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Spotlight falls on restoration of extinct species in Stellenbosch Forum lecture
Author: Corporate Communication & Marketing / Korporatiewe Kommunikasie & Bemarking [Alec Basson]
Published: 06/10/2022

What is the point of bringing extinct species like the quagga back to life?

This was one of the questions Prof Sandra Swart from the Department of History at Stellenbosch University explored in a recent Stellenbosch Forum lecture. The lecture, the seventh in the series for 2022, was themed 'Zombie Zoology: the end of extinction?'

The Stellenbosch Forum lecture series was started in 1990 and provides regular opportunities to SU staff and students as well as members of the public to learn more about the world-class research conducted at SU. Presented in an accessible and understandable way, these lectures offer both academics and non-academics a platform for critical debate across disciplinary boundaries.

In her lecture, Swart said that de-extincting species like the quagga, a relative of the zebra, could be a form of mental restoration for people.

“The de-extinction of the quagga has been a conscious act of contrition and reparation. It certainly has the power to reach a much wider audience than most conservation stories. The quagga allows us to encounter the rarest animal of all in conservation circles."

“The restoration of the quagga can act as an antidote to the pervasive pessimistic narrative of evitable, unstoppable destruction of species because of human activities," added Swart.

She said it's very easy to dismiss the quagga project as a romantic fantasy pointing at the naivety or self-indulgence or arrogance or neoliberal ambition.

“This project is, however, not a bombastic science claim of cloning but rather something we've been doing as a species for 10 000 years since we started domesticating animals, breeding the animals we needed for our fields, tables, our stomachs, our wars or for our souls."

Swart pointed out that the quagga was one of the very first animals to be accorded formal protection by the South African state. The last quaggas died out in the wild by 1878. They were sometimes hunted for their hide and their flesh.

Swart related the story of how the German-born taxidermist Reinhold Rau in 1986 started a programme to bring the quagga back from extinction. In 1969, Rau restuffed a quagga foal in the South African Museum in Cape Town, now called the Iziko Museum. Thanks to his efforts to bring the quagga back to life, geneticists were able to determine that the quagga was closely related to the zebra and not a separate species.

Swart mentioned that by 2004, 21 foals had been produced in South Africa with some showing noticeable diminished stripping. “A milestone was reached when a simulacrum of the original quagga was born in 2005. Called Henry, he was a doppelgänger of the foal that Rau restuffed in 1969."

According to Swart, the quagga project from the outset was not favoured by the state.

“It was sponsored by local farmers and capitalists and some academics with the patience to plan for many generations. Only in 2000 was the project formally acknowledged by the government."

The quagga wasn't the only species that scientists tried to de-extinct, Swart said. They also attempted to bring species like the Huia bird, Pyrenean ibex, the Tasmanian wolf and the passenger pigeon back to life.

“Every time scientists say they going to bring back one of these lost animals, the public loves it. Although there is some limited success, these projects habitually make audacious claims ahead of what is presently scientifically possible. In the popular domain and in some scientific circles the hubristic rhetoric persists."

According to Swart, restoration projects are not politically neutral. “Such projects are products of the historical context both in terms of technology that renders them possible and the Zeitgeist that renders them desirable."

She concluded that in the de-extinction projects, we see the alliance between the rich patrons, scientists and the corporate world.

  • Photo: The quagga, Huia bird, and Pyrenean ibex.