The Zebra Subspecies You Didn't Know You Missed Is Back


A subspecies of the African Plains Zebra humans hunted into extinction in the late 1800s has risen from the grave, thanks to a team of researchers attempting to breed it back into existence.

The Quagga Project, headed by professor Eric Harley of South Africa's Cape Town University, is selectively breeding zebras in the hopes of recreating the distinctive look of the now-extinct animal, reports CNN.

"The progress of the project has in fact followed that prediction," Harley told CNN. "And in fact we have over the course of four, five generations seen a progressive reduction in striping, and lately an increase in the brown background color showing that our original idea was in fact correct."

Six so-called "Rau quaggas," named after project founder Reinhold Rau, now exist with plans to create a population of at least 50 on a reserve.

The last known photographs of quaggas, which resembled zebras in the front and horses in the back — a reverse mullet, if you will — were taken in a London zoo in the 1860s to 1870s.

Frederick York/Wikimedia Commons

Following several generations of breeding, the researchers have successfully created animals with coats that look increasingly like that of the quagga.

Sasa Kralj/AP

According to its website, the Quagga Project is motivated by a desire to reverse some of the harm humans have done to the region's ecosystem.

"Attitudes towards the environment now are very different from what they were during the 19th century," the website reads. "The extinction of the quagga was caused by man out of greed and short-sightedness ... It took 12 years to overcome many obstacles, especially strong criticism from several scientists, before the breeding project got off the ground in 1987, which aims at reversing the quagga's extinction."

Harley told CNN while some scientists believe the project is only cosmetic, creating animals that merely resemble the long-gone quagga, "trying to remedy something, is better than doing nothing at all."

As the New York Times reported in 2006, scientists may never know whether the project is successful, even if it succeeds in breeding.

"No one knows enough about quagga behavior," the Times wrote. "Species — even subspecies — don't differ just in shape and color from one another; they differ in behavior: foraging habits, social habits, aggressiveness."

For the project's supporters, "it doesn't seem to matter whether Rau is breeding a true quagga, or a zebra without its pajama pants, or an animal that looks like a quagga but doesn't share the quagga's genetic makeup," the Times wrote. "What seems to matter is that Rau does not accept that he is powerless to change the course of the mass extinction that has been under way for the past century."