Conservation or slaughter? Shot, gutted and stuffed

I don’t know if, on his demise in 1940, Powell-Cotton was, himself, gutted and stuffed and put on display in his museum. One would hope so.

In 2015 a conservationist, I feel I should put that term in apostrophes, finally discovered a very rare bird he had been searching for for two decades. And killed it.

The moustached kingfisher

Conservationist Chrisopher Filardi of the American Museum of Natural History was quoted as saying, “there is nothing like the thrill of finding a mysterious species.” He referred to rarely seen wildlife that he yearned to find as“ghosts before revealing themselves” – an interesting description for that is the exact same word used about a hundred years before by the English conservationist and hunter, Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton, on witnessing a succession of beasts making their way to a watering hole in a Congo forest one night before he shot one or two of them. Then they really were ghosts.

When, in 2015, Filardi spied the beautiful and elusive moustached kingfisher in Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, he and his team of accomplices spread mist nets across that area of the forest and succeeded in trapping a ‘magnificent all-blue back’ male moustached kingfisher with its bright orange face. He gushed –

 “Oh my god, the kingfisher . . . a creature of myth come to life

Then he killed it. Another triumph for western avian conservation.

In 2015, Filardi’s conservation efforts caused a great deal of anger around the globe from people who could not understand the reasoning behind hunting down a near-extinct species and possibly ensuring it becomes extinct. There was no such outcry over the behaviour of Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton. Back at the beginning of the 20th century westerners thirsted for information about exotic beasts in lands far from home. Powell-Cotton was the man to hunt them down with his rifle so that science might be informed and people entertained.

An idea they were preserving wildlife, albeit dead, curiosity and entertainment were surely behind the opening of a museum on Powell-Cotton’s family grounds, Quex Park, Birchington-on-Sea, Kent in England; a museum that exists to this day. It is stuffed, literally, with an enormous number of beasts shot by the man himself or members of his entourage, caravan as it was known in the day comprising of up to 70 hunters and porters. Powell-Cotton was a man-exterminating-machine whose claim to fame (notoriety) is he shot the largest number of wild animals ever destroyed by a single man.  Once upon a time this was thought to be heroic and admirable.

A member of Powell-Cotton’s caravan with animal carcasses. The white rhino Powell-Cotton had permission to shoot from the Congo Free State government. He had its permission to hunt a number of rare animals on its reserves. He was there, primarily, to search for white rhinoceros which at that time was “well-nigh exterminated” and “he was fortunate enough to secure a splendid specimen.” Above right is a honey badger “discovered” and killed by Powell-Cotton and named after him – mellivora cottoni.

Today, Powell-Cotton’s voracious appetite for hunting and ‘collecting’ would make him persona non grata, although to be fair there are many in the UK who, like him, describe themselves as animal lovers and conservationists who get their kicks from blasting wildlife to smithereens, or out of the sky and off their hooves. You know the sort of people – the royal family and lesser mortals who pay to destroy our Scottish wildlife on what’s erroneously described as sporting estates. Nothing sporting about a human armed with a large rifle targeting an unarmed animal.

This is the paradox – can you be a conservationist and animal lover if you slaughter beasts and birds?  For the tweedy/camouflage types who call animals ‘game’, a bit like Blade Runner it is the excitement of the chase and anticipation of the kill they relish. For scientific types it is to enhance human knowledge and understanding of the natural world and place beasts into a context of changing environments and time – the study of avian taxonomy, systemics, zoogeography, geographic variation, anatomy and morphology, sexual dimorphism, age/gender characters, moult, plumage sequences, ecomorphology, ontogeny … STOP! The science argument runs along the lines that taking animals for experiment and research has little impact on their survival compared with major pressures on habitats such as those from deforestation, agriculture, roads and building.

Powell-Cotton doesn’t really come into that camp. His expeditions found him cutting swathes through animal populations, driven by sheer greed. He came up with a cunning plan to assemble a collection of Kashmir and Tibetan ‘game’ all shot by one man – with a nod to science in that each specimen was measured and notes made on where, when, and how the animal was shot.

Perhaps if Powell-Cotton had a proper job wildlife would have faced fewer threats – unless you regard animal massacre as regular work. It sort of was in his case. An itinerant slaughterer of beasts – work that took him to Abyssinia, Uganda, Kenya, Congo, French Equitorial Africa, Cameroon, Switzerland, Chad, Algeria, Angola, Central African Republic, Guinea, India, Kashmir, Morocco, Nigeria, Ogaden, Pakistan, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Tibet, Tunisia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and more, lots more places.  

It didn’t all go Powell-Cotton’s way. One time an animal retaliated. In 1907 he shot a lion, as one does, and as he approached the poor thing it leapt up and mauled the brute. Powell-Cotton wasn’t badly hurt, saved by a rolled-up copy of Punch magazine that protruded from the breast pocked of his jacket. Oh, the lion was put down. This was his thirteenth lion. One can just imagine the mirth that story created, repeated over many a dinner table. His museum has a display of the suit he was wearing, the copy of Punch and the slaughtered lion, stuffed. You can’t beat the English upper classes for taste. I don’t know if, on his demise in 1940, Powell-Cotton was, himself, gutted and stuffed and put on display in his museum. One would hope so.

To add insult to injury some of the Major’s species trophies were named after him, such as monkey colbus (Piliocolobus) powelli and the white rhino, ceratotherium simum cottoni, the very last male of that species was shot dead in 2018. He was 45 years old

Powell-Cotton’s museum boasts over 6,400 specimens and 230 species including

“Families: Anomaluridae, Bathyergidae, Bovidae, Canidae, Cercopithecidae, Cervidae, Cricetidae, Cryeteropodidae, Ctenodactylidae, Elephantidae, Equidae, Felidae, Galagonidae, Giraffidae, Gliridae, Hippopotamidae, Hipposideridae, Hyaenidae, Hystricidae, Leporidae, Lorisidae, Macroscelididae, Manidae, Muridae, Mustelidae, Nycteridae, Ochotonidae, Pedetidae,  Pongidae, Potamogalidae, Procaviidae, Pteropodiae, Rhinocerotidae, Sciuridae, Soricidae, Suidae, Thryonomyidae, Tragulidae, Trichechidae, Ursidae, Vespertilionidae and Viverridae.

Genera: Acinonyx, Addax, Aepyceros, Alcelaphus, Allenopithecus, Ammodorcas, Ammotragus, Anomalurus, Antidorcas, Antilope, Aonyx, Atherurus, Atilax, Bdeogale, Bos, Boselaphas, Bubalus, Canis, Capra, Capricornis, Cephalophus, Ceratotherium, Cercocebus, Cercopithecus, Cervus, Colobus, Connochaetes, Cricetomys, Crocidura, Crocuta, Crossarchus, Cryptomys, Ctenodactylus, Cynictis, Damaliscus, Dendrohyrax, Dicerus, Dorcatragus, Equus, Erythrocebus, Euoticus, Felis, Fennecus, Funisciurus, Galago, Galagoides, Gazella, Genetta, Gerbillus, Giraffa, Gorilla, Graphiurus, Heliosciurus, Helogale, Hemitragus, Herpestes, Heterohyrax, Hippopotamus, Hipposideros, Hippotragus, Hyaena, Hybomys, Hyemoschus, Hylochoerus, Hypsignathus, Hystrix, Ichneumia, Ictonyx, Kobus, Lemniscomys, Lepus, Litocranius, Loxodonta, Lutra, Lycaon, Macaca, Macroscelides, Madoqua, Malacomys, Mandrillus, Manis, Marmota, Mellivora, Melursus, Miopithecus, Moschus, Mungos, Mustela, Myonycteris, Myosciurus, Nandinia, Nemorhaedus, Neotragus, Nycteris, Ochotona, Octocyon, Oenomys, Okapia, Oreotragus, Orycteropus, Oryx, Otolemur, Ourebia, Ovis, Paguma, Pan, Panthera, Pantholops, Papio, Paraxerus, Pedetes, Pelea, Perodiciticus, Petaurista, Phacochoerus, Phacohoerus, Poecilogale, Poiana, Potamogale, Potomocherus, Praomys, Presbytis, Procapra, Procavia, Proteles, Protoxeros, Psammomys, Pseudois, Raphiceros, Redunca, Rupicapra, Scotoecus, Scotophilus, Selenarctos, Sus, Sylvicapra, Syncerus, Tatera, Tetracerus, Thamnomys, Theropithecus, Thryonomys, Tragelaphus, Trichechus, Ursus, Viverrra, Vulpes, Xerus and Zenkerella.

The museum displays some of its animal specimens as dioramas – you know an imaginary landscape populated with stuffed animals shot in their own environments then shipped to England, stuffed and arranged as pretty pictures for people to gawp at.  

If this is your bag you can link to the museum’s FB page here

https://fb.watch/94_Wb-8a1-/

It was written of Powell-Cotton that

“It has remained for Mr. Powell-Cotton to clear up the history of Capra walie by the fine series he has collected of this fast-vanishing form.”

(A Sporting Trip Through Abyssinia, R. Ward, 1902, p 478.)

The Capra walie is an ibex, an endangered ibex. It’s only known wild predator is the hyena (not guilty as charged, m’lud) and humans.

A year or two later Powell-Cotton recalled seeing his ‘ghost’ animals at the watering hole in a  Congo forest – forest elephants, buffalo, antelope, pigs and antelopes and his elation at succeeding in shooting dead two bull elephants and “a fine male buffalo.” On the same expedition, he collected, killed and collected, a large collection of snakes and his wife ‘collected’ about ten thousand butterflies.  

A large elephant prior to being killed by Powell-Cotton – a record elephant taken by a white man – a 198lb tusker

The man revered during his lifetime, whose activities were welcomed by the Natural History Museum in London, boasted of being the first European to kill the Abyssinian ibex, one of which was accepted into the collection of the Natural History Museum.  

At his death tributes were paid to Powell-Cotton: The keeper of Oriental Antiquities and Ethnography at the British Museum praised his contribution to zoological science and for being one of the most generous benefactors of the museum’s ethnographical department,

‘Whenever possible he collected duplicate specimens. These, as well as many unique objects, were freely offered to the national collections.”

One of those notable specimens was the heaviest pair of elephant tusks (372lbs) shot by a white man and the tallest elephant to be taken out of Africa. Conservationist or prolific wildlife vandal? You decide.

‘Conserving’ the white rhino

Ref: Bird Conservation International (1995) 5:145-180 The importance of continued collecting of bird specimens to ornithology and bird conservation J. V. REMSEN, JR.+

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