Sunday, October 3, 2010

Guest Post: The Wild Child

My good friend Liz (aka author of the Mad Bush Farm blog) has done a considerable amount of research into the background of one of Auckland's often overlooked icons -- Rajah the elephant, now just a skin specimen at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. This is her Guest Post.

He stands today at the Auckland Museum at the entrance to the Wild Child Exhibition. 

An icon of childhood, the histories say he was a rogue elephant put to death in 1936 by a future curator of the Auckland Zoo - then handed over to the Auckland Museum to be stuffed and mounted. A sad ending for an elephant that should have lived another 40 years, beyond the 19 years he had lived. There is no mention of Rajah on the Auckland Zoo History part of their website. Just the mention of the long lived Jamuna who passed away in 1965.

Since a small child, walking into the great echoing hall where Rajah stood, I've been fascinated by his story. Was he a mad elephant or was it the Wild Child within, that had caused him to become the way he was. I read that he had been 'captive bred' and had been imported straight from India to Hobart Zoo. A dig into the Australian newspapers on the Australian National Library website came up with a completely different set of circumstances behind Rajah's journey from a young age, to his eventual end at Auckland Zoo.

In 1924 a young Indian Elephant appeared with fourteen others in the Burma Section of the Indian Court as part of the British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley in London England. He was visited and fed by royalty, and members of the public who had flocked to see the spectacular Pagoda-style architecture of the magnificent Burma Pavilion. The exhibition ended in 1925. This young pachyderm's fate was sealed from the day he stepped into a transport crate at the London docks to head on a long sea voyage to Hobart Tasmania.

He had been swapped for Tasmanian Tigers and a Bennetts Wallaby in a deal between the Beaumaris Zoo and well known London based Wild Animal Dealer G B Chapman. The young elephant was then loaded onto the SS Port Curtis. The Argus 8 July 1925 noted the arrival in Melbourne:

Intended for Hobart Zoological Gardens, a baby elephant reached Melbourne yesterday from London. It was bought by the steamer Port Curtis, and will be taken to Sydney before going to Hobart, as the Port Curtis will be visiting Sydney first.

The Port Curtis arrived at Ocean Pier in Hobart, with its live cargo on 19 July 1925. The Mercury the following day noting 'the youngster was not adverse to being the centre of public gaze'. And this is where the histories about Rajah have been incorrect. The elephant in the same article was also noted as 'one of 15 imported for the Indian court at the Wembley Exhibition'. It further noted that the animal had been obtained from G B Chapman a well known supplier to zoos in Europe and America. Rajah was not imported directly from India, and it is most likely he was wild caught in Burma.

Burma (now Myanmar) until 1937 was considered as part of India by their (then) British Colonial rulers. Contemporary reports from around the same time period during the 1920's noted that elephants were notoriously difficult to breed in captivity and were thus caught in the wild.

On July 20 the young elephant was unloaded - with difficulty. The Mercury reported on 21 July:

First thing in the morning efforts were made to induce the animal to leave his quarters in the ship's forecastle and enter a horse box prepared for his reception, but although at one time willing to do so, a chain on his hind leg caught on two occasions on the doorway, and being unable to do what was required of him, he pulled his captors back into the hold, and all further attempts to move him were futile. When the crowd had dispersed, and the crew were at lunch, the efforts were renewed, and this time the animal did what was wanted, and in the box was lowered from the ship to the wharf where a four wheeled truck was waiting.

A very young Rajah (then unnamed) the day of his arrival at the Beaumaris Zoo, Hobart Tasmania (Mercury 21 July 1925).

Later that day the young elephant arrived at the Beaumaris Zoo to be greeted by a crowd of children and adults all awaiting the new arrival with enthusiasm.

While he was being unloaded a questing trunk was out attempting to shift one of the blocks being used to support the containing box while zoo staff were on the other end jacking and levering it off the back of the truck. The Mercury was pleased to report that the elephant was eventually liberated and upon his release:

However he was eventually liberated,and showed his appreciation of once more being on terra firma by grasping trunkfuls of tussocky grass, tearing it out by the roots and greedily devouring it.

