Taxidermist had passion to revive extinct quagga
Rheinhold Rau, a German-born taxidermist who regarded it as his moral duty to reverse the extinction of the quagga, a zebra-like animal, has died. He was 73.
The South African Museum, where Rau worked for more than four decades and well into his retirement, confirmed his February 11 death but gave no cause.
Hamish Robertson, director of natural history at the museum, said that the efforts inspired by Rau to breed the quagga back into existence would continue thanks to support from the South African National Parks board.
“But finding a champion or team to continue with his drive and passion will indeed be a challenge,” Robertson said in a written tribute sent to The Associated Press on Thursday. “I feel there is much more we could have learned from him.”
Rau came from Germany to Cape Town to work as a taxidermist at the museum in 1959.
His fascination with the quagga started after he remounted a stuffed specimen at the museum.
While removing the skin, Rau discovered dried blood and muscle tissue—material that preserved DNA, the genetic blueprint for life.
The quagga—whose name was adapted from an imitation of the animal’s call—inhabited South Africa’s Karoo desert until well into the second half of the 19th century, when it became extinct.
It differed from other zebras mainly in having stripes only on its head, neck and front portion of its body, and in being brownish, rather than white, on its upper parts.
DNA analysis eventually proved that quaggas were a subspecies of the plains zebra, which inhabits Africa, and not a separate species.
This meant quagga genes could still lurk in plains zebras.
Using funds raised privately from donations, Rau scoured game reserves in South Africa and neighbouring Namibia for plains zebra that looked most like quaggas.
He said he was driven by a desire to put right a terrible wrong.
“The quagga became extinct through man’s ignorance and greed,” he once said in an interview. “It wasn’t a natural occurrence. It is our moral duty to rectify that mistake.”
He was the driving force behind the Quagga Project that in 1998 released 14 zebras, specially bred to look as much like the quagga as possible, into the Karoo National Park.
The theory was that by bringing selected individuals together, and so concentrating the quagga genes, a population should emerge that would be closer to the original quagga population than existing plains zebra would be.
The involvement of the South African National Parks authority boosted the project. Dozens of foals, with names such as Rebecca, Butch, Luke and Zephyr, were born.
In January 2005, the most quagga-like foal to date was born in the second generation of the selective breeding programme. The striped area of its body was reduced and the stripes themselves were narrower and fainter than usual.
Rau had predicted that a full quagga would emerge by the fourth generation of breeding.—Sapa-AP