Rau quagga in the animal camp above Groote Schuur Hospital. Oggmus/Wikimedia

South Africa has a small herd of animals galloping its plains that resemble the now-extinct quagga. In terms of body shape and size, quaggas used to resemble their cousins, the plains zebras. However, only the front half of quaggas had the zebra's characteristic black and white striping; the rear half of their coat was shaded brown. 

This singular-looking appearance captivated a group of scientists, who for the past 30 years have been working on the “Quagga Project” in an attempt to “resurrect” the extinct species – at least superficially. By selectively breeding plains zebras with the most quagga-like characteristics, they have tried “to retrieve at least the genes responsible for the quagga’s characteristic striping pattern,” according to the project’s website.

The project has now selectively bred four to five generations, with each new batch’s coloring becoming more quagga-like in appearance.

“In fact we have over the course of 4, 5 generations seen a progressive reduction in striping, and lately an increase in the brown background color, showing that our original idea was in fact correct," said Eric Harley, the project's leader and a professor at Cape Town University, to CNN.

The six or so animals have been dubbed “Rau quaggas,” named after one of the project’s founders Reinhold Rau.

A quagga, the extinct sub-species of zebra. Mare, London, Regent's Park Zoo/Wikimedia Commons

Critics of the project believe the researchers’ time and resources could have been better spent elsewhere, such as working to save currently endangered species from the extinction that befell the quaggas. 

Professor Harley disagrees. He suggests to CNN that “If we can retrieve the animals or retrieve at least the appearance of the quagga, then we can say we've righted a wrong.”

The Quagga Project website states a similar goal: “The project is aimed at rectifying a tragic mistake made over a hundred years ago through greed and short sightedness. It is hoped that if this revival is successful, in due course herds showing the phenotype of the original quagga will again roam the plains of the Karoo.”

Whether the project is a worthy ode to an extinct species, or a misuse of time and resources, remains a matter of contention. 

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