When the last quagga mare died at the Amsterdam Zoo on Aug. 12, 1883, no one realized she was the last of her kind.
The quagga, a subspecies of the plains zebra (Equus quagga), had a distinctly different striping pattern with solid-coloured hindquarters. It also had a background colour that was a darker brown than a typical zebra. The quagga once roamed South Africa in large herds before being hunted into extinction.
From the plains zebra herd, 19 animals that retained hints of quagga traits, namely fewer stripes on their hindquarters and a darker background colour across the rear half of the body, were collected for a breeding program.
During the next 30 years, the South African zebras were selectively bred to emphasize the quagga’s colour traits and only the offspring that had quagga traits were kept in the breeding program. With each generation, there was a decrease in the hindquarter stripes and an increase in the intensity of the brown background colour. This brought the quagga one step closer to reality, with one important exception.
Although the Quagga Project is producing animals that increasingly look like quaggas, there may be some nuanced behavioural or other traits that can’t be recovered from the extinct species. To that end, this resurrected sub-species is often called the rau-quagga after one of the project’s original creators, Reinhold Rau.
“We can get the appearance at least of the quagga back, by a simple selective breeding program” says Eric Harley, a geneticist and professor at Cape Town University who is the leader of the Quagga Project.
As of January 2016, there are 100 animals in the breeding program, with six offspring that carry the traits to be called a rau-quagga. The goal says Harley, is to have 50 rau-quagga in a self-sustaining herd.