Extinction, they say, is forever. There’s the distressing aspect of poaching and trophy hunting (can you tell the difference any more? No, me neither) as highlighted by the senseless, savage deaths of rhinos, elephants, lions, tigers and many more creatures. The one good thing about the senseless death of Oxford University’s behavioural study lion, Cecil, is that people are engaging in debate on conservation, environment and how to stop wanton slaughter. These animals are often already endangered because of their environments being either destroyed by human commercial activities or by the effects of climate change. The principle of ‘big game hunting’, to satisfy some sickness within the human ego by killing large animals you won’t ever eat, is bad enough – to kill rare creatures for pseudo-medicine is even worse.
These are the visible indications of pending extinction. They are preventable. You, gentle reader, are part of the solution, as we all are. But sometimes, extinction means creatures that seemed so common-place leaving us unnoticed, on silent paws or hooves to the realm of books, photographs and memory. This has been the case a couple of weeks ago, when the last of the descendants of the Conquistadores’ horses, the Abaco Barb, died unnoticed. There were so many of them, once, that surely they couldn’t ever become extinct… could they?
Not so long ago, huge herds of stunning-looking equids roamed the verdant lands of South Africa. Their name was Equus quagga quagga – the Quagga zebra, of South Africa. They are extinct, like so many now, because of human stupidity and greed. In appearance they were somewhere between a tarpan-type horse and a zebra, with brown striped fronts, tan or brown bodies and creamy-white legs, with striking brown and white striped hogged manes and a dorsal stripe right down their backs – a sure sign of ancient bloodlines in any member of the horse family. Their tails were more horse-like than the little tassel of the donkey, although DNA studies in the 80s have shown they were a sub-species of the Plains Zebra.
Chronologically, the Quagga is very much a Pleistocene creature, made by changing climates and dividing glaciers. They likely gained their beautiful tawny colouring as a response to living in the drier part of Africa during the cold pulses of the Ice Age, around 120,000 years ago. But climates changed, and South Africa became a region of varied vegetation and dramatically beautiful landscapes through the Holocene. Europeans who colonized South Africa during the 18th and 19th centuries exploited that beautiful country as its wealth of natural resources was seemingly endless. From diamond mines to big game hunting – everything made money, and money made power. The settlers had little care for the policies of conservation, and slaughtered the easiest targets. The Quagga was hunted unmercifully for meat, leather and trophies – the era of the Great White Hunter who killed because he/she was master of all they surveyed and could do whatever they liked. By the time 19th century zoologists realised the herds were all but gone, and the animals needed protection, it was too late.
The remaining captured animals which had lived solitary lives in zoos were the last of their kind. Their beautiful refined heads stare at us, mournfully, from Victorian photographs taken in zoos. I hate the pain in those photos – these animals should have been with companions – a breeding programme would have resulted in the preservation of the animals. Confining any equid to a solitary life behind bars is hellish for a herd animal. At any rate, the extinction clock was running extra fast.
In 1872 the London Zoo mare died.
In 1883, the last of Equus quagga quagga, a little aged mare, died in Amsterdam’s Natura Artis Magistra Zoo.
With her death, an entire sub-species perished.
The bloodline had been crossed occasionally with horses to create a hybrid. George Douglas, Earl of Morton was a keen observer of what we would now call environmentalism and conservation, although we would balk at many of his methods today, he was a man of his time and place. In 1821 he tried to preserve the Quagga by crossing a chestnut Arabian mare with a Quagga stallion. The offspring was a mare, and her offspring had the tawny stripes of its grandsire. This was so exciting for its time that Charles Darwin wrote of Morton’s mare in his 1844 notes which were the foundation of ‘Origin of the Species’ that “when the dam of one species has borne offspring to the male of another species, her succeeding offspring are sometimes stained (as in Lord Morton’s mare by the quagga, wonderful as the fact is) by this first cross”. He considered this as an indication of telegony, a classical principle of male inheritance being carried down bloodlines. We now know it was all about recessive genes and alleles.
The story possibly should end there, but it doesn’t. For every big-game hunter swaggering with his gun,there’s an idealistic science sister or mister who wants to make things right. In 1984, the first DNA sequences were analysed, taken from 19th century taxidermied Quagga specimens. The analysis of Quagga tissue, was ongoing through the later part of the 1980s and is worth a mention in this story as it effectively brought the infant science of palaeogenomics to the public eye – and the writers imagination. It created quite a storm among biologists with the realisation that DNA from extinct species could be fully charted, and was one of the inspirations for Michael Crichton’s famous ‘Jurassic Park’ book. What if we could bring them back….?
As you’ll be aware if you follow Twilight Beasts on Twitter, rewilding, recreating and resurrecting species is something we talk a lot (and I mean a lot!) about!. The late Reinhold Rau, a natural historian and expert taxidermist, did a lot more than talk. He took the knowledge of the relationship between the modern Plains Zebra and decided to ‘breed back’ the Quagga through genetic selection. Could the black stripes of Equus quagga /burchelli be bred out to reintroduce the tawny amber colouring of the extinct Quagga? And if so, could there be a chance that humans could restore the wild equines of the Cape plains?
In 1987, 18 zebra mares were selected from a herd and brought to a conservation farm near Robertson, in the Cape. They were selectively bred to restore the colouring of the golden, partial striped extinct Ice Age deme. This was the beginning of the Quagga Project. It’s an exciting idea, and appears to have been successful, and the resultant animal is quite a tourist attraction, and often referred to as Rau’s Quagga. The scientific debate now, however is if a zebra is more than the colour of its stripes. Were there other differences which made E. quagga quagga different from its black striped relatives? The restored population of animals have different DNA than the extinct creatures, and perhaps are a sub-species themselves, unique from either black or brown striped ancestors.
Politically, there have been tumultuous changes in South Africa, as it changed from Boer colonial control into the sickness of apartheid and finally, democracy and self-determination under the late Nelson Mandela. There is a great awareness of the losses which colonialism and exploitation created. This is what the Truth and Reconciliation Committee of South Africa was created for, in 1994, to oversee the restoration of as many cultural motifs as is possible. While we, as Europeans may love the creatures of bush and veldt, they are not ‘ours’to hunt, or exploit – the landscape and its animals are the heartbeat of the people of Africa; their heritage. While the taxonomic debate continues if Rau’s Quagga is something old or new, those wild creatures represent the better, more enlightened part of humanity, the scientists who do peaceful battle every day, with microscope and petri dish, against those who think wanton killing of the worlds wildlife is their due.
Written by Rena Maguire (@JustRena)
The Quagga Project available here
The extinction of Nunki, the last Abaco Barb. Available here.
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