Wiping out a species Science

What happened to quaggas?

A quagga mare at the London Zoo in 1863  

In the eyes of the colonials of the nineteenth century, quaggas were pests because they vied for the grazing land meant for their cattle. With time at their disposal and firepower to match their needs, the Europeans in Africa did what they deemed fit: hunted quaggas indiscriminately.

The fact that you probably have never heard of a quagga before, gives you a hint about how the above scenario ended. The quaggas were hunted down ruthlessly almost to extinction. But there was worse to come…

A close relative of the horse, a quagga is a yellowish-brown zebra that has stripes only on its heads, neck and shoulders, with pale legs. A native to the desert areas of Africa, the hunting down of quaggas was seen as a commercially viable activity as their meat was edible and the hides could be exported to the leather industry.

In case you are still wondering what could be worse than a systematic extermination, we are getting there. While extensive hunting wiped them out from the wild in the 1870s, quaggas still existed in captivity in Africa and in other countries.

One such quagga residing in the Amsterdam zoo died on August 12, 1883. The zoo naturally raised a request to “send more quaggas” to replace it. The only problem was that there were no more quaggas left alive in the world: the mare that expired in Amsterdam was the last of her kind.

The people of that time in effect failed to realise the significance of the last quagga’s death. While hunting was the chief cause of its extinction, confusion over their name was the reason why people weren’t aware of it even after they were extinct. Though ‘quagga’ specifically refers to a brown zebra with white legs and tail, it was also often used to refer to any zebra in general, especially by speakers of the Afrikaans language.

So was that the end of the species? Maybe not. There is hope to resurrect an approximation of the original quagga.

A demonstration in 1987 showed that the mitochondrial DNA of the quagga is identical to that of the other plains zebras. This meant that the quagga was one of several subspecies of the plains zebra and not a distinct zebra species as was previously believed to be.

The Quagga Breeding Project in South Africa is attempting to produce an animal with the physical characteristics of the quagga through a series of continuous selective breeding over successive generations.

Many people have reservations about the project and questions with respect to genuinity of the quagga that might be produced and its adaptability to its original habitat have already been raised — questions and concerns that can only be answered with time.

ganesh.a.s@thehindu.co.in


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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 2:01:15 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/in-school/sh-science/what-happened-to-quaggas/article6301266.ece

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