The Zoologist/4th series, vol 5 (1901)/Issue 716/The True Quagga, Renshaw

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The True Quagga (1901)
by Graham Renshaw

Published in The Zoologist, 4th series, vol 5, issue 716 (February, 1901), p. 41–50

3751223The True Quagga1901Graham Renshaw


No. 716.—February, 1901.


By Graham Renshaw, M.B.

It was said of William the Conqueror that "he loved the tall deer as though he were their father." If this be true, then he has in these latter days been only too faithfully imitated in South Africa by Boer and by native alike; for the love which they have displayed towards the great game animals of the region between the Cape and the Zambesi has been so paternal that of the teeming millions of Mammalia which formerly graced veldt and karroo, but a sadly diminished remnant has escaped their devastating solicitude.

The sad list of vanished or vanishing species already includes the Blaauwbok, an Antelope whose brief history is a record of speedy extermination at the hands of the early settlers; the Bontebok (its curious and striking colouration constituting it a veritable mammalian magpie), only lingering under special protection near Cape Agulhas; the Blesbok, whose numbers to-day are but a shadow of its vast old-time legions; the White-tailed Gnu, strange apparent mixture of Buffalo and Pony, yet a true Antelope; the White Rhinoceros, huge yet harmless, a four-footed Dodo; the Mountain Zebra, whose decimated numbers seem to be likely to suffer still further reduction owing to its destruction of wire-fencing; the great Eland, once plentiful in Cape Colony itself, a lovable creature, with the meekness and even the superficial appearance of a Jersey Cow; and the South African Giraffe, a handsomer animal than the northern species, from which it has only recently been recognised as distinct.

The regret at the loss—actual or threatened—of these fine beasts, though real enough to the naturalist, is mainly sentimental; but there remains one species whose strength, speed, and proved docility only render its total extermination at the hands of the Boer hunters a matter for deeper concern.

I refer to the handsome true Quagga of the Cape Colony and Orange Free State—Equus quagga of modern zoologists, quacha of the Hottentots, idube of the Kaffirs—formerly found in enormous herds on the plains south of the Vaal River, but now, in spite of all assertions to the contrary, utterly exterminated. In general proportions, and in the mane, tail, and hoofs, it was semi-equine; body-colour rufous-brown, changing to fulvous posteriorly, and fading into white on legs, tail, and abdomen. The head was striped in Zebra fashion; the neck was handsomely banded alternately with dark brown and white, these stripes fading on the withers, and becoming rapidly fainter posteriorly, the darker markings persisting on the haunches as vague lines and spots. The iris (judging from a plate which I have seen drawn from life by Waterhouse Hawkins, and depicting the pair of Quaggas formerly living in the Knowsley menagerie) was orange-brown. The mane was erect and thick; the tail reached to the hocks. Quagga foals resembled their elders in colouring, though, judging from Sparrman's remarks, these colours were probably brighter in the youngsters. Like little Zebras, young Quaggas had their coat rough and long.

The curious former association of the Quagga with Ostriches and White-tailed Gnus (exactly paralleled by the mixed herds of Burchell Zebra and Brindled Gnu) was long ago observed and commented upon by Harris. We also know that the Quagga, though fleet, could be overtaken by a well-mounted rider; that wounded animals at bay would kick savagely and bite severely; that the flesh was oily and disgusting to Europeans, though relished by the natives; and that the northern limit of the range of this species was the Vaal River. Beyond these scanty details, however, but little seems to have been recorded of the wild Quagga, and a few particulars of the animal in captivity complete all that will ever be known of this vanished equine.

