It is almost 80 years since Rajah the elephant debuted in the Hall of General Natural History at Auckland Museum.
An unsuitable companion
In 1930 Auckland Zoo paid £125 to a zoo in Tasmania for a 13-year-old male Asiatic elephant. This species, Elephas maximus, and one or two species of African elephants are the largest living animals on land.
Rajah, who was supposed to be a companion for Auckland Zoo's other elephant, Jamuna, had probably been taken from the wild in Burma. He was exhibited with a group of elephants at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley, London, before travelling to Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart.
In Auckland, Rajah proved bad-tempered and difficult to control. It was said that in Australia a sadistic visitor had traumatised him by placing a lighted cigarette in the tip of his trunk. This may have been the problem, or perhaps Rajah was just a troubled adolescent male reacting against change and dislocation. He spat at visitors, and unlike good-natured Jamuna, could not be trusted with giving rides to children.
Finally his keeper could no longer handle him. There were few options other than keeping him permanently chained. He was shot early on the morning of 9 March 1936 by a keeper with experience of big-game hunting.
A fine piece of taxidermy
The stuffing of mammals, birds and reptiles that died at the zoo was a convenient way of increasing Auckland Museum's collection, and so it was with Rajah.
The Museum staff included a skilful taxidermist, Charles Dover. Dover and his assistants spent seven months preparing the elephant as a mounted exhibit - no easy task given that Rajah was about three metres long and weighed nearly 4000 kilograms.
Rajah's skin and bones were taken across town to the Museum. The bones were placed on the roof to weather. Accurate measurements of these bones were crucial for fabricating the false body on to which Rajah's skin would be fixed. Some of the enormous bones are still in the Museum's osteology collection.
Dover built a precisely measured framework of timber struts and iron rods, incorporating papier-mâché casts of Rajah's skull and pelvis and wooden replicas of the ribs. The framework was finished with a layer of fine wire netting, covered with scrim and packed out in places with fine wooden shavings.
The outer layer was papier-mâché, painted when dry so as to be waterproof. Finally the animal's wet skin was taken out of a tank of preservative and slid into place on the framework, which had been oiled to make the job easier. While the skin was still pliable the cut edges were sewn together, final adjustments were made and the finished mount was left to dry.
In October 1936 the reincarnated Rajah went on display in the Hall of General Natural History. The Museum's annual report congratulated Mr Dover "on a fine piece of taxidermy" and the elephant settled down to his role as a notable attraction.
A target for thieves
Rajah's time on display in the centre of the hall was uneventful until, in the mid 1980s, someone scaled the barrier and tore off part of his tail. The damage was quickly noticed and the attendants on every floor went into high alert. Two suspicious looking characters - just the sort who looked like they might steal the tail from an elephant - were followed at a distance, but to no avail. The tail was never found.
By the late 1980s Rajah's condition was a little embarrassing. He was inspected twice - by the taxidermist from the National Museum of New Zealand and by a pair of preparators from the Museum of Victoria, Melbourne - to see if he could be restored.
Both inspections revealed serious defects. The metal in the supporting framework, especially the sheet metal in the ears, was rusting. Lubricating grease used during the original taxidermy was seeping to the skin surface and oxidising. Any remedial work would be cosmetic and temporary.
After public consultation, it was decided to store Rajah off site. In March 1994 Rajah left the Museum where he had been exhibited for 58 years. The night before he was taken out through the front door to the steps of the Museum. He did not quite fit through the door, but this was fixed by cutting off his legs and trunk with a chainsaw.
The next morning a small crowd gathered to hear a speech from the governor general, Dame Catherine Tizard. An Indian dance troupe circled Rajah, and mounted on a trailer, the scars on his reattached appendages hidden by bandages of gold cloth, the elephant set off down the hill to the farewell strains of "Haere Rā", sung by the Museum's Māori cultural group.
During his time in storage, Rajah's small immature tusks were stolen for their ivory. They were never recovered