In the ‘Lost Forever’ series of articles, The Nature Nook will be looking at animal species that have become extinct in the past 500 years or so. Now, I should first point out that extinction is a perfectly natural process. It has always taken place throughout the history of life on Earth. Just as every individual that is born will die, every species that evolves will eventually become extinct. In fact, some 99.99% of all species that have ever lived on our planet are now extinct.
But extinction rates in the past few hundred years have skyrocketed. Experts now believe that the current level of extinction has soared to between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural rate. Almost all of these extinctions have been caused by just one species, one of the most recent additions to the planet: Homo sapiens.
I will go into more detail about this unprecedented level of extinction in a future article, but for now I’m going to focus on one particular animal that is sadly no longer with us. The last known individual of this species died exactly 137 years ago to this day, on 12 August 1883. It’s the quagga.
The Lost Zebra
So what on earth is a quagga? Well, this is a rare early photograph of one.
As you can probably tell from the stripes running down the animal’s head and neck, the quagga was a type of zebra. However, unlike any living zebra, its stripes faded and eventually disappeared towards the rear of its body, revealing a light brown rump and white underparts.
Before the 19th century, the quagga was a very common inhabitant of the grassy plains of South Africa’s Cape Province. But from about the year 1700, settlement in South Africa by Europeans increased substantially. By the middle of the 1800s, most of the land historically occupied by quaggas had been brought into use for farming and grazing livestock. Like other zebra, the quagga was not particularly easy to tame or put to domestic use – one of the very few confirmed cases of tamed quaggas were two stallions that pulled Sheriff Joseph Parkins around London’s Hyde Park in a carriage in the early 19th century. This ‘uselessness’, coupled with the fact that the quagga was regarded as a pest that competed with cattle and sheep for grazing, meant that this unusual zebra was readily shot. South Africa at the time was essentially a hunter’s paradise and large numbers of quagga were killed, not only for their meat but also because their skins provided a source of strong leather. This unsustainable hunting became so intensive that in 1886 it was banned – although this restriction came far too late, for the last known wild individual is believed to have been shot many years earlier, in 1878.
In the preceding decades, a few quagga had been taken from the wild back to Europe, where they ended up in various zoos. London Zoo had three of them, one of which – the famous mare mentioned in the caption above – was the only quagga known to have been photographed alive. The zoo even decided to start a quagga breeding program, although the idea was abandoned when their lone stallion bashed itself against the wall of its enclosure so violently that it had to be put down.
The last captive quagga died on 12 August 1883, at Artis Magistrata Zoo in Amsterdam. This was likely the very last quagga in the entire world, although its death at the time was not recognised as signifying the end of its kind. Indeed, the zoo, mistakenly believing the quagga to still live in the wilderness of South Africa, simply requested another specimen. The belief about its continued existence probably stemmed from the fact that, historically, the word ‘quagga’ was used to indiscriminately refer to all types of zebra. Only later did the word become restricted to those animals that we today call the quagga. This confusion meant that the death of the last captive individual at Artis Magistrata Zoo was only acknowledged as the quagga’s moment of extinction several years later, in 1900.
‘That an animal so beautiful… and to be found not long since in so great abundance, should have been allowed to be swept from the face of the earth, is surely a disgrace to our latter-day civilization.’Henry Bryden (1854-1937), Naturalist
The Quagga Project
I can still remember seeing an old black-and-white photo of a quagga for the first time when I was a child. I was instantly drawn to it. Here was an animal strange in both name and form – in my young mind, a cross between a zebra and a regular horse. Just as I wanted to see with my own eyes every other species of animal that I came across in books or on television, I also wanted to see a quagga. Only a little later did I realise that would never happen. There simply aren’t any more quagga left to see.
Or are there?
Although the quagga is extinct, it is far from forgotten. Perhaps the most important figure in the history of quagga research was a German naturalist named Reinhold Rau (1932 – 2006), who joined the South African Museum in Cape Town in 1959. 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 this extinct animal grew, and he visited various museums across Europe in 1971 to examine and record most of the world’s remaining preserved quagga specimens.
Rau theorised that the quagga, rather than being a distinct species in its own right, was actually a dark-coated subspecies of the plains zebra, the most common and geographically widespread kind of zebra alive today. Dried tissue samples from the skin of the South African Museum’s quagga foal, together with additional samples from two quaggas in Mainz, Germany, formed the basis of a DNA analysis of the animal in 1984, just over a century after it became extinct. It was the first time anyone had managed to replicate and test DNA from an extinct animal
This study – and subsequent ones conducted over the following few decades – revealed that Rau’s suspicions had been correct. The lost animal was not a separate species but a subspecies of the plains zebra. With the knowledge that the quagga and plains zebra were very closely related, Rau thought it possible to breed the extinct animal back into existence. In 1987, the ambitious Quagga Project was started, with the aim to retrieve the genes responsible for the animal’s unique striping pattern. Rau hoped to use selective breeding to create a lineage of plains zebra that physically resembled the quagga, and in 2005 it was reported that the third and fourth generations of the project had produced foals that looked very much like the depictions and preserved specimens of the extinct animal.
Return of the Quagga?
By 2016, six individuals out of the 116 animals in the Quagga Project showed darker skin and a strongly reduced stripe pattern. Does that mean the quagga has been ‘resurrected’?
To my mind, no. I don’t think looks alone are enough to declare that this project has produced a true ‘recreation’ of the quagga. After all, although these animals bear an external resemblance to the quagga, genetically they remain different – the quagga has no living descendants and therefore the genetic composition of the extinct animal is not present in living zebras.
Rau, however, thought differently about the whole thing. To anyone who questioned the project, he was vehement that the quagga could be returned to the world, saying, ‘The quagga is a quagga because of the way it looked, and if you produce animals that look that way, then they are quaggas.’
Perhaps one day, if the project continues and I am very lucky indeed, I will see an animal out on the African plains that looks pretty much like the quagga once did. And maybe that will satisfy me. Maybe I will convince myself that I have seen a real-life quagga. But deep down, I think I will always know that this animal truly has been lost forever.