When taken young the Quagga could be readily tamed; it would also interbreed with the Horse. Sparrman, who visited the Cape towards the end of the eighteenth century, mentions that the first example of the species he met with was a sleek well-kept individual, very tame, and fond of being caressed by visitors. He also states that he saw a Quagga driven in the street harnessed with five Horses; and advocates the domestication of the animal, urging that it could at that time be more easily obtained than the Horse, that it would naturally eat the coarse grass of the country, and would probably be immune from the horse-sickness. About 1815 Lord Morton, with the praise-worthy desire to domesticate the species, obtained a Quagga stallion; but, being unable to procure a mate for the animal, bred from the Quagga and a mare of seven-eighths Arab blood a curious female hybrid of a dun or chestnut colour, faintly striped on neck and withers, the knees and hocks being also barred, Darwin also relates that Lord Mostyn bred a hybrid between a male Quagga and a chestnut mare. Sheriff Parkins' experiment, carried out some time previous to 1826, was of a more practical nature; and his two beautiful Quaggas (not a pair as often stated), harnessed to a phaeton, were frequently to be seen in Hyde Park and other fashionable places. Like other Society beauties, one of these Quaggas had his portrait painted; this work, by Agasse, still hangs in the Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln's Inn Fields, where I have recently inspected it; and the woodcut illustrating the article "Quagga," by the late Sir W.H. Flower, in the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica,' is taken from this painting. Many years later Lieut.-Col, C. Hamilton Smith drove a Quagga in a gig. He seems to have been well pleased with it, and states that its mouth was fully as delicate as that of a Horse.

Let us now trace the history of the true Quagga from the sunny days of its prosperity to its decline and fall. For centuries it had thronged the veldt, its numbers unthinned by the hunter's rifle, and but little affected by the primitive weapons of the natives. When the Cape was opened up by the early settlers it gave way but slowly at first: we may note, however, that in 1820 Thomas Pringle, the South African poet, and the friend of Sir Walter Scott, observes that the Quaggas and Hartebeests had already almost totally disappeared from the open pastures of the Albany district of Cape Colony, to which they had formerly given life and interest. This may be taken as the first definite mention of the retreat of the true Quagga before advancing civilization—a merely natural though regrettable result of the progress of the white man. When Captain (afterwards Sir) W. Cornwallis Harris, in 1836, penetrated into the far interior, he found the true Quagga abundant on the plains south of the Vaal, whilst north of that river it was replaced by the equally plentiful Burchell Zebra; and, indeed, the exuberant profusion of other great game was on a similar scale, for the spreading veldt was alive with Eland and Gnu, Rhinoceros and Springbok; whilst the glittering salt-pans bloomed with purple masses of Blesbok and Bontebok. We can only in these days see in imagination what Harris saw in reality; yet we can picture the Quaggas in the days of prosperity, feeding in a huge crescent, occasionally emitting a barking neigh, their striped heads turning this way and that, and their snowy tails whisking in the blazing sunshine. Harris, however, tells us that even in his day these animals had disappeared from many places in the Colony where they had formerly abounded, although in the wild interior they still existed in immense herds. The species, though rarer, was yet very far from being extinct. About 1850, however, the Boer hunters appeared. Shooting neither for food nor for legitimate sport, but for hides alone, they attacked without pity the noble game animals which had delighted Harris and many others with their abundance and variety, and ruin fell everywhere on the denizens of this sportsman's paradise. The game at first appeared to defy all efforts to reduce its numbers, but so persistently was the massacre carried on by the hide-hunters in season and out of season, no close-time being allowed, that at last it began to vanish rapidly, and upon the true Quagga, with its now fearfully diminished range south of the Vaal, this persecution fell with double force. These unfortunate animals were exterminated in Cape Colony about 1865, according to Mr. H. A. Bryden; those in the Free State lived a few years longer, though Mr. Buckley's expedition in 1873 already found the animal "apparently unknown." At any rate, as a stuffed specimen was acquired by the Edinburgh Museum of Science and Art as late as 1879, we may perhaps compute that the animals in the Free State may have struggled on for about ten years longer at least than those in the Colony. Like the American Bison, the Quagga was so rapidly exterminated that its loss was never suspected until too late to prevent it; whilst the erroneous name "Quagga" (still employed by those who should know better), being conferred on both species of Zebra in South Africa, encouraged the belief that the true owners of the name had not been lost after all. Again and again one reads that "the rare animal the Quagga" has again turned up, but when the Sea-serpent has been captured one may believe in Quagga stories also; for all these cases, when investigated by competent persons, turn out to refer to Zebras. The true Quagga is gone for ever. Requiescat in pace!