Mr Reid has not yet named the elephant, whose age is seven years - quite a baby - and height about 6ft. He is not in the best of condition after the lengthy sea voyage, but is expected to pick up in a few weeks' time.

The house for his reception is in course of construction in the top part of the ground, and a path for his perambulations has been planned.
As with all zoos during the earlier part of the 20th century, an elephant was expected to earn its keep. By late 1926 the elephant now named 'Jumbo', was subjected to the training required to carry a howdah upon which delighted children and adults would ride upon around the Beaumaris Zoo. Unfortunately for both Jumbo and his keeper the training turned out to be difficult as the Mercury on the 5 January 1927 reported

'Jumbo' the baby elephant at the Beaumaris Zoo, has now completed his course of training as a howdah carrier, and in a few weeks' time will be put into commission, and for a modest charge children will be able to enjoy the privilege of a ride on his back.
It was not without a good deal of trouble that Jumbo submitted to the indignity of sacks of sand being placed on his back in order to prepare him for his work ahead. It was a couple of months' schooling before he would yield, without protest, to the persuasive methods of the curator (Mr Reid), but gradually he resigned himself to the inevitable, and now plods along as quietly as a child's pony.

When the first attempts were made to train him, he indignantly protested and immediately anything was placed on his back he would straight away flop to the ground, and snort defiance at his master.

This went on for some weeks, but by degrees he gave way under the persistency of Mr Reid, until he became quite accustomed to plodding along, not only with bags of sand, but with human freight. A suitable howdah is now being constructed, and it is expected that before the school holidays end Jumbo will be in daily commission and earning his keep.

It wasn't until late September 1927 that the Hobart City Council met and set a fee for rides on Jumbo the elephant. The fees was set at 3d. for children and 6d. for adults. By October it was announced that at last Jumbo was docile enough to give children rides around the zoo and had already carried his first party around the zoo. For another two years this elephant carried out his duty faithfully, without any problems as far as I could find from the reports of the time period.

On 24 January 1929 however, fire struck the elephant house where the animal was housed at the time. In his panic to escape the fire Jumbo had smashed his way out throwing his keeper A Brett aside in the process when the man had tried to stop him. Brett had been sent tumbling down a bank. He was later able to calm the elephant down and chain him to a tree nearby.

Things by late 1930 had become difficult for Beaumaris Zoo. The Mercury 24 October reported that Jumbo's days were numbered. The elephant had become uneconomic to keep and thus a decision was to be made about his future. Hobart City Council sent a letter to the Auckland City Council offering them the elephant for £150. Auckland city Council offered £125 which the Hobart City Council duly accepted.

The elephant was sent on his way to Auckland Zoo arriving on 11 November 1930 arriving at the zoo the same day where it was hoped he would be both a companion for Jamuna the female elephant (who had arrived in 1923) and earn his keep by giving visitors rides around the zoo. A month later Jumbo attacked his keeper and things went downhill for the one we know as Rajah over the next six years he was resident at the zoo.

I didn't intend for this to be a complete history of Rajah but more a look at his earlier background. I've read the reasons given behind Rajah's bad behaviour. A visitor putting a lighted cigarette butt on the elephant's truck at Hobart Zoo was mooted, however few if any have tried to think beyond what has been said and look at the nature of elephant behaviour especially that of the males.

Captivity of elephants causes their natural cycle to change. Normally in the wild a male Indian elephant will not come into a condition called musth until close to 20 years old. In Rajah's case, as with a group young orphaned elephants in South Africa of more recent times, he was denied his social group at a young age. Taken from a group of 15 to being on his own at Hobart Zoo this young elephant had no role models and thus in effect ended up as a juvenile delinquent. It happened at Pilanesburgh in South Africa where young orphaned bull African elephants came into early musth and began to kill the resident black rhino at the reserve. These elephants were the result of a cull at Kruger National Park during the 1980's. Without older role models to keep them in check these elephants ran amok attacking anything and anyone they encountered. Park Management obtained mature bull elephants from Kruger which in turn caused the young bulls to tone down and return to normal behaviour patterns. 

