The rogue’s return

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Beetles and plankton may dominate in nature, but natural history museums need to display some truly big animals to impress the public. At Auckland Mu­seum, one of the biggest is a male Asiatic elephant called Rajah.

Rajah’s story goes back to 1930, when Auckland Zoo bought him from Hobart Zoo for 125 pounds. He was 13 years old and was intended as a companion for the zoo’s other elephant Jamuna. But Rajah had been traumatised by a sadistic visitor placing a lighted cigarette in his trunk, and in Auckland he was bad-tempered and began to spit at visitors.

Unlike the better-natured Jamuna, he could not be trusted with giving rides to children, and finally his keeper could no longer control him. Rather than keeping him permanently chained, Rajah was shot early one morning in March 1936 by a keeper with experience of big-game hunting.

The Auckland Museum staff at that time included a skilful taxidermist named Charles Dover, and it was decided that he would prepare Rajah as a mounted exhibit. It was a project that would take him and his assistants seven months.

Rajah was about 3 m long and 2.5 m tall at the shoul­ders, and weighed nearly four tonnes. The fresh hide alone weighed half a tonne, and in parts was 5 cm thick. It was one of the largest taxidermy jobs ever under­taken in New Zealand, ranking alongside the elephant that the Austrian taxidermist Andreas Reischek mounted for Canterbury Museum around 1880.

Museum visitors were able to view work in progress, which created as much interest as the final product. Three weeks were spent on the hide alone, scraping and paring it down on the inside to remove fat and connective tissue. Meanwhile the scraped-down bones were placed on the roof of the museum to weather. Accurate measurements of these bones were crucial in fabricating the false body upon which Rajah’s skin would be fixed.

Dover built a framework of timber struts and iron rods, incorporating papier mâché casts of the skull and pelvic girdle for added fidelity. Wooden replicas of the ribs were made. The framework was finished with a layer of fine wire-netting covered with scrim and packed out in places with fine wood shavings.

The outermost layer was papier mâché, painted when dry so as to be waterproof. Finally, the wet skin was taken from a tank of pre­servative and slid into place on the framework, which had been oiled to make the job easier. While still pliable, the cut edges of the skin were sewn together, final adjustments made and the finished mount left to dry.

Rajah’s reincarnation went on display in October 1936 in the Hall of General Natural History on the first floor of the museum, where the Oceans exhibition now resides. Up until the 1980s he held pride of place in the centre of the hall, sharing his distinguished spot with a giant Seychelles tortoise and a very large alligator.

In the mid-1980s some­one scaled the chest-high metal barrier surrounding the exhibit and tore off part of Rajah’s tail. The damage was noticed almost immediatley, and attendants on every floor were alerted. Two suspicious-looking characters—just the sort that looked like they might steal the tail from an elephant—were followed at a distance, but to no avail. The tail was never found.

Even with his tail, Rajah had been looking the worse for wear. After 50 years on open display in bright light, he was faded and dusty. The seams on his legs and trunk had become unsightly, and there were tears and punc­tures in the skin. Rajah had serious internal problems, too. Metal in the supporting framework, especially sheet metal in the ears, was rusting, and oil was seeping to the skin surface and oxidising.

Rajah’s gallery was one of the most out-dated, and had been ear-marked for closure to create temporary storage and working space prelimi­nary to a much-needed upgrading of the museum’s exhibition halls. What to do with Rajah became an issue. He was moved (with difficulty) down the stairs to the main foyer in 1992, and there he was elevated nearly three metres on a brightly-painted pedestal. A colourful howdah—the passenger seat he had never been able to wear in life—was strapped to his back, and into this was placed a magnificent stuffed peacock and a spread parasol.

In March 1994, after 58 years in the public’s gaze, Rajah left the museum for storage. During the night, he was taken out through the front door to the steps of the museum. He did not quite fit through the door, so the ends of his legs and trunk were cut off. Next morning, a small crowd gathered for the farewell, which included an Indian dance troupe circling the beleaguered animal. Mounted on a trailer, the scars on his severed appendages hidden by bandages of gold cloth, Rajah set off down the hill to the strains of Waiata from the museum’s Maori cultural group.

During the next four years, all attention was focused on the massive redevelopment of the museum galleries. A British preparator employed for this work happened to have experience of restoring museum elephants, and in June 1999 it was decided to bring Rajah back. This time he entered via a large side window, to which he was hoisted by crane.

As if the beast had not suffered enough ignominy, it was found that during storage his small ivory tusks had been stolen. Unde­terred, David Weatherley cosmetically restored Rajah, remodelling the damaged ears and missing tusks and tail. He cleaned the skin, filled the holes and scars and painted the outer surfaces an appropriate elephant-grey. Internal strengthening, using aluminium rods, was needed in the legs.

Beautifully restored, Rajah the rogue elephant is once again an imposing sight at the museum, this time at the entrance to the “Wild Child” social history gallery. The past had its ups and downs, but Rajah can look ahead to a settled future, delighting visitors for years to come.

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