This Quagga foal was the first extinct animal to have its DNA studied ©Alison Westwood
The Quagga Foal
Location: South African Museum 25 Queen Victoria Street.
Tucked away in a gloomy room of the South African Museum is a tiny quagga foal – one of only 23 remaining specimens of an extinct type of zebra once plentiful in Southern Africa. If you don’t know she’s there, you’ll probably miss her, as her case is kept completely darkened – a switch must be pressed to illuminate her for just a few seconds. It is thanks to this foal and to an extraordinary natural historian named Reinhold Rau, that her kind may once again wander the dusty plains of the Karoo.
When colonists arrived in the Cape, quaggas were ruthlessly hunted and many were sent to European zoos. However, because the term ‘quagga’ was used indiscriminately to refer to all zebras, its extinction in the wild in 1878 passed unnoticed. When a quagga mare at Amsterdam Zoo died on 12 August 1883, nobody realised she was the very last of her kind. Indeed, it was only three years later that quagga hunting was banned in the Cape.
When Rau was tasked with remounting the South African Museum’s shabby quagga foal in 1969, he discovered that there was still flesh attached to the pelt. Rau kept the tissue and notified the scientific community. But it was only much later, in 1983, that Russell Higuchi from the University of California requested tissue samples for DNA testing.
The quagga became the first extinct animal to have its DNA studied. The results were astonishing: instead of being a distinct species, as had been thought, the quagga was found to be a subspecies, with DNA identical to that of the still-living plains zebra. Since its coat pattern, with stripes mostly on the front section and plain brown hindquarters, turned out to be the only perceptible difference between quaggas and their surviving cousins, Rau believed that re-bred animals that looked like quaggas could justifiably be called quaggas.
Determined to rectify a tragic mistake, Rau decided to try resurrecting the creature, launching the Quagga Project in 1987. Nine plains zebra with quagga-like traits were captured at Etosha National Park and selectively bred. e progress of the Rau quaggas in just 30 years is significant. While it will never be possible to put right the extinction of a species, the Quagga Project is surely a small step in the right direction.