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Return of the quagga

The quagga became extinct in 1883. Since 1987, the Quagga Project has been trying to bring them back.

Quagga looked like zebras that only have brown and white stripes on the front half of their bodies. They were hunted to extinction in the late 19th century and the last living specimen died in a zoo in Amsterdam in 1883.

Seventy-two years later, the German biologist Lutz Heck suggested that the quagga – or at least an animal that looked like the quagga – could be brought back by breeding zebra with quagga-like traits over several generations. (Heck had tried to bring back the extinct aurochs in this way back in the 1920s and 1930s, with mixed success: the so-called Heck cattle. He was also a Nazi, so I can’t say I’m a fan.)

In 1972, another German biologist named Reinhold Rau began to take this idea of re-creating the quagga seriously. He visited all the taxidermied quagga he could find and became convinced that it was never a separate species, but instead a sub-species of the plains zebra. And that meant you might be able to breed something like a quagga back into existence from the plentiful plains zebra.

(He was right, by the way: genetic analysis later proved that the quagga was a variety of zebra. Because of the rules around scientific naming, that meant that the Latin name for the plains zebra had to be changed to Equus quagga. The quagga was scientifically named first, you see, and because it was a variety of zebra the quagga’s taxonomic name took precedence over the whole species. Sorry zebra!)

In 1986, Rau founded an organisation in South Africa that began seriously planning for the recreation of this extinct animal: the Quagga Project. They captured candidate zebras in 1987, the first child of those zebras was born in 1988, and by 2005 a foal was born that looked an awful lot like a quagga. By 2016, they had six.

I should mention that these aren’t genetically quagga, of course… they just look like them. They’re called Rau quagga to distinguish them from the real and extinct sub-species. The Quagga Project plans to release a bunch of these pseudo-quagga into the wild once they have a large enough population. I guess to make the world a more diverse and interesting place?

Categories: Africa Places Plants & animals Sciences

The Generalist

I live in Auckland, New Zealand, and am curious about most things.

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