S. Africa's quagga saga: righting a past wrong
A taxidermist in Cape Town is trying to bring back an animal hunted to extinction.
The stuffed foal in the back of the South African Museum looks almost like a zebra. But not quite.
The coat is brown and the stripes are faded, as if it had been left in the sun too long. But this little guy hasn't been out for some time. That's because he's part of a species hunted to extinction more than a century ago.
Quaggas, a subspecies of the plains zebra, once filled the Karoo, the dry region north of Cape Town. The last quagga died in the Amsterdam Zoo on Aug. 12, 1883. Now Reinhold Rau, the retired head of the museum's taxidermy department, wants to fulfill a lifelong dream and bring the animals back through selective breeding. While similar projects have been criticized as attempts to play God, Mr. Rau says that this is an opportunity to use modern science to correct a past human error.
"There are many people all over the world who are concerned about the destruction mankind is doing to the world and are trying to stop it. I am one of them," he says. "Maybe I'm conservative, but I see a chance to rectify a mistake that was made."
Rau's obsession with the quagga began in 1969, when, as a young member of the museum's taxidermy staff, he was charged with remounting the museum's little quagga specimen. He became fascinated by the animal and toured European museums to examine and record the world's stuffed quaggas, photographing 22 of the 23.
During the course of his travels, he became convinced that the quagga was a subspecies of the plains zebra, not a separate species, as scientists had thought. He also noticed that while all the quaggas had a brownish tinge and less prominent striping than classic zebras, they varied widely in appearance, with the most quagga-like zebras looking a lot like zebra-like quaggas.
A DNA test of dried flesh Rau found on specimens in Cape Town and Europe confirmed that the quagga was, indeed, a subspecies of the plains zebra. Therefore, he says, the genes responsible for the quaggas' appearance still exist, scattered among the zebra herds. A few years later, Rau launched the Quagga Breeding Project, which mates zebras that have quagga-like features, with each successive generation looking more like the real thing.
"We're trying to recreate in a short period of time what it took nature thousands of years to do," says Rau. "The gene pool of which the quagga is part is still there.... As a population in the Karoo, it is extinct, but as a species, it is not."
Rau's office is cluttered with bones and decorated with photographs and posters of stuffed quaggas. He pulls up a chair and begins flipping through a fat three-ringed binder filled with pictures of nearly a hundred zebras.
"This is Douw," he says proudly, pointing to one born in May. "The first third-generation foal we've produced."
Over three generations, the quagga-like characteristics have become more pronounced. It's still a long way from the little stuffed quagga a few rooms away, but progress all the same, he says.
But not everyone thinks the project is a good idea. Since the research on the quagga DNA was published in the mid-1980s, dozens of scientists around the world have examined genetic material from extinct animals, ranging from the woolly mammoth to the Tasmanian Tiger. Now they're trying to bring back these animals through cloning, a dangerous idea say many conservationists, who argue that extinction is final. They also say that even if Rau's results look like quaggas, they will still just be zebras with quagga-like features. And they complain that scarce conservation resources could be put to better use, such as toward preserving endangered species.
But Rau dismisses such arguments. For him, seeing quaggas roam the dry plains of the Karoo again would be a living lesson of the cost of extinction.
"If we produce animals that look like this," says Rau, pointing to a copy of the first known painting of the quagga, "we will have quaggas. If you look at what we have, none is perfect. But we're close."