Can You Revive an Extinct Animal?
By D.T. MAX, The New York Times, January 1, 2006
Reinhold Rau is one of the last of his breed. He was once part of a team of seven taxidermists who, during the apartheid years in South Africa, mounted mammals and birds for the natural-history museum in Cape Town. You can still see his work there. The leopard moving toward its prey on the third floor is Rau's creation, as is the zebra fawn in a nearby glass case, taking shelter under an adult. Rau loves his work - the stripping of the animal's skin from the body, the construction of the mold that replaces its flesh, the sleight of hand that brings about a permanent version of the animal's old self. "Sometimes when the schoolchildren come and see taxidermy, they almost faint," he told me recently in his accented English (he grew up in Germany). "But it never had that effect on me."
During apartheid, displaying South African wildlife trophies behind glass accorded with the regime's image of itself as a first-world power; it showcased its dominion over nature. But since the changeover to a majority black government in the mid-90's, the natural history museum has turned away from Rau's kind of work. In addition to fauna, African culture has become an increasingly important focus; and video installations have superseded mounted animals in an attempt to present the natural world more on its own terms. Over time, all but one of Rau's colleagues in taxidermy have left the museum.
Technically, Rau, too, is retired, but as he says, "I never left and they never kicked me out." As a result he can still be found in his office, helping out on the occasional freelance taxidermy assignment. And there, past a mounted South American maned fox and a four-foot-long polyurethane model of a Permian Era reptile, he pursues his true passion: the Quagga Breeding Project.
The quagga was a horselike animal native to southern Africa that went extinct in 1883. Its head, neck and shoulders and sometimes the forward part of its flank were covered with stripes; the back part of its torso, its rump and legs were unstriped. An old joke among the Dutch, the first Europeans to settle in South Africa, was that the quagga was a zebra that had forgotten its pajama pants. Rau's goal, which he has been working toward for three decades, is to breed the quagga back into existence. His approach is to take zebras that look more quaggalike than the norm and mate them with one another, generation after generation, progressively erasing the stripes from the back part of their bodies.
This may sound preposterous. How likely is it that deliberate breeding can retrace the path of natural selection by which the quagga split off from the plains zebra more than a hundred thousand years ago? But over the years Rau's project has gained some establishment support. Several scientific studies of the zebra family, for instance, have suggested that plains zebras and quaggas were closely enough related to make Rau's project feasible from a genetic point of view. This is important to Rau, because he doesn't seem to want just to create a quagga look-alike but to recreate - or at least closely approximate - the genetic original. And beginning in the late 80's, the Namibian and South African park systems supplied Rau with promising animals so that he could put his ideas into practice. (The South African park system, as well as the natural history museum, also absorbs some of the small, ongoing cost of the project.)
Over years of breeding, Rau has made great progress creating zebras that look like quaggas. With each generation, his herds show fewer and fainter stripes in the back. "Even we have been surprised by the progress," he told me. Last January, Henry, Rau's most convincing quagga foal yet, was born on a private preserve outside Cape Town. Rau says that Henry, a third-generation descendant (on his mother's side) of the project's original zebras, is very near to perfection. He has some of the brownish color quaggas had and, if not for a few stripes on Henry's hocks - the joint in the middle of the hind leg - Rau says he would be tempted to announce that the project was done. His life's work would be finished, and to his mind, a great ecological wrong righted.
Still, Rau's project raises a lot of questions. Most central among them: If you breed something that looks like a certain animal, does that mean you have actually recreated that animal? What, in other words, gives an animal its identity - its genetic makeup? Its history? Its behavior? Its habitat? The problem, as it was put to me by Oliver Ryder, who directs a project at the San Diego Zoo to preserve rare-animal DNA, is that even if Rau succeeds in creating an animal with the exact appearance of a quagga, uncertainty will remain about what he has done. "We won't be able to know," Ryder said, "how much quagga-ness is in it."
Extinction is always a sad story, but the quagga's is sadder than most. The animal once lived in vast herds, often intermixed with gnu and ostriches, "for the society of which bird especially," the 19th-century English explorer Capt. William Cornwallis Harris noted, "it evinces the most singular predilection." That was probably Harris's fancy: in reality little is known about the quagga's behavior other than that it grazed on plains grass and emitted a bark - kwahaah! - in moments of danger or excitement. Dutch settlers recorded the name as "quacha," with a guttural "ch," and that remains the correct way to pronounce it: KWAH-ha.
