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How crossing zebras will resurrect a true quagga.

Cresting a rise on the bumpy game park road, the Land Rover momentarily startles a herd of seven odd-looking zebras.

"There they are! Wonderful, wonderful," exclaimed park ranger Theresa Huber, cutting the engine so as not to scare off the skittish creatures munching on grass and leaves in the semi-desert Karoo National Park.

The strange zebras, with only faint stripes on the hind quarters and a brownish tinge, have not been seen in this vast, arid region in the middle of South Africa for more than 100 years.

Known as quaggas (pronounced kwok-ka), the animals were hunted to extinction at the end of the 19th century. The last true quagga, a scrawny-looking mare, died in a Dutch zoo on August 12, 1883.

South African scientists hope to resurrect the quagga by breeding zebras with similar characteristics in the colour and extent of their striping.

In March, 11 animals from the breeding programme were released into the Karoo, where millions once roamed.

German-born taxidermist Mr Reinhold Rau came up with the idea to resurrect the quagga after remounting a stuffed specimen at the South African Museum in Cape Town.

While removing the skin, Mr Rau discovered dried blood and muscle tissue - material that preserved DNA, the genetic blueprint for life.

DNA analysis eventually proved that quaggas were a subspecies of the plains zebra, not a separate species. This meant quagga genes could still lurk in plains zebras.

Using funds raised privately from donations, Mr Rau scoured game reserves in South Africa and neighbouring Namibia for plains zebra that looked most like quaggas.

In 1987, selective breeding began, aiming to concentrate the quagga genes in successive generations. The programme now has 53 animals, and many are starting to look more and more like quaggas. Sitting in a laboratory at the South African Museum, Mr Rau s aid he was driven by a desire to put right a terrible wrong.

"The quagga became extinct through man's ignorance and greed. It wasn't a natural occurrence," he said in a clipped German accent. "It is our moral duty to rectify that mistake."

On the lab wall is a poster with rows of pictures of the 24 known stuffed quagga specimens. They are graded according to striping and colour.

Mr Rau believes some of the animals in the programme could now be compared with examples on the poster. But he shies away from saying he has created a true quagga.

Critics say it is impossible to know whether the animals produced are true quaggas, since they were never studied by modern science. Aside from colour and stripes, no other defining quagga characteristics, such as behavioural patterns or diet, were ever noted and may have been lost to history.

Scientists involved in the scheme accept the point, but argue that - with no living specimens to examine - it is futile to worry about questions that cannot be answered.

"It is almost irrelevant," said Professor Eric Harley, a geneticist at the University of Cape Town who works on the project.

"If we get an individual that matches (coloration and striping), then we can say it is a quagga, because that is the only way we can now define them."

Scientists are divided about why the quagga developed its unusual coat.

Many believe the quagga evolved camouflage to match the dusty, sun-burned plains and mountains of the Karoo and avoid predators who would easily spot a black and white animal.
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Author:Harris, Paul
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 14, 1998
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