The recreated quagga: a zebra in disguise? – Kaitlyn Gaynor

– the first in a series of guest-posts by students of Animal Geography (GEOG298) at UC – Berkeley

From the cautionary tale of Jurassic Park to the recent excitement over wooly mammoth cloning [1], the resurrection of extinct animals has always been a captivating prospect [2,3]. While scientists often dismiss “de-extinction” as a misguided and nostalgic waste of time [4,5], it raises important questions about the relationships between we humans and animals.

Why care about animals that we have never met and know so little about? Why return long-gone creatures to their original place? Will these new animals be the “real thing,” and does their authenticity matter?


A museum specimen of a quagga skin (Photo source: Soologische Staatssammlung München)

Hunted to extinction in its native South Africa, the last captive quagga died in the Amsterdam Zoo in 1883. The only remaining traces of the quagga are 23 skins—coat half-horse, half-zebra—and some poor-quality mitochondrial DNA [6,7].

We know next to nothing about quagga ecology or behavior aside from the sound of its call, preserved in its name: “KWAH-ha!” Now, a small, dedicated group of people is attempting to reimagine and recreate the quagga and return it to its native habitat.

A cosmetic de-extinction project

The Quagga Project began in 1986 with the goal of “breeding back” the quagga from a small group of zebras and releasing these animals into the wild [8]. Without quagga DNA to clone, the project is creating quaggas solely from selective breeding based on coat patterns. Four generations later, these animals resemble plains zebras with fewer stripes [9].

The Quagga Project concedes that the animals that they are breeding may not be quaggas but will “have at least the exterior characteristics.” [10] They are not reviving the quagga, but the idea of a quagga.

A fourth-generation foal of the Quagga Project, with its mother (Photo source:

A fourth-generation foal of the Quagga Project, with its mother (Photo source:

The project will not stop with the restoration of the quagga in captivity: it will be returned to its proper, wild place.

Unlike advocates of other de-extinction projects, the proponents of the restoration have made no conservation-based arguments for the ecological role of the quagga or its importance for biodiversity conservation.

People are not restoring the quagga for the sake of the ecosystem, or for the welfare of any individual animals. All that matters is the knowledge that quaggas (or, at least, suitable placeholders) are back where they belong.

Symbolic ecological reparation?

The Quagga Project website presents the project rationale as follows:

“Attitudes towards the environment now are very different from what they were during the 19th century. The extinction of the Quagga was caused by man out of greed and short-sightedness. It is believed that this extinction might be reversible.” [10]

Quagga Project animals (top left) currently more closely resemble plains zebras (top center and right) than quagga museum specimens (bottom) (Photo source: Harley et al 2009)

Quagga Project animals (top left) currently more closely resemble plains zebras (top center and right) than quagga museum specimens (bottom) (Photo source: Harley et al 2009)

In bringing back the quagga, the Quagga Project is attempting to reverse the effects of colonialism on the natural environment and make amends for past wrongs.

The restoration of the quagga may be important as symbolic reparation, even if unfounded on ecological grounds.

Humans may also be uncomfortable with the finality of extinction, as it forces us to acknowledge the irreversible effects of our actions.

The decimation of the quagga was brought about by hunters who mounted and displayed trophies, symbols of mankind’s domination of nature. Is the de-extinction project just another attempt to express our power? Perhaps we are unwilling to concede that nature has taken this animal from us, and want to show that we can bring it back.

Eventually, the Quagga Project team will be satisfied that their creations look enough like quaggas and will set them free. Although these animals will still just be zebras in disguise, biological authenticity may be irrelevant to the project’s goals.

The quagga’s reinvention and replacing, though cosmetic and artificial, may still offer some peace of mind and a sense of redemption to the humans that drove its original incarnation to extinction.


About the Author – Kaitlyn Gaynor is a first-year PhD student in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley. She is broadly interested in the intersection of behavioral ecology and conservation biology.


[1] Sample, I. 2013. Wooly mammoth DNA may lead to a resurrection of the ancient beast. The Guardian 30 July 2013.

[2] De-extinction. National Geographic.

[3] The Long Now Foundation.

[4] Jorgensen, D. 2013. Reintroduction and de-extinction. Bioscience 63(9): 719-720.

[5] Ehrenfeld, D. 2013. Resurrected mammoths and dodos? Don’t count on it. The Guardian 23 March 2013.

[6] Heywood, P. 2013. The quagga and science: what does the future hold for this extinct zebra? Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 56, 53-64.

[7] Leonard, J.A., Rohland, N., Glaberman, S., Fleischer, S.C., Caccone, A., Mofreiter, M. 2005. A rapid loss of strips: the evolutionary history of the extinct quagga. Biology Letters 1: 291-295.

[8] Max, D.T. 2006. Can you revive an extinct animal? New York Times January 1, 2006.

[9] Harley, E.H., Knight, M.H., Lardner, C., Wooding, B., Gregor, M. 2009. The Quagga project: progress over 20 years of selective breeding. South African Journal of Wildlife Research 39, 155-163.

[10] The Quagga Project.

  1. Reblogged this on Equilibre and commented:
    Great little piece, on Wayne Linklater’s blog, by Kaitlyn Gaynor discussing the “breeding back” project with which the extinct Quagga is allegedly and apparently being bred back into extancy…

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