When an animal becomes extinct, Science mournfully treasures up the records of its existence, and enumerates with dismal care the poor remnants of skin and bone (literally, skin and bone) that may exist, a poor exchange for the life of a fine species. The Great Auk has its historians; the Labrador Ducks, a silent nation, lie in stuffed stillness, redolent of naphthaline, in the drawers of a few known cabinets. Similarly I have thought it might be valuable to brother zoologists if I collected a list of all specimens, living and dead, which have represented Equus quagga, either alive in Zoological Gardens, or as prepared specimens in Zoological Museums.

After immense labour and correspondence, it appears that the following Quaggas have figured amongst the attractions of European menageries:—

(1) The Windsor Quagga, imported into England during the eighteenth century, and kept at Windsor as the property of the then Prince of Wales.

(2) The late Prof. Alphonse Milne-Edwards informed me, only a month before his lamented death, that the famous Jardin des Plantes at Paris had once possessed a Quagga, which lived to eighteen or twenty years of age in the menagerie. It was described by Cuvier in 1821.

(3, 4) A pair of Quaggas formed one of the varied attractions of the great Knowsley menagerie. On the death of Lord Derby in 1851 the menagerie was sold, and the female Quagga purchased for the Amsterdam Zoological Gardens. Some time afterwards this animal gave birth to a curious hybrid, the father of which was an Asiatic Wild Ass (Equus hemionus).

(5, 6, 7) Three Quaggas (not two as I have seen stated) have been exhibited by the Zoological Society of London—(a) an animal which died fully adult, as I judge from examining the skull, some time previous to 1838 (skin and skeleton mentioned in Waterhouse's old catalogue); (b) a female purchased in 1851; (c) a male, presented by Sir George Grey in 1858. This animal was photographed alive in 1872, when its wild brethren were already in the throes of extermination.

(8) A Quagga was formerly exhibited alive at the Berlin Zoological Gardens; its skin and skeleton are now in the Museum für Naturkunde.

(9, 10, 11?) "Several" Quaggas were obtained about 1870 by the Belgian consul at Port Elizabeth, and sent to the Antwerp Zoological Gardens.

No Quagga foals have ever been born in captivity. After careful inquiry, I learn that this species, has never been exhibited in the Zoological Gardens of Bristol, Cologne, Dublin, Frankfort-on-Main, Hamburg, Hanover, Lisbon, Marseilles, or Rotterdam. Thus ends the brief record of the living animal, which has passed away for ever, with all its latent qualities for domestication unused, and even its habits but imperfectly known.

To turn to the last portion of this essay: the census of known remains—a melancholy inventory at best. In 1898 I contributed a short article to 'The Zoologist' on "Existing Specimens of Equus quagga," giving only a very short list, and suggesting that somebody should take the matter up, and compile a complete census of relics, little thinking that one day I should myself essay the task. The results of a laborious undertaking are here summarised; and I hasten to express my thanks to all those scientific gentlemen who in Europe, South Africa, and the United States have so kindly aided me with information. The census is as follows:—

The United Kingdom.—(1) The newly-mounted old skin of the first Quagga possessed by the Zoological Society of London now stands in the Mammal Gallery of the Natural History Museum at South Kensington. It seems probable that this is the identical skin which Harris figures' at the end of the article "Quagga," in his famous 'Portraits of the Game and Wild Animals of Southern Africa.' The skull and skeleton of the same individual are also in the National Collection.

(2) The Royal College of Surgeons Museum contains the skulls of the two Quagga stallions once driven by Sheriff Parkins. I have examined both specimens; they belonged apparently to animals in the prime of life.

(3) The Tring Museum possesses a beautiful Quagga mare; the markings are particularly distinct.

(4) The Science and Art Museum at Edinburgh has a stuffed Quagga (sex unknown) amongst its zoological treasures.

(5) The Yorkshire Philosophical Society's Museum (York) contains an equine skeleton alleged to belong to this species. On inquiry, unfortunately, I found that no data were obtainable.

(6) I have examined an equine skeleton in the Medical Museum of the Owens College, Manchester; it is said to be that of a true Quagga, an opinion in which I concur, as the skeleton has a squarish diastema and stout nasal bones, unlike the oblong diastema and elongated nasals which I have found to characterise the skull of the "Quagga" of modern hunters, i.e. Burchell's Zebra.

United States.—I am informed that the Academy of Natural Sciences at Philadelphia possesses a roughly cleaned skeleton of Equus quagga, presented by the late Prof. Cope. No data are to hand, unfortunately.

Continent of Europe.—(1) I have three times examined the stuffed Quagga stallion in the Natural History Museum of the Jardin des Plantes, Paris. It is evidently of great age, and the late Prof. A. Milne-Edwards suggested that it may have been brought home by Perron and Leseur. The taxidermist has provided it with old-fashioned glass eyes, thus giving to an herbivorous animal the circular iris of a cat! In the same museum-case is preserved the type-specimen of Grevy's Zebra (Equus grevyi).

(2) The Natural History Museum at Leyden is celebrated for many rarities; it not only has the priceless treasure of a real mounted Blaauwbok, and also a stuffed White Rhinoceros, but in addition possesses a Quagga stallion, and also the perfect skeleton of the animal; all these rare specimens, by the kindness of the Museum authorities, I have recently been enabled to photograph.

(3) The Quagga formerly at Knowsley is now preserved at Amsterdam, splendidly stuffed and mounted (the glass eyes are actually of the same colour as figured in Waterhouse Hawkins's coloured plate of the living animal). I had in May last the opportunity of examining and photographing this, perhaps the finest example in existence, as it stood in the Museum of the Amsterdam Zoological Society.

Quagga Stallion in the Natural History Museum at Leyden.

(4) I am informed that the great Zoological Museum at Turin contains a stuffed Quagga and its skull, obtained at the Cape in 1827.

(5) I saw a stuffed Quagga in the Natural History Museum at Berne in 1895. It is to be regretted that this valuable specimen is not protected by glass from dust and injury.

(6) Dr. Möbius kindly informs me that the Berlin Museum possesses not only the stuffed skin and skeleton of the Quagga formerly living in the German capital, but also a skeleton received in exchange, and two skulls.

(7) A stuffed Quagga and skull is preserved at Munich.

(8) There is another stuffed example at Mainz.

(9) The Director of the Senckenbergian Museum at Frankfort-on-Main kindly informs me that the collection includes a stuffed Quagga and its cranium, obtained in South Africa in 1831.

(10) Dr. Steindachner informs me that the Vienna Natural History Museum has a good stuffed example of Equus quagga, but no skeleton.

(11) Stockholm. Great interest attaches to the little Stockholm specimen. It appears to be the only fœtal specimen in existence, and is more than a century old, having been brought home by Sparrman himself. It is thus the most venerable relic of the Quagga in existence. From a photograph very kindly forwarded by Mr. F.A. Smith, it appears that the coloration is much as in the adult.

South Africa.—After repeated inquiries it appears that the only specimen preserved in all South Africa (the former home of the species, where its teeming numbers flourished so abundantly in the old days) is in the Capetown Museum! Mr. W. L. Sclater has very kindly forwarded me a photograph of this Quagga, and informs me that it was presented to the Museum by Mr. A. Dale, of Beaufort West, previous to 1862. As Sparrman's Quagga is the only fœtus, so it appears that the Capetown Quagga is the only foal in existence. The rough coat of the young animal is well shown in the photograph.

This completes the census. After much correspondence I learn that there are no specimens of Equus quagga in the Museums of Aberdeen, Brussels, Breslau, Chicago, Copenhagen, Dresden, Dublin, Durban, Florence, Geneva, Grahamstown, Hamburg, New York, Oxford, Prague, Pretoria, Pietermaritzburg, and Washington. The so-called Quagga at Bristol is only Equus burchellii.

Amongst the natural history specimens sold at Stevens's Rooms on Aug. 22nd, 1899, was "Lot 240. Skin of Quagga, now extinct." I have been unable to authenticate or trace this specimen.

And so the curtain rings down on Equus quagga, one of the finest, most interesting, and most docile of the fast vanishing African fauna—a species which might have been of great value in a continent infested by the Tsetse Fly, and cursed with the horse-sickness; massacred and exterminated for the miserable value of its hide by the very people it was so well fitted to benefit! The list of dying species grows apace: Blaauwbok; true Quagga; next the White Rhinoceros; then Bontebok, Blesbok, White-tailed Gnu, Mountain Zebra, Unstriped Eland, Southern Giraffe, Elephant.

Di avertite omen!

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