens here and there. They didn’t yield any living cells for Jurassic Park-style cloning, but what we did get was an idea.
Until recently, the quagga was thought to be distinct from the usual pyjama-wearing plains zebra, Equus quagga. A study by the University of Berkeley, using dried DNA samples from taxidermist Reinhold Rau’s specimens, found that it was actually a subspecies. With enough selective breeding, it might therefore be possible to bring it back. So its similarity to the plains zebra both got it killed and gave it a chance at resurrection.
Rau took the chance and set up the Quagga Project in 1987, but as with any reboot, it’s not without its critics.
What terrible person, you might ask, could possibly be against bringing an extinct animal back? Even Ian Malcolm would have green-lit something we’d wiped out. But therein lies the rub – the “quagga” currently bred by the project would only look like the lost zebra, hence its honorary moniker “Rau quagga”. What’s more, it’s argued that the money could be better spent protecting other species teetering on the brink.
Regardless, it would be awesome to see a mix of plain and butterscotch humbug horses on the savannah. In their heyday quagga amassed in large herds, often with life-long members, and seemed to look after their lot. They would drop their pace for the slow movers, and the lead stallion would even give a helpful shout-out to any lost members that the others then mimicked. In fact the name quagga – with the “q” pronounced the same as the “ch” in Scottish “loch” – is the indigenous Khoikhoi word for the sound they made when calling to one another. Perhaps we’ll hear it again someday, or at least the Rau quagga remix. It might not be the same as the original, but if nothing else, it’ll teach us not to mess with a classic.
Latin: Equus quagga quagga
What? An extinct, caramel-coloured zebra subspecies
Where? The Karoo and Free State areas of South Africa, until the late 19th Century
How big? Average height of 1.3 m / 53 ”
Endangered? No one knew it was until it was too late.
Probable motto: [echoing] I guess there wasn’t safety in numbers…
They sound cool. Is there anything I can do to help?
I leave it to you whether you’ve had enough of reboots, but I’m sure the Quagga Project wouldn’t turn away support.
Otherwise, you can help South Africa’s black rhinos, or other endangered animals across the continent, via the African Wildlife Foundation here. Or why not both?
Just to prove I’m not fibbing
Ashby, Jack. 2015. “Happy 132nd quagga day! It’s been a good year for quaggas“. Museums and Collections Blog, University College London.
Ashby, Jack. 2015. “The world’s rarest skeleton returns to the Grant Museum“. Museums and Collections Blog, University College London.
“Khoikhoi“. No date. Encyclopedia.com.
“The Quagga Project: The Quagga Revival South Africa“. No date. The Quagga Project.org
“Quagga Skeleton“. No date. University College London.
Rodriguez, Debra L. No date. “Equus quagga quagga“. Animal Diversity Web.
Smith, Sam. 2016. “Quagga comeback: Where to spot the Rau quagga“. Traveller24.
Zielinski, Sarah. 2011. “Quagga: The lost zebra“. Smithsonian.com.
Featured image credit: “Domestic quaggas” by Unita-N.