Back from the dead

22 January 2012 - 02:45 By Tiara Walters
Green Life

The once-extinct quagga is alive and well and galloping around in the Cape

Extinction is forever. Once a species no longer has any living members, it's gone for good. It's a dog that has had it's day. Or has it?

Well, try this one on for size.

Classified as vermin that razed its way through the Dutch settlers' grazing land, the quagga had been wiped from its native habitat in the Cape and Orange Free State in the early 1880s. It was a strange-looking thing, this horse-like creature, seemingly created when the front half of a zebra and rear half of a tawny-coloured donkey were slapped together. The last known quagga died at the Natura Artis Magistra Zoo in Amsterdam in 1883 and, when it did, everyone might have rightly assumed that that was it.

Since 2010, however, a small menagerie of five "real" quaggas have again been roaming the wild lands of the Western Cape. But how could this be - some 130 years after the animal supposedly went extinct?

The architect of this conservation triumph was the Western Cape-based Quagga Project, the brainchild of the German-born taxidermist Reinhold Rau. Employed by the Iziko South African museum during the apartheid years, Rau had been remounting the museum's stuffed quagga foal in the late 1960s when he found the genetic equivalent of the Kruger Millions: bits of flesh containing blood vessels, muscle and tissue still clinging to the dead animal's skin.

He sent the samples to the US, where a 1985 analysis by scientists from San Diego Zoo and the University of California confirmed what the taxidermist had been fantasising about: that the quagga was not a separate species as had been thought, but a subspecies - simply put, just a variant - of southern Africa's bog-standard plains zebra. This species of zebra is common in sub-Saharan Africa and, as the scientists' investigation revealed, shared more than 99% of the quagga's DNA.

The quagga couldn't be recreated from thin air, but Rau, who launched the Quagga Project in 1986, understood that the animal could, in fact, be retrieved by selectively breeding plains zebra.

The plains zebra is typically covered with black and white stripes from muzzle to hoof. But, with tawnier skin and fewer stripes on their hindquarters, some plains zebra display quagga-like characteristics - and it was these zebra that Rau harnessed to salvage the quagga from the recesses of history.

The 73-year-old taxidermist died of heart disease in 2006 at his Cape Town home, but a group of volunteers - geneticists, conservationists and landowners - have persisted with the realisation of Rau's dream by consistently cross-breeding plains zebra with more quagga-like features.

Funded by private donors, hunting associations and state conservation agencies such as Cape Nature, the project has been breeding its charges on land provided by several farms, nature reserves and wine estates in the Western Cape.

It began with just 19 animals sourced from the quagga's original habitat in southern Africa, progressively mating quagga-like individuals and selling off the excess animals to help fund the project.

Since 2010, after pairing some 150 plains zebra drawn from reserves all over South Africa, the project finally succeeded in producing five individuals with darker skin and stripe-free hindquarters - animals, says project director Professor Eric Harley, that could be called the real deal.

"You've now got an animal that looks exactly like a quagga. Its DNA is identical, so I think it's quite enough to say you have a quagga," says Harley, a University of Cape Town professor and expert in conservation genetics.

Called Rau's quagga in honour of the project founder, the five animals now live at the Elandsberg Nature Reserve, about two hours' drive north of Cape Town in the Cederberg foothills.

"In the next year or two we'd like to take five of our best animals and put them in a national park in the Western Cape - display them as an exemplar herd of quaggas."

Of course, just because the label says "Manolo Blahnik" or "Louis Vuitton" doesn't mean it's not a fake.

But whether or not the animals are true quaggas is perhaps more of a philosophical than scientific question - and it's nonetheless nice to believe there is a way of saving a species once all its breathing members have been eliminated for what seems like, well, forever.

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