The quagga had an unfortunate series of interactions with humans. Sportsmen on the Cape of Good Hope hunted the animal with enthusiasm. That was the first blow to the quagga. The second blow was an influx of farmers of Dutch or German origin, known as Voortrekkers, in the early 19th century into the quagga's home territory, the Karoo plain. The farmers did not want quaggas sharing grass with their livestock. When they saw a quagga, they shot it. They used the hide and gave the meat to the servants. (An 1838 article in The Penny Magazine commented that while the whites thought quagga tasted no better than horseflesh, "the natives, however, relish it.") The number of quaggas soon went into free fall. By the 1860's, they were scarce. A few decades earlier they numbered in the tens of thousands. By the 1870's there appeared to be none left in Africa.
Two things make the extinction of the quagga especially heart-rending. First was the manner of its disappearance. The quagga left the world so quietly that when the Cape Town colony finally put in place legislation to protect the animal, in 1886, the government didn't even know that the last quagga in the world died nearly three years before. Not only were there no quaggas living anywhere anymore, there were also apparently almost no dead quaggas to be found, either: little to nothing in the way of quagga rugs, stuffed quaggas, quagga photographs. An article in The New York Times in 1900 noted that "one poor skin in the Natural History Museum, London" seemed to be "all that remains of this noble creature to prove that it ever existed."
The other depressing thing about the disappearance of the quagga is that its fate seemed somehow connected to its ordinariness. The plains zebra, after all, filled a similar niche in nature. It, too, ate grassland that humans wanted for their livestock. But the plains zebra is a regal, stunning animal - "fierce, strong, fleet and surpassingly beautiful" in Captain Harris's words - whereas the quagga was ragtag. It seemed the sketch of something of which the plains zebra was the full realization, and so no one thought to save it.
But the quagga never entirely disappeared from memory. Its extinction has always managed to touch a few individuals, at different times and different places. It was one of the motivating forces behind a European pact in 1900 to preserve vanishing African species like the giraffe and the rhinoceros. And Otto Antonius, director of the Vienna zoo from 1924 to 1945, commissioned a painting called "The Extermination of the Quagga" - in which men on horseback fire as donkeylike heads rear up before a fusillade of bullets - as a reminder of the tragedy of the animal's elimination. Today, thanks to Rau, who bought the painting from Antonius's daughter, "The Extermination of the Quagga" belongs to the Quagga Breeding Project and can be found in the museum where Rau has his office.
Rau first became interested in the fate of the quagga in 1959, soon after he arrived at the South African Museum, where he came upon a poorly maintained stuffed quagga foal. It offended his professional standards as a taxidermist to see an extinct animal so neglected. "It was most crudely stuffed and stuck in the midst of other animals - I felt someone ought to do something about it," he recalled not long ago, when I first met him in Cape Town. "If you consider how ignorance and greed wiped out the quagga, this is a tragedy," he told me. He began to think he had a responsibility - even a destiny - to "reverse this disaster."
Rau is 73, a barrel-chested, compact man with a white beard and eyebrows that curl in spires over his eyes like the native South African plant spekboom. He has the intensity of people who have spent a long time opposing conventional thinking. When he began his quagga project, he expected - correctly - that he would meet with resistance from the scientific community. "Never trust a taxidermist on taxonomy," he said to me, with dry bitterness.
At the outset, Rau had no guidelines to follow. He knew as well as anyone that extinction was forever. (Even today, despite "Jurassic Park" fantasies, no one has been able to clone an extinct animal because DNA typically degrades too quickly.) But in the early 1970's he remembered something unusual he saw in his youth. When he was growing up near Frankfurt some 30 years before, he went to a circus where an animal called an auroch was paraded. The auroch, a powerful ox, had been extinct since the early 17th century, but two brothers, Lutz and Heinz Heck, both German zoo directors, each tried in the 1920's to recreate the beast by scrupulously mating existing breeds of cattle with one another - getting the auroch's body size from one, its coloring from another.
Rau suspected that it might be possible to reverse the extinction of the quagga the same way. The key would be to find the characteristics of the quagga in the existing zebra population, select zebras that exhibited such characteristics and breed them to bring out those characteristics. Paradoxically, what in part had condemned the quagga to extinction - its close relationship to the plains zebra - might now be its salvation.
