Quagga: Or, A Misunderstanding of Stripes | By Laura Bliss for The Last Menagerie
The third graders want to know why there’s a zebra in the middle of the Ice Age mural. It is a dense vignette of Los Angeles, 15,000 years past. Mammoths and saber-tootheds bump along background hills; Dire wolves chase a pack of bison; Teratorns flock the blue skies. In the center, something anachronistic is fallen in tar: A yellowish brown, half-striped horse, as if wearing a nautical blouse and chestnut trousers. Zebra? Ice Age? How?
I, museum tour guide, reply with my standard string of confusions: We-ell, the animal in the picture isn’t quite a zebra, but an Ice Age relative of the regular horse. However, genetics tell us that the many-thousand-year-old ancestor could have resembled a quagga, which was also an extinct animal, and which was also, um, not quite a zebra, but like one.
Facing stares, I pull out the tattered laminate we educators tote around in anticipation of this near-daily question, an 1870 London Zoo photograph of a female quagga.
Or, another striped animal looking misplaced. And that, honestly, is the story of the quagga, or at least of its last centuries on the planet: Never fully fitting into the pantheon, never fully understood.
For example, how did the zebra sub-species behave? Like zebras, sort of, is the best answer science seems to have. We know they lived in herds on the plains of South Africa, and we know they got their name, quagga, from the sound of their squeals. Past that, things are fuzzy. Many quaggas were indistinguishable from their normal zebra cousins, and some Afrikaaners would use ‘quagga’ to refer to any zebra, half-striped or full. This makes historical descriptions unreliable. In fact, only one semi-scientific account that unequivocally describes the quagga (and not possibly some other striped horse) exists. Sir William Cornwallis, a British military engineer and enthusiastic hunter, wrote this in 1840:
[I]t occurs in interminable herds; and, although never intermixing with its more elegant congeners, it is almost invariably to be found ranging with the white-tailed gnu and with the ostrich, for the society of which bird especially it evinces the most singular predilection. Moving slowly across the profile of the ocean-like horizon, uttering a shrill, barking neigh, of which its name forms a correct imitation, long files of quaggas continually remind the early traveller of a rival caravan on its march.
There are also brief mentions in various documents that cast quaggas as aggressive, high-strung animals, which inspired farmers to use them as guards for their livestock. Some quaggas shipped off to Europe were harnessed as lively carriage-pullers. But still others sent to European zoos were described as more subdued. Pretty easy to glean from the sullen eyes of the London mare, who maybe somehow sensed her kind was approaching zero.
For, by the time the London mare was photographed in 1870, quaggas were nearly vanished on the South African grasslands. They’d been winnowing in the two centuries since the Dutch arrived with shotguns and livestock.“The animal was formerly extremely common within the colony,” wrote Harris, “but, vanishing before the strides of civilisation, is now to be found in very limited numbers and on the borders only.”
Does Harris mean “before,” as in prior to? Or “before,” as in due to, as a result of? His language captures what remains a poorly understood timeline. At least we know the extinction came by gun. Quaggas were seen as resource competitors to sheep and goats, and so were hunted zealously by farmers and collectors. Later, they dropped off one by one in European zoos. The last fell in Amsterdam, in 1883. That much is certain.
Yet however shaky our collective memory, there’s something about the quagga’s place within it that stirs interest in its resurrection. The Quagga Project has succeeded in producing a handful of zebras that look like quaggas, using selective breeding. But do these quasi-quaggas act the same? Can we learn much from them? Answers are hazy as usual for this animal who (sort of) takes its place within that Ice Age scene of goners, among Mastodons, saber-tootheds, dire wolves, &c. Queer how much more we know of those animals, extinct many millennia, than the half-striped zebra we saw enough of to half-remember.
Laura Bliss is a writer and journalist living in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared onThe Atlantic, CityLab, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and beyond. Formerly, she was an educator at the Page Museum in Los Angeles.