6 June 2011 by Julienne du Toit

The Reconstituted Quagga

It was late afternoon at the Mountain Zebra National Park outside my home town of Cradock. At the edge of a rocky drop-off stood two zebras, glowing in the rich light.

I adjusted my binoculars again and again. These were definitely not mountain zebras, but they didn’t really look like Burchell’s zebras either. They had hardly any stripes over their broad backsides or legs, and they had altogether more brown on them than any normal zebra.

These, ladies and gentlemen, are reconstituted quaggas. A strange sight to behold, considering the quagga went extinct in 1883 - the last one died in a London Zoo.

It was only in the 1980s, when a state taxidermist called Reinhold Rau sent off a scraped bit of sinew from one of the badly stuffed quagga quietly collecting dust in 23 of the world’s museums and sent it off to a DNA specialist that the shocking news was announced.

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The quagga may not have actually gone extinct. It was a particular type of Burchell’s zebra that had disappeared - a phenotype, not a genotype, as the scientists would say. The genes still lay among the striped beasts. And so began a somewhat controversial project to recreate the quagga, using selective breeding of animals that had the least stripes and the most brown on their bodies.

They are now in the third and fourth generation and the project has been a fair success. There are quite a few that look just like quagga. Of course, here’s the quandary. No one alive has ever seen a quagga, so we’re going on ancient photographs and paintings and descriptions. At what point do you really say we have a species back? And does it really have value to bring such an animal back?

Extinction is such a fine line. It’s weird to see it go.

Category: Wildlife

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