Of course, there was a scientific objection to overcome. Most taxonomists have held that the quagga and the plains zebra were entirely separate species. While there is no universally accepted definition of a species - it is some combination of genetic difference, physical difference and inability to interbreed and produce fertile offspring (among other evolving criteria) - in general, taxonomists believe they know a species when they see it. By most definitions it is impossible to breed one separate species from another: they have diverged permanently, and you cannot reverse the evolutionary history to rejoin them. But Rau maintained that the quagga was merely a subspecies, or a color variant, of the plains zebra - distantly related enough to look different but closely related enough to be a candidate for interbreeding.
At the time, Rau had no captive zebra stock and no land to graze zebras on, so he couldn't test his hypothesis. And when he looked for help in starting up his project, he got nowhere. A letter from one national park official in South Africa described his project as "an academic exercise of very dubious conservation value." But Rau did not let the rejections demoralize him. "As a nonscientist, I could afford to have scientists look and sniff at me," he said. "I did not care about their opinions, and I did not have to care."
He began to gather evidence that the quagga had been a subspecies of the plains zebra. For one thing, he discovered, European colonists, following the Hottentots' example, apparently regarded the two animals as interchangeable: they used the word "quagga" for both. Also, Rau knew taxidermy - hides - and he knew that plains zebras were far from uniformly striped. In fact, as you went south, their stripes faded out, and they got browner. In other words, they became more quaggalike. That suggested a spectrum between quaggas and zebras, rather than two boxes with one species in each.
The next step was to examine as many preserved quagga specimens as he could. Though there are known photographs of only one living quagga, there are 23 mounted quaggas preserved at various museums throughout the world. (There had been 24 until 1945, when drunken Russian troops occupying a villa where the Germans had moved the museum holdings of Konigsberg threw one out a window.) Rau visited many of the extant quaggas in the early 70's, carefully cataloging their markings. He went to Mainz, Leiden, Munich, Wiesbaden and Amsterdam. He was approaching 40 and had no other obligations in his life. ("I had a fiancée once," he told me enigmatically. "She married an American.") As his expertise in quagga became known, he was invited by museums to restore the tattered quaggas he found, and when he did, feeling he was correcting the errors of previous taxidermists, he made small changes - old preserved skin has very little give - that also had the effect of making the animals look more like plains zebras. If he could not shape the future, it seemed, he could at least remake the past.
For all Rau's diligence, he couldn't find any institutional support. Without it, he did not have the resources to keep and breed animals. "I was about to give up," he told me. Then in 1981 he heard from Oliver Ryder, a geneticist associated with the San Diego Zoo. Ryder was looking for blood and skin samples of living zebras, but Rau wrote him back that he had something better - muscle and blood vessels preserved from extinct quaggas. (Whoever had first skinned those quaggas had done a sloppy job, leaving small pieces of flesh connected to the hide.) Ryder was thrilled. It was the moment Rau had been waiting for - he had been keeping bits of quagga flesh in reserve ever since he remounted a quagga in 1969 - and he sent the samples off.
Over the next few years, researchers successfully extracted portions of DNA from the quagga tissue - an achievement that in 1984 made front-page news throughout the world. (In the book "Jurassic Park," the successful recovery of quagga DNA emboldens entrepreneurial scientists to try cloning dinosaurs.) Rau, however, was not interested in the big news of the announcement: that cloning extinct animals might one day be possible. He was interested in a related experiment by Ryder, published the following year, which compared the proteins in plains zebras and quaggas and reported that "the quagga probably ought to be considered a variant of the plains zebra and not a distant species." In a letter to Rau, Ryder wrote, "This, I am sure, does not surprise you."
For Rau, this was the long-sought confirmation that his dream was achievable. A quagga could, in theory, be bred back into existence from zebras. On the strength of this result, in part, Rau was able to move his project forward. In 1986, the Namibian national parks agreed to supply him with a group of plains zebras, and one year later it sent him a hodgepodge of zebras captured in the Etosha National Park. Rau had arranged with the Cape Department of Nature Conservation for a farm to be set aside for the zebras and to have them delivered there. Some zebras died on the way, and some were the wrong color for the experiment. "I was not impressed overall with the quality of what we had," Rau recalled. Still, after 12 years of trying to get the world's attention, he was glad he could make a start.
This past August, on the 122nd anniversary of the death of the last quagga, I visited the Amsterdam Zoo, where the quagga spent its final years. The animal, a mare who was 12 years old at the time of her death, had been so tame she would allow people to pet her when her keeper was present. Consistent with the poor luck of her species, no one realized when she died that she was the last of her kind.
