The Quagga Project Part II 35 years on

Winona Griggs

The Quagga Project Part II: 35 years on

Can you believe that it has been 35 years since the start of the Quagga Project? Time flies when you’re trying to bring back an extinct animal from the dead! When I first heard about the Quagga Project, I couldn’t believe it. I mean, who would have thought that it was even possible to regenerate a species that had been extinct for over 100 years?

But that’s exactly what the Quagga Project is all about. It’s an ambitious conservation effort that aims to revive the population of the Quagga, a unique subspecies of zebra that went extinct in the late 19th century. And let me tell you, it’s no easy task. Bringing an extinct animal back to life is like trying to solve a really complicated puzzle without all the pieces.

So, how does the Quagga Project plan to bring back this elusive creature? Well, it starts with a lot of research and careful planning. Scientists and conservationists have been studying the Quagga for years, trying to understand its genetic makeup and characteristics. They’ve also been working hard to find ways to reintroduce the Quagga into its natural habitat.

One of the key challenges of the Quagga Project is finding a suitable breeding population. Since the Quagga is extinct, scientists have to rely on animals that closely resemble the Quagga in order to regenerate the species. Known as “quaggas,” these animals are selected based on their physical similarities to the extinct Quagga.

But it’s not just about finding the right animals. It’s also about creating the right conditions for breeding. This includes providing a suitable habitat, plenty of food and water, and a safe and secure environment for the animals to thrive. It’s a delicate balance that requires constant monitoring and adjustment.

Over the past 35 years, the Quagga Project has made great progress in reviving the population of the Quagga. Thanks to their efforts, there are now over 100 quaggas living in the wild. While it’s still a small number compared to the millions of zebras that roam the African savannah, it’s a significant achievement considering the Quagga was once thought to be extinct.

So, what’s next for the Quagga Project? Well, the goal is to continue breeding and reintroducing the Quagga into its natural habitat until there is a self-sustaining population. It’s a long and challenging journey, but the Quagga Project is determined to succeed.

As I reflect on the Quagga Project and its 35 years of hard work and dedication, I can’t help but feel a sense of awe and wonder. The fact that humans have the power to bring back a species from extinction is truly remarkable. It’s a testament to our ability to learn from the past and make positive changes for the future.

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So here’s to the Quagga Project and its ongoing mission to bring back the Quagga. May they continue to inspire us all to strive for a world where no species is lost forever.

The Quagga Project Part II 35 years on

Can you believe it? It’s been 35 years since the Quagga Project first started. Way back then, scientists discovered that the quagga wasn’t its own species after all. It turns out, it was just a fancy type of plains zebra! Since then, we’ve been working hard to try and bring back the quagga.

And guess what? We’re actually making some progress! The project is starting to produce baby zebras with fewer stripes. But let me tell you, we still have a long way to go before we’re done.

The Quagga Project Part II 35 years on

It all started with historian Reinhold Rau’s determination and meticulous work. He laid the groundwork for the Quagga Project – an ambitious endeavor driven by a group of passionate individuals with the goal of bringing an extinct species back to life and reintroducing it into the wild.

Can extinction be reversed?

The successful sequencing of the quagga’s DNA might have inspired Michael Crichton to write Jurassic Park, but don’t expect to see a dodo or a giant prehistoric creature roaming around anytime soon. The quagga is a unique case because it wasn’t actually a separate species, contrary to initial beliefs.

Image: The Quagga Project

Hey there! Let me tell you a fascinating story about zebras. Did you know that there used to be a unique kind of zebra called the quagga? It had different stripes and brown shades compared to other zebras. Sadly, the quagga went extinct in the 19th century, but scientists believe that some of its distinct features might still exist in the plains zebra population.

Today, more than half a million plains zebras are roaming around in places like Etosha and Zululand. And guess what? A special project was launched to find the zebras with the closest resemblance to the quagga. How did they do it? Well, it wasn’t cloning, but something called selective breeding. They carefully selected the zebras with reduced stripes and brown colors and brought them together.

It all started in 1987 when nine zebras were captured in Etosha National Park, Namibia. These zebras were then taken to a conservation farm near Robertson. And guess what again? The first foal was born in December 1988! Can you imagine the excitement?

Over the years, we’ve added more breeding stock from Zululand, which has helped expand our project and the number of quaggas. We’re currently on the fifth and sixth generations, and we’re starting to see some young animals that look more like quaggas than typical plains zebras.

This is really exciting, especially when you think about how far we’ve come in just 25 years. But you might be wondering, how can we be sure that these offspring are actually quaggas if the original subspecies is no longer around?