For Rajah being male, and arriving at Auckland Zoo at just on 13 years of age effectively signed his death warrant. Visitors according to Tiger by the Tail complained that Rajah had spat at them and showed generally ill temper. Elephants in Zoos mature earlier and come into the aggressive Musth cycle much earlier than they are supposed to. Modern Zoos now have a much better understanding of this natural occurrence - unlike their predecessors who had little if no understanding of what the keeping of a male elephant entailed.

In light of Auckland Zoo's recent announcement of an intention to have an elephant herd on the grounds they should revisit Rajah and acknowledge his place in their history. He happened. Denying his rightful place in the time line of the Zoo's history somehow seems unjustified. Rajah was a lesson to be learned. It wasn't a cigarette that did it - it was the lack of understanding for elephant behaviour and the inability to manage a large male elephant in the correct manner. Rajah was being an elephant - he deserved better than a bullet and a taxidermists skill.

Postscript. The research done for this has been extensive and is still being pulled together. I have Lisa to thank for providing the material for the Auckland Zoo years between 1930 and 1936. In due course it will all come together in a more comprehensive format. This is only a brief background behind the icon.


  1. Interesting about the herd keeping the youngsters in check. Elephants weren't treated terribly well back then. Good research.

  2. Great story with good research, I have updates Rajahs record at the elephant database

  3. Thanks Lisa for posting this for me. I can see one or two typos (on my part) there but now I've read it without sore eyes - it's not half bad.

    @Andrew While I was researching Rajah's story I came across multitudes of reports about how basically Wild Animals were little more than a commodity to be traded, looked at and basically end up in a museum at the end of their usually short lives. In almost all cases of so called 'Rogue Elephants' it's because of the Musth cycle which should occur at 20 years in Indian elephants but in captivity things are severely changed.

    @Dan I found your database an invalauable resource thank you for creating it. A lot of sad stories there amongst the many names you have there. I'm glad you're able to update Rajah's story.

  4. Thanks, Liz and Lisa, I enjoyed learning about Rajah, albeit a sad story too similar to the treatment of wild animals here, too.
    Look forward to reading your larger article, Liz :)

  5. Liz,
    Thank you for this interesting and very sad story. I'm really interested in animal welfare history and hadn't come across Rajah. Your research is terrific and very valuable as it's important that these stories are told. Elephants have been in the news a bit over here lately with Taronga Zoo witnessing a very well publicised elephant birth earlier this year and one last month at Melbourne Zoo.
    Best wishes,

  6. What a fascinating article. The recent activity at Franklin Zoo brought Rajah to mind and I went looking for further information. I remember as a little girl, being told one of my ancestors had been Rajah's keeper prior to him being shot and his exhibit always struck a chord with me. What a terrible waste of life.

    1. michael.morrissey@pl.netMarch 17, 2015 at 5:04 AM

      hi - I'd love to talk re some research I'm doing about Rajah

    2. Hi Michael I wrote this guest post about Rajah you can contact me at Cheers Liz

  7. Thanks for that, Sarah. I've passed your comment on to Liz.

  8. Thanks Lisa for passing on Sarah's comment and I forgot to reply to John's kind comment I can see as well.

    So I'll say it to both John and Sarah. Thank you so much for your kind words. When I wrote this article I was looking for justice for Rajah and trying to understand why he had ended up being so difficult. It's a very sad legacy to read. Sadly male elephants in early zoos ended up being shot becuase of the musth cycle. Elephants should never be kept on their own as they are very sociable animals especially the females who do live in family groups. Older bulls are solitary animals. The tragedy at Franklin Zoo highlights the issue of keeping elephants in captivity on their own.