After her death, the mare's hide was mounted and put on display at the zoo. Over time its importance became known, but all the same, 15 years ago it was moved to a large room in a zoo building that is not open to the general public. When I approached the zoo about seeing the quagga, a pleasant semiretired biologist named P.J.H. van Bree said he would show it to me. When van Bree opened the door to the room, 50 sets of glass eyes met mine. Along with the quagga were dozens of taxidermic specimens, many from the Dutch past as a colonial power - rows of antelopes, zebras, a grizzly bear in an eight-foot-high plastic bag, a leopard and a black-maned cape lion, who, before humans extinguished it in the mid-1800's, may well have enjoyed more than one helping of quagga.
The quagga was in a climate-controlled case, but the front pane was not attached. The animal was in poor shape. Its skin was separating on its back and on a rear leg. I touched the animal's bristly back, its backward pointing ears, its sensitive muzzle. I touched its hind quarters, trying to sense the life that was once inside but finding only the cast the taxidermist had made.
To my eye, the quagga - this quagga anyway - looked more like a donkey than a zebra. It had a straight back, and its neck jutted forward. Its stripes were very light at the neck, fading to a moiré silkiness at midframe. Its underlying color was very brown. Across the room there was a glorious example of a mountain zebra looking like a small thoroughbred in a Mary Quant frock, and for me it was hard to believe that the two animals were related at all. The subject of Rau's quagga project came up, and van Bree expressed skepticism. "I have no objection," he said, "but just because a man may look like Napoleon, that does not make him Napoleon."
It's true that there is as much evidence that Rau's project is impossible as that it's possible. Since the 1985 study of quagga proteins, researchers have gone back and forth on the genetic and physical differences and similarities between the quagga and the plains zebra. The most recent and extensive analysis, published online last summer in Biology Letters of the Royal Society, suggested to some that the mitochondrial DNA of the plains zebra and the quagga was similar enough for them to be members of the same species but also said that there was no evidence that they had actually interbred. Rau saw the report as an endorsement of his ideas. But an author of the paper, Robert Fleischer of the Smithsonian Institution, told me that the scientists themselves had not been able to reach a conclusion as to what the relationship between the quagga and the plains zebra was. He said ultimately the question cannot be answered.
Why not? Partly because no one knows enough about quagga behavior. Species - even subspecies - don't differ just in shape and color from one another; they differ in behavior: foraging habits, social habits, aggressiveness. (It's here, for instance, that the auroch project, to rebreed the extinct European ox, foundered. What the Heck brothers got was a large ox with better horns but not an animal whose behavior necessarily matched that of its extinct antecedent.) Rau's mantra, which he said to me many times, is that the "quagga was nothing more than a southern variant of the plains zebra." He says it behaved exactly like the zebra in the wild. But the truth is that he doesn't know because the information doesn't exist. As van Bree told me, "before 1880 people were not interested in animal behavior."
Rau is a taxidermist, trained to recreate appearances, not to delve beneath them. But in the course of my conversations with several scientists, I noticed that those who talked about Rau, even those who condescended to his project, spoke of him with respect. For some, like Oliver Ryder, it doesn't seem to matter whether Rau is breeding a true quagga, or a zebra without its pajama pants, or an animal that looks like a quagga but doesn't share the quagga's genetic makeup. What seems to matter is that Rau does not accept that he is powerless to change the course of the mass extinction that has been under way for the past century. Instead he has reasserted the role of humans as custodians of nature. "They're going to thank us for what we save," Ryder told me. And ultimately what Rau may be saving is a part of ourselves.
' Not one man in a thousand has accuracy of eye and judgment sufficient to become an eminent breeder," Charles Darwin wrote in "The Origin of Species." Rau has turned out to have that rare touch. He is "a country boy," in his words, with a knack for animal husbandry. To make his zebras lose their stripes more quickly, he brought in some lightly striped zebras from South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal region and bred the two groups.
In the late summer, I went to see Henry, Rau's star quagga, for myself. Rau drove me out of Cape Town in one of the museum's vehicles for a tour of his animals, which now number more than 100. At first meeting, Rau can seem dogmatic, painting the world as us versus them, black versus white - but as I got to know him, he proved to be quite charming, with a flinty sense of humor. He lives alone in a southern suburb of Cape Town with two dogs and six species of European finch. The days I saw him he wore a striped sweater that had brown discolorations from where it dried on a radiator; it was as if he were working on becoming a quagga, too.
