Among those scientists who considered the Quagga as having been the southern-most subspecies of the Plains Zebra, were Otto Antonius, zoo director in Vienna and the two brothers, Heinz and Lutz Heck, both zoo directors, the former at Munich and the latter at Berlin, Germany.
The breeding experiments of the Heck brothers, largely with domestic horses and cattle, are well known. The aim was to breed animals which resemble the wild ancestors of both the domestic horse and domestic cattle. Lutz Heck, in his 1955 book entitled "Grosswild im Etoshaland", suggested that careful breeding with Plains Zebra, that have been selected for their brownish basic colour, and/or reduced striping, could produce an animal identical to the extinct Quagga!
In 1971, Reinhold Rau visited museums in Europe to examine most of the preserved Quagga specimens, after having dismantled and re-mounted the Quagga foal at the South African Museum in Cape Town in 1969/70. During this tour he discussed the feasibility of attempting to re-breed the Quagga with Dr. Th. Haltenorth, mammalogist, at Munich, Germany. Dr. Haltenorth saw merits in such a plan and expressed his surprise that such a programme had not already been started in South Africa.
Having critically examined 21 of the 23 preserved Quaggas, and being familiar with the high degree of variation in the Plains Zebra populations inhabiting the Etosha National Park in Namibia, the Kruger National Park, as well as parks in Zululand and Swaziland, Rau decided to work towards the implementation of a Quagga re-breeding programme. Contact was made in 1975 with zoologists and Park authorities, in the hope of stimulating interest in the project. Reactions to his proposals were on the whole negative, which was not surprising, considering that most English language scientific literature considered the Quagga as a separate species, a view which, if correct, would render any attempt to re-breed the Quagga a futile exercise. However, Rau did not abandon his re-breeding proposal, as he considered the Quagga to be a subspecies of the Plains Zebra. The plan received new impetus in the 1980’s by molecular studies that compared sequences of genetic code of Mitochondrial DNA extracted from tissue samples from a Quagga’s skin. Comparison of these sequences with those of the Plains Zebra, demonstrated their close affinity, at least with reference to the sequenced genes, indicating that the Quagga was a subspecies of the Plains Zebra. Then came another fortunate event. The retired veterinarian, Dr. J. F. Warning of Somerset West, contacted Rau during the latter part of 1985. He was an expert in animal husbandry and had been associated in horse and cattle breeding for more than 50 years in Germany and Namibia.
He was a friend of Prof. Lutz Heck and had spent much time with him during the latter’s stay in Namibia (which resulted in Heck’s book mentioned above). Gradually a more positive attitude was taken towards the proposed Quagga re-breeding programme, as the DNA examination results appeared in publications from 1984 onward. Influential persons became involved and during March 1986 the project committee was formed. During March 1987 nine zebras, out of approximately 2 500, were selected and captured at the Etosha National Park. Their capture and arrival at the specially constructed breeding camp complex at the Nature Conservation farm "Vrolijkheid", near Robertson, in the Cape, on 24th April 1987, marked the commencement of the Quagga re-breeding project.
The first foal was born on the 9th of December 1988. During the successive years, further selected breeding stock taken from Etosha and Zululand have been added. The first foal of the second offspring generation (F2 generation) was born in February 1997. Reproductive maturity is reached only at two to three years in mares and four to five years in stallions.
The increased number of zebras led to a proportionate increase in the cost of feeding them, so much so that the limited funds of the project became stretched to the point where the breeding venue at Vrolijkheid had to be abandoned. In October 1992 six zebras were moved nearer Cape Town onto land which had sufficient natural grazing. As the new site proved to be a success, the remaining zebras from Vrolijkheid were moved there and to two additional new sites in 1993. In July 2004 Quagga Project breeding groups are living at 11 localities near Cape Town, with a total of presently 83 zebras. In addition there are 6 good stallions at 4 different places, held in reserve for replacement, should the need arise. There have been some losses, due to old age, illness or injury. Some of the less suitable offspring have been sold.
It is expected that this continuous selective breeding will, with successive generations, reduce the high degree of individual variation, both in colour and in extent of striping, which are characteristics of the southern Plains Zebra. Eventually individuals should emerge whose coat-pattern characters closely resemble that of the extinct Quagga.
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