Cape Town - Rediscovering the long-lost cousin of the zebra has been an ongoing project that started back in 1987 - but now more than ever scientists are confident they are on track to correcting an extinction wrong.
The African quagga, recognised by its stripes on the front of its body and the shades of brown on the mid-section and bottom half of its body, once roamed South Africa in large herds, specifically in the Karoo and southern Free State of South Africa. Unfortunately Quaggas had been "ruthlessly hunted, because they were seen by the European settlers as competitors for the grazing of their livestock, mainly sheep and goats".
"When the Quagga mare at Amsterdam Zoo died on 12 August 1883, it was not realised that she was the very last of her kind.
According to the Quagga Project website, DNA analysis has shown that the Quagga was not a separate species of zebra but in fact a subspecies of the Plains Zebra (Equus Quagga) - and to date this group of dedicated researchers have been trying to bring back an animal from extinction and reintroduce it to its former habitat.
Eric Harley, project leader and UCT professor, the project uses selective breeding from a selected founder population of southern Plains Zebras in order to retrieve the genes responsible for the Quagga’s characteristic striping pattern.
By rectifying a tragic mistake made over a hundred years ago through greed and short sightedness, it is hoped that in due course herds showing the phenotype of the original quagga will again roam the plains of the Karoo.
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The modern quagga
There are currently 121 quaggas between ten Quagga Project breeding locations, says Quagga Project Project Coordinator Craig Lardner.
The locations for the quagga breeding grounds are Arc en Ciel in Wellington, Boland Landbou, Bontebok Ridge, Elandsberg Farm, Groote Schuur, Kosierskraal, Pampoenvlei, SMA, Vlakkenhuiwel and Wedderwill.
The quaggas are even given very special names, making each of them quite unique - like Cynthia, Hermon, Lucia, and Ryan - who's profiles can all be viewed on the Quagga Project database.
Other details kept on record include their paternal history and each animal's exact location.
The Rau quagga
The Quagga Project explains the aim of the project is to only select "attributes of the original quagga and not for any other genetic features" that the original quagga population might have had.
The quaggas who possess the desired original attributes are termed Rau quagga - the qualification giving acknowledgement to Reinhold Rau, whose vision and drive guided the project in its initial stages."
Lardner confirms that there is currently only six Rau quagga in South Africa.
Where to spot the quagga
South Africans can see or spot quagga at the Groote Schuur Reserve in Cape Town. It is also not unheard of to spot these animals running on the hill just above Hospital Bend while driving onto the M3.
"Operated by San Parks, [it] is one of our breeding locations. Access can be made at Rhodes Mem parking garage where there is a full information poster in the car park for all to read" explained Craig Lardner.
If you would like to spot quagga roaming freely - there are five animals at the privately owned Nuwejaars River Nature Reserve SMA that are on their own in the wild.
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Professor Harley adds that the genes which make up the quagga will still be found in zebra today. It was predicted that these could in turn 'manifest' with selective breeding. Already the foals from the selective breeding are showing stronger colouring and traits of the original quagga.
"The progress of the project has in fact followed that prediction."
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He noted that over the past 4, 5 generations, findings have shown a reduction in striping patterns and an increase in the brown colour on the rear - an sign that their original idea was accurate.
With the nature of a project of this kind - many doubt the revival of an extinct animal is possible. While critics call the new quagga 'different kinds of zebra'. The quagga can only be defined by well-described morphological characteristics and, if a quagga is found to possess these characteristics - it is fair to say it is a representation of the quagga phenotype.
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"If we can retrieve the animals or retrieve at least the appearance of the quagga," Harley suggests, "then we can say we've righted a wrong."
Hopefully, scientists will not be forced to do this with any other South African animals one day, like the rhino, or the lion...
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