Often, in the early days of his project, when Rau did not have the money for game-quality fencing, he put his zebras wherever he found adequate barriers already in place. As a result I saw some of his animals at an explosives factory and others at a particle-accelerator facility. Today, the project still operates on a tiny budget drawn from individual contributions; but because several private game-preserve owners keep the animals as tourist draws, most of his animals live better. Henry, for instance, lives on a private preserve, owned by a wealthy plastics manufacturer, about 45 minutes north of Cape Town. The preserve is large enough that if Henry wants to stay out of sight, it is very unlikely a person can find him, even with a car. "Let's keep thumbs that the little boy will present himself," Rau said as we began our search.
Eventually, we found Henry grazing on a heath just down the hill from a gnu and near some bontebok. His stripes began at the head like a bandit's mask, his black comb stood up like a centurion's, but that was where his resemblance to a plains zebra ended: his pelt from his rib cages to his buttocks was a soft, almost-unstriped yellow brown. He also had that moiré silkiness to his middle that I saw in the hide in Amsterdam. "What a lovely thing he is," Rau kept saying, looking through his binoculars. "Look at those stripes. They go nowhere near the belly. That's very quagga."
Henry and his group - a stallion and three mares - had the grace of wild things. The sun shone off them, the ocean was behind the hills they ranged over and they seemed to hear a music I didn't. If the bontebok next to them ran, they ran. If one zebra turned and showed us its rump, they all did. The stallion stood apart, seemingly ready to fight if we made any sudden moves.
Not that the scene was actually truly wild - a cellphone rang in our S.U.V., there were power lines over the next hill and the landscape was full of vegetation that had come from Australia. Human intervention has changed this landscape in radical ways for 350 years. Whatever progress Rau may have made in bringing the quagga back to the world, we are not in the world the quagga knew, and it seems safe to say we will never be again.
Modern technology, though, may eventually carry the quagga project beyond where Rau can take it. Robert Fleischer at the Smithsonian told me that "not now, not in 6 but maybe in 20 years," technology would be available to repair DNA from extinct animals, which might then be used to clone them back to life. The high quality of the DNA samples from the quagga skins might make the quagga a candidate for this revival, Fleischer suggests. That would be very good news, although, arguably, still the easy part. There is nothing natural about a natural landscape remade by humans. What are we bringing these animals back to? "Let it also be borne in mind," Darwin wrote in "The Origin of Species," "how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life." You have to wonder if we are really intelligent enough to redesign nature.
This doubt was brought home to me on my way to see Rau, during a stop I made at Addo Elephant National Park, several hundred miles east of Cape Town near Port Elizabeth. Recently some of Rau's rejects from the quagga breeding project were released there, into what had been farmland not long ago, along with some lightly striped zebras bred by the national parks themselves. Rau said they had been sent to be "lions' lunch," but the lions, brought in from the Kalahari, where there are no zebras, didn't bother with them. They turned their attention instead to the local buffaloes. Lions usually have a hard time killing buffaloes - the buffaloes make a circle around their young and hold off the predators with their horns - but these buffaloes had lost their knowledge of how to defend themselves, so they were now easy targets. The park system relies on the sale of buffaloes to help finance the park's expansion; instead predators had pulled down 80 of them.
It was a striking example of how hard it is to restore nature once you have damaged it. For instance, even as Rau's creation is making its reappearance, its cousin the Grevy's zebra, an intensely striped zebra native to East Africa, has become threatened with extinction. Rau does not seem to think about these sorts of things much. He seems to accept that nothing he will do can mitigate the larger disaster that may be awaiting the natural world and that only some of the animals he so laboriously rebreeds will go to natural parks while the rest will go to hunting preserves - where they will be targets for sportsmen.
I asked Rau whether, given this vision of the future, spending 30 years to erase a half a set of stripes on an obscure extinct animal was worth it. We were driving on a highway outside Cape Town, no antelopes, no spekboom in sight, a long way from the Karoo, the dry plains where the quaggas had once lived in huge herds. "You would find it a bit disillusioning?" he asked. "Not to me. We would have given back to the Karoo - we will have given back to the Karoo - its original zebra. And that will be enough for me."
Henry, the closest thing to a quagga in more than a century, on a preserve near Cape Town.
D.T. Max, a frequent contributor to the magazine, is working on "The Dark Eye," a cultural and scientific history of mad-cow and other prion diseases.