Growing up in Cape Town in a strictly non-hunting, non-shooting family, my interest in wildlife and hunting began with a trip to what was then called the Cape Town Museum or, as it is now known, the Iziko South African Museums. There were two parts that fascinated me most, firstly, the exhibits containing many life size figures of Bushmen featuring them in various natural poses including, as my memory serves me, ones of men hunting, and then the natural history section.
I was fascinated by the animals, both big and small. They were more varied and I could study them from far closer than any at zoo. Besides, our local excuse for a zoo, next to the University of Cape Town, was more famous for the fact that one of the lions removed and ate the calf of one of my fellow law students – whose leg slipped through the iron bars roofing their cage while racing a friend across it – than the limited variety of moth-eaten ex-wild animals it held.
And so began my long fascination with natural history museums. My all-time favourite is the British Natural History Museum in London, for a whole number of reasons. Firstly, with its pale beige and blue sandstone exterior, it is one of the most beautiful buildings in Britain. Secondly, as you walk through the entrance, at the bottom of the left hand staircase, is a bust of one of my hunting heroes, Frederick Courteney Selous and, lastly, if you climb those stairs, turn left at the top and then first right to the end of a long gallery, you come to three breathtaking dioramas by that greatest taxidermist of all time, Rowland Ward. It was here, for the first time, I saw up close, superb mounted examples of a bongo, okapi, giant sable and reticulated giraffe. To this day, each time I see them, I am taken aback by the magical aura they exude. So, whenever I visit London, I try hard not to miss a visit to the museum, if only for a few minutes to see these three exhibits if nothing else and, to this day, I would cut off a sensitive part of my anatomy for the opportunity to see, let alone photograph, an okapi in its natural environment, which remains the most magical and mystical of all Africa’s many marvelous game animals.
Next on my list is the American Natural History Museum in New York. I was so bowled over by the whole elephant herd – males and females, big and small – in the Africa Room, mounted by Carl Akeley (the only taxidermist to my mind who can rival Rowland Ward), that my wife had to drag me away at the end of the day which I spent looking, studying and photographing the many superb exhibits in this room and the gallery of American wildlife which overlooks it.
High on my agenda during my visit to the United Kingdom last year, therefore, were visits to see Selous’ collection of over 550 heads and Major Percy Powell-Cotton’s Natural History Museum at his family home at Quex Park in Kent. My research led to instant disappointment. Selous’ home, where he originally housed his collection, had been demolished and the heads transferred to the British Natural History Museum.
My research into Powell-Cotton was more successful and showed that he wrote two books about his hunting exploits. The first, edited by Rowland Ward himself and entitled, A Sporting Trip through Abyssinia – A Narrative of a Nine Month’s Journey from the Plains of the Hawash to the Snows of Simien, with a Description of the Game, from Elephant to Ibex, and Notes on the Manners and Customs of the Natives was, in my opinion, a much better read than the subsequent book, which was not edited by Rowland Ward and called, In Unknown Africa – A Narrative of Twenty Month’s Travel and Sport in Unknown Lands and among New Tribes.
My favourite story in his first book concerns his hunt for Walia ibex (the only goat indigenous to Africa and found only in Ethiopia), which can no longer be hunted there given the hopeless inefficiency of the so called Ethiopian Wildlife Conservation Authority. They know little about the wildlife in the country, care even less and do little or nothing positive to conserve them.
