A sight to behold, the quagga was a remarkable creature. Once found throughout the shrublands of South Africa, the quagga has unfortunately been doomed to extinction, mostly due to human activity. Read on to learn more!
1. It is a Type of Zebra
Ever since the quagga was discovered, this animal’s identity has caused much debate. Some argued that it was considered a species of its own and was recognized separately for decades. After the advent of genetic technologies and research, the quagga is now considered a subspecies of the plains zebra. Its closest living relative is the Burchell’s zebra, which is also another subspecies of the plains zebra.
The quagga’s name is believed to have originated from the Khoikhoi term for ‘zebra”. In turn, the word itself is named after its characteristic sound, which sounds similar to “kwa-ha-ha” or “oug-ga”. This term was also used interchangeably as an alternate name for the zebra back then.
2. It Was Known for its Distinctive Appearance
The quagga stands out from all other zebras due to its reduced striping and brownish coloration. Instead of being striped all over its body as other zebras, the average quagga only supported stripes on its head, along its neck, and towards the front of its body. Typically, the stripes faded out towards the rear. The legs and tail of the quagga were typically stripeless and white, though some individuals sported a black tip on their tail. As with other zebras, no two patterns of quagga were alike. While quaggas usually had stripes that were only prominent on the neck and face, some individuals had more prominent stripes throughout their bodies.
Many depictions of the quagga give this animal light stripes within a dark background. As many reconstructions of quaggas have been created after their extinction, artists could not reference living animals in their works. In turn, taxidermy mounts, along with the few available photographs, were the only sources to rely upon.
However, it was more likely that the quagga sported dark stripes within a white background, just like in living zebras. Most preserved mounts from quaggas are over a hundred years old, and dark pigments naturally fade over time (which causes the dark stripes of the quagga to lighten to a brownish hue). The black-and-white photographs of the animals available could also cause an illusion due to lighting.
3. It Was Found Exclusively in Southern Africa
The quagga had the southernmost range of all other zebras. It lived in the fynbos scrublands and was reported to be very common. The climate within its range is both cooler and milder than in other parts of Africa. Quaggas even developed thicker fur coats during the winter.
The quagga was supposedly reported to be the tamest of all the zebras, and naturalists found them to be suitable as a candidate for domestication. Some farmers captured individuals to be used as livestock guardians, as quaggas were very aggressive toward intruders.
As the quagga’s range was restricted, it was unfortunately very prone to extirpation. Early Dutch settlers hunted them for their meat and hides. Big-game hunting became popular in South Africa, and unregulated overhunting caused a major decline in this subspecies. Though some farmers appreciated the quaggas’ presence, not all herders did, as they competed for grazing lands with livestock. In its natural range, grass availability was very sparse, and quaggas were often shot on sight to reduce competition. The last quaggas in the wild probably perished sometime in 1878.
4. Only One Individual Has Ever Been Photographed
As with many other species in its time, some live quaggas were sent to European zoos. One notable institution is the London Zoo, which attempted to start a breeding program. The program was terminated after the zoo’s only stallion reportedly beat itself to death against a wall.
A series of photographs were taken of the London Zoo’s last mare sometime in the summer of 1878. Around four to five known pictures were taken of this individual, and those pictures would be the only ever known taken of a living quagga. Sadly, this animal died only two years after her pictures were taken.
The last captive quagga died in 1883 at the Artis Zoo in the Netherlands. However, the extinction of this animal wasn’t recognized until 1900! In fact, the same zoo looked to purchase another quagga right after its death. As mentioned earlier, the term “quagga” was used interchangeably with other zebras, and this overall confusion is blamed for downplaying its disappearance.
5. Lookalikes are Being Replicated
Though the quagga itself is extinct, its relatives are alive and kicking today. The Quagga Project is an ongoing program that works to selectively breed zebras that closely resemble the quagga in appearance. Animals with reduced striping were selected, and nine Burchell’s zebras were captured in 1987. The individuals were kept and bred at a facility in South Africa, and eventually, zebras with quagga-like traits are continuing to breed today. There are eventual hopes to release these zebras back to the quagga’s former range.
It is important to note that the zebras being bred will never be true quaggas; genetically, they’re 100% Burchell’s zebra. The quagga itself has genetic markers that make them unique to all other zebras. The zebras in the Quagga Project are still notably different in appearance, but there are hopes that in future generations, they’ll look more similar to their original resemblances.