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How we grade Rau’s quagga

If you’re interested in the history of the quagga, I have an intriguing tale for you. Let me start by explaining that what we commonly refer to as a “quagga” is actually a Rau’s quagga. It acquired this name as a tribute to Reinhold Rau, a scientist who discovered its unique genetic origins. In truth, there was quite a bit of diversity among the quagga population, making it challenging to classify a quagga in a definitive manner.

The Quagga Project Part II 35 years on

Did you know that only parts of the quagga’s DNA are known? That’s enough, though, to confirm that it’s just a plains zebra. The main criterion for identifying a quagga was its coat pattern, which means that animals with the same visual characteristics can rightly be called quaggas.

Now, let’s talk about how we measure quaggas. We have a good amount of evidence to work with, thanks to preserved quagga skins and portraits by famous painters. When the breeding project started in 1987, we introduced a meticulous grading system.

This grading system divides the body into five parts and counts all the stripes on it. The most important part to observe is the reduced striping on the hind legs and the rear of the body. Here’s a general rule: if an animal has no scorable stripes on its hind body and no stripes on its legs, it can be classified as a Rau’s quagga.

The Quagga Project Part II 35 years on

The Quagga is split into 5 sections, and I have to count each stripe to see if it fits the criteria. Here’s a picture of The Quagga Project:

The project coordinator, March Turnbull, explained the two main things they needed to do: they had to reduce the striping significantly and increase the brown chestnut background. The typical quagga has a very brown body, clean white legs and tummy, but the neck is heavily striped while the brown background extends all the way to the body.

In short, removing the stripes is possible, but getting the brown color is a challenge. It’s happening slowly, but it’s already there in the animal. Turnbull finds it frustrating because now they scrutinize every zebra they come across in the bush, always on the lookout for the perfect specimen.

“By the third generation, we figured out how to breed out the stripes,” says Bernard Wooding, who manages the conservation project and Elandsberg farms, where a herd of Rau’s quagga resides.

Now, in the fifth or sixth generation, we’re focused on achieving that brown coat. We’re already seeing different shades of brown on various parts of the animal’s body, like the rump and hind legs.

“We need to decide whether we should report these different shades of brown individually for each animal or combine them to create an overall grade,” Turnbull shared.

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So, how close are we to having Rau’s quagga once again?

The Quagga Project Part II 35 years on

Hey there! Let me tell you an interesting story about Nina, one of the special Rau’s quagga specimens. Check out the picture of Nina above, isn’t she beautiful?

Now, when exactly did Nina come into existence? Well, it’s a bit difficult to say for sure. According to the records, there used to be a wide range of fur colors in the historical quagga populations. So, we have a general guideline to determine if an animal would fit right in with the quaggas of the 19th century. If the animal wouldn’t stand out too much, then it’s a good candidate!

In fact, some of these animals, like Nina, already meet that criteria. But the people behind the project are taking their time. They’re in no hurry because they view this as a fun and rewarding journey. They are willing to wait for another 10 years if needed!

Isn’t it amazing to see how much patience and dedication they have? It’s truly a labor of love!

The Quagga Project Part II 35 years on

Look at Nina and her little one.

While on a thrilling ride with Bernard through the Elandberg herd near Wellington, he called my attention to Nina and her recent little foal. ‘Nina stands out with her lovely brown hue and is one of the true stars of our project,’ he shared. I couldn’t contain my excitement when Nina finally gave birth to her foal after almost two years of anticipation. This incredible event showed us that our project is indeed moving in the right direction.

The quagga’s future after the project

It may still be a while before we see the full results of our efforts, and I have a feeling that I might pass on the torch to someone else, as I contemplate my role in this undertaking. It’s important to mention that everyone involved is offering their time voluntarily, driven solely by their passion. We don’t have financial incentives, but that doesn’t deter us. Despite the limitations in funding, we continue to contribute significantly to a ground-breaking scientific endeavor, which makes us immensely proud.

The Quagga Project Part II 35 years on

This is a pretty cool project, and there’s nothing else like it in the world! The only thing that comes close is the breeding of the Floreana Island tortoise, which is a special kind of giant Galapagos tortoise. The researchers have learned a lot about how plains zebras mate in different environments.

Once they have about 40 Rau’s quagga that are likely to have babies, the Quagga Project wants to let them go back into the wild. It’s a way to show how much progress we’ve made and to never let a species go extinct again.

Check out these pictures by David Henning!

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