Quagga photo (1870)

This photograph, taken by Frederick York in the London Zoo during the summer of 1870, bridges past and future zebras, as well as past and future technologies, while serving as an artefact of the entangled history of imperialism and extinction in the Anthropocene. It shows an unnamed mare standing on a paved surface in the corner of her enclosure. She was the only quagga ever to be photographed alive; in all likelihood none of the five extant photographs were taken in the knowledge that the quagga would be extinct very soon, and that this mare would become representative of her kind.

The story of the extinction of the quagga is one of extremes. At first they were deemed less valuable than more vividly-coloured zebras, and although some were used as draft animals, most were slaughtered for their hides and meat – and to make way for livestock. When the last captive quagga died on 12 August 1883 in the Artis Zoo in Amsterdam, the zoo requested a new specimen to be shipped from what is now South Africa, but by then it was too late – the formerly vast herds of the Cape and Karoo have been destroyed by hunting, colonial settlement and the encroachment of domestic grazing stock. The Governor of the Cape of Good Hope passed the Act for the Better Preservation of Game on 6 July 1886, thereby explicitly prohibiting the hunting of quagga without the appropriate licence, but this almost certainly happened after the extinction of this subspecies of the plains zebra.  The ordinariness of quaggas contributed not only to their extinction, but also to the lack of scientific attention they received while still alive: today only 23 preserved specimens remain in mostly European museums. Their coats show great variation, so it is uncertain just how typical the London mare’s pelt was. In 1984 the quagga became extraordinary when scientists at Berkeley managed to retrieve short sequences of DNA from flesh obtained from some badly-taxidermied museum specimens. The quagga thus became the first extinct animal to have its DNA analysed.

Since 1987 the Quagga Project has had the aim to de-extinct the quagga through the back-breeding of selected zebras. The project is controversial: it can be seen as an expression of econationalism, it entails the relocation of animals and careful management of their reproduction, and it will never be able to recreate the composite herds of quagga, black wildebeest and ostriches which once populated the arid south-western regions of Southern Africa. Although the Quagga Project could be interpreted as an attempt to atone for this and other anthropogenic extinctions, it is deeply ironic that South Africa, a country haunted by its history of racial segregation, is home to a project aimed at reproducing a specific coat phenotype.

Through colonial settlement the Karoo and its inhabitants have been changed irrevocably. The photo of the London mare reminds us of the absence of quaggas, but also warns of the many absences an Anthropocenic future may hold.

Photograph taken in 1870 by Frederick York – in the public domain.

Marinette Grimbeek

PhD student in English literature at Karlstad University, Sweden