The Major wrote as follows, "I rode back along the path for an hour, with my hunters, and, leaving the mule, turned to the right along the top of the cliffs, when we met a caravan and saw the men of another amusing themselves by rolling stones over the edge in the hopes of starting a herd of ibex; this, I learnt was a common custom, as the cliffs were too high to shoot from. With the aid of the glasses we soon discovered two bucks with good heads, and, in order to get to their grazing-ground, we followed the edge of the cliffs, in the hope of finding a path down, but could see no way possible, nor did the guide know of any, except the one I had been along yesterday, which branched off from where I had left the mule. For some time I lay on the spur of rock which commanded a good view of the valley, but, failing to see any game, I began to work back, and at length discovered a herd of fifteen does and a good-sized buck feeding in a narrow dell below. After a while I also made out the larger of the two we had seen in the morning, and as there appeared to be no possible means of approach, tried a long shot, which did no damage except scattering the herd. Immediately after this the clouds rolled up, blotting out the valley, and enveloping us in mist. The march back to camp against a cutting wind and driving sleet lasted two hours, and made my Somalis shake with cold. Next morning the hill-tops were white with snow, and the lowering clouds still clung to them, when I began searching yesterday’s ground with a telescope, and soon found the herd in the valley next to the one where I had fired … We crossed the foot of the valley in which the ibex were grazing and began to work up the slope on the far side. Scattered clouds kept blowing about and impeding the view, and altogether it was anything but an ideal day for ibex stalking. Once, as a cloud rolled suddenly aside, I found the guide was taking us up in full view of the herd; after this we changed places, and I took the lead. A dip down and a scramble over bad ground brought us higher up the slope, which resembled the edge of a saw, sheer rocks representing the jag of the teeth, while the steep shelving ground, covered with coarse grass, giant lobelias, and patches of bush, took the places of the slant. Four villagers had followed us in the hopes of coming in for a share of the spoil, in the shape of meat, but these I ordered to stay behind near a ruined hut, while we four worked our way up to a part of massive rocks, from which I hope to see the ibex; in this, however, I was disappointed, for the clouds proved too thick. Here, for a time we came to a deadlock, being unable to make our way beyond the bluff; first we tried a narrow ledge of rock on the right, but found that it ended abruptly in a precipice, and when we turned back with difficulty to try the left side, the clouds all at once lifted and disclosed the herd, lying in full view under a rock about 400 yards off. The sulky guide could or would give no help, so, trusting to our own acumen, we tried another line, and first working downwards, after several futile attempts reached a higher tooth of the saw …
Ali and I now made our way round the cliff by an ibex-run, and under cover of the clouds got safely into the bed of a small rift. Working up this very slowly and carefully, so as not to dislodge the loose stones, we crawled round the base of a bluff to the neck of a small projecting plateau. Here we paused to take a break, and as I peeped over the side the clouds lifted a little, and to my joy I saw the herd all lying close together on a ledge some 70 yards off and slightly below us. A moment later the clouds shut down again, and I got into my favourite shooting position, sitting, elbows resting inside knees, and a stick grasped between thumb and barrel. What an age it seemed, waiting in the murky gloom! Every moment I expected to hear a cry of alarm and the rattle of descending stones, as the herd dashed off, and all chance of a shot was lost. Once it grew bright enough to make out shadowy forms, next the wind seemed to blow right in their direction, and I made sure they must scent us, but fortune favoured us: the clouds cleared away, and I saw the largest male standing stern to us. There was no time to lose, so, aiming rather far back, I fired, and saw his legs collapsed under him, as he slid partly off the ledge, stone-dead … "
Early in July last year, with my new Tom Tom firmly stuck to the windscreen of my hire car, I set sail to see Powell-Cotton’s Quex Park trophy collection described by Jim Casada in his foreword to the reprint of the Major’s first book as, "the best ever assembled in England – even finer than that amassed by William Cotton Oswell at his home in Kent or the collection of Fred Selous at Worplesdon. In the words of one scientific observer, Quex House held a vast number of trophies, remarkable examples of the taxidermist’s art, in dioramas illustrative of different African and Indian habitats, as well as African weapons and artefacts."
I was not disappointed either by the collection or the man who had hunted them, although the curator seemed almost ashamed that they had been hunted and was at pains to point out the benefits to science of such a collection. And these were certainly real enough as even a cursory examination of the Powell-Cotton website will show, with scientific papers derived from studying the collection on subjects as diverse as Megafauna in Motion, Pickled Toads, The Powell-Cotton Primate Collection: Windows in to "Other Worlds" and Shoulder Functional Anatomy and Development Implications for Interpreting Early Hominid Locomotion, to name but a few.
No-one can deny the importance to science of such irreplaceable collections but, to my mind, this is completely overshadowed by the instant joy and wonder displayed by children when they are in the presence of these animals. In my many visits to natural history museums around the world, the areas that are most popular with children are the ones showing full mounted animals in lifelike, action poses combined with other mammals, birds, insects, reptiles and vegetation against background scenery from their natural habitat and, if I close my eyes, I can easily hear their excited questions and chatter. I wonder how many careers in conservation, zoology and marine biology, to name but three, have begun with a visit to the natural history section of a museum. Have you taken your kids to a natural history museum lately? If so you will know exactly what I am writing about.
As for my own collection, which is confined to African game animals and includes all but nine of the 129 African game animals currently available on licence, well, it was originally due to go to the Graaff Reinet Municipality. Nothing would have given me greater pleasure to have seen it housed in this beautiful old town and helping to attract more tourists to the region and, in turn, providing more jobs and revenue so badly needed in our rural areas. It was not to be. Despite raising a significant amount of money towards the construction of a facility to house the collection, the committee charged with this responsibility could not settle on a single plan of action. After over four years of trying to help them make a decision – any decision – my lease of the buildings which housed my collection was about to expire and so, when the Iziko South African Museum expressed a concrete interest in housing it, it was not long before the agreement in question was signed and sealed. The some 300 bird and animal mounts moved there in October last year and already some have been used as part of The King’s Map Exhibition, a joint effort by the French and South African governments, curated by Professor Ian Glen of UCT, to commemorate Le Vaillant’s exploratory trips through southern Africa and the large, beautiful, silk map he produced of his travels. It is worth a visit.
The museum itself is busy undergoing a major R300 million construction program to increase its size and so only a few of the animals in my collection have been displayed in a new exhibition entitled, Herbivores and Carnivores – Ecology of the African Savanna. Apparently the title, The Hunger Games, proposed by a university academic, was seen as "too edgy," whatever that might mean.
The donation to the museum has not been without controversy as is to be expected in Cape Town where everything and anything affecting animals, dead or alive, creates heated emotions and debate. The fires in this case were stoked by another professor at UCT and soon I was on the receiving end of really nasty emails, some threatening to shoot me and others hoping I would contract cancer and die a lingering and painful death. This resulted in a radio discussion in January where the animal rightists responsible for the emails were represented by the usual type of person – high on emotion and bereft of fact or science based information. When confronted by empirical evidence contrary to her views, the response again was the usual one – ignore the facts and merely repeat what you said previously, only louder this time.
Not content with the results of the radio discussion, the animal rightists demanded and were granted the right to debate the matter in May in the Museum’s lecture theatre under the heading, The Elephant in the Room: The ethics of collecting natural history specimens and their role in today’s society. Seven speakers were invited to each make five minute introductory speeches before the matter was opened to the floor for questions. The result was an action replay of the radio discussion. The letter of thanks to me from the Museum for participating in the debate stated:
"On behalf of the management at Iziko, I would like to thank you officially for participating in the discussion yesterday evening. I think that overall it went off quite well, although there is obviously not agreement it has opened up the discussion. It has certainly generated quite a lot of debate amongst the staff during this morning. I was pleased to see the excellent take-up of your book and dvd afterwards too … I know that you certainly gained several supporters last night … Thanks and best regards"
For those who would like to read what I said during the radio discussion and/or the Museum debate, please see my blog – www.peterflack.co.za/blog/. Since then, the horrific emails have ceased but I am sure the animal rightists will not only continue their intimidatory tactics and their attempts to hamper genuine conservation but also do what they can to deprive children and others of the ability to enjoy wildlife up close and scientists the opportunity to increase our knowledge of wildlife, wildlife habitats and related subjects. Their methods are crude, cruel and cowardly. For the sake of our wildlife and wildlife habitats, we cannot allow them to succeed!