  9. Following on from Sarah's post, Rajah's attendant was my Grandmother's brother Ray McGovern (Sarah's great great uncle). Ray loved Rajah and told me how sad he was to see such a wonderful animal destroyed. The truth of Rajah (an obedient and very amiable elephant) was that there was a man who used to taunt Rajah regularly. Rajah picked him up in his trunk and slammed him into a wall ultimately (I'm not sure whether the person was injured). A big game hunter was hired to put Rajah down but could not do so. Uncle Ray had to finish Rajah off himself - something he carried with him always. Sadly Rajah is now displayed in Auckland Museum with a story that talks about a bad elephant - never mind the reason why this intelligent animal lost his temper.

    1. i am very interest in one of your relatives looking after Rajah

      I would like to make contact to talk about Ray McGovern if that's possible for research purposes ;

    2. michael.morrissey@pl.netMarch 17, 2015 at 4:44 AM

      sorry I misspelt my own name
      correct spelling is:

  10. Hi Chris,
    Liz will respond to your comment as soon as she can -- but thank you very much for sharing with us here at Timespanner.

  11. Hi Chirs

    You comment got me very excited. What you've stated about Rajah being of a god temperament is confirmed in the Hobart Newspapers of the time. He was very fondly remembered by the people of Hobart. Not one report that I have read during my research into Rajah's early background mentioned any ill temperament or injuries caused to his keepers. I'm still mystified as to where the myth about the cigarette on the truck story came from. To date I haven't found one mention of such an incident being done to Beaumaris Zoo's very much beloved and popular elephant that the Hobart City Council had to see because of economics. Given that it was 1930 and in a time of depression Hobart Zoo was losing money. The Council made the sad decision to sell him. That decision was not popular with the public. I'm so pleased that I've been able to read your comment and have a bit more incite into how Rajah truly was. Rajah was a victim of circumstance. Auckland Zoo did not know how to manage a male elephant. It was clear that Ray knew the elephant well and that was reported that only he could manage Rajah.

    Thank you again for your comment it's added a new facet to Rajah's story.

    1. My pleasure Liz. I'm very pleased that Sarah (our eldest daughter) found this blog. I was very saddened (closer to angry in reality) to see how Rajah was portrayed when I last visited the Auckland Museum so it's great to be able to share the truth of this story.

      Elephants are wonderful creatures - have just been lucky enough to visit India and thoroughly enjoyed the contact I had with the elephants on several occasions while there (was a little concerned, however, by one elephant who was enjoying a scratch and was starting to lean on me...).

      Thank you (on behalf of our family) for enlightening us on Rajah's past - very well researched and much appreciated. Perhaps the Museum may appreciate this information - they might (with luck) reconsider how they are portraying Rajah's story.

  12. Hi Chris

    The very reason why I wrote this post was because of the photo Lisa had taken of Rajah at the museum. The image haunted me - strange as it may read. But something seemed to say to me that Rajah needed some justice. So I went looking into his background and found not a mad elephant but a much loved elephant who sadly was very misunderstood.

    I have a feeling he was much younger that what was reported. The images I have of him when he first arrived at the old Beaumaris Zoo show a very young animal. I'm going to consult with some elephant experts I know and see if they can ascertain the age of the youngster in the photos.

    I'm very fond of elephants. I do know the museum are aware of this story. It's convincing Auckland Zoo as well to change their myths about Rajah especially the cigarette on the truck one. There's no evidence to support that claim that I can find to date. Slowly but surely I'm sure Rajah will have the justice he deserves.

  13. Thanks again Liz for taking the time to seek the truth here. Please, if the museum are aware of this story, it would be very much appreciated if they would provide a more balanced story for Rajah - the rogue elephant picture they portray is very unjust.

  14. I'm going to work on that Chris. The truth that elephants never forget is a strong one to say the least. Rajah was a victim of circumstance and misunderstanding about elephant behaviour. There is another elephant with a very similar story. His name was Cardie and he had belonged to Wirth's Circus. Cardie experienced a similar experience to what Rajah had with someone tormenting him. Years later the same person who had tormented Cardie when the elephant was very young returned to the circus. Cardie attacked him. In 1923 Cardie attacked his trainer during a performance. Sadly as with Rajah and being a Bull elephant Cardie was shot. Their stories are almost parallels together. One way or the other like you I would like to see the real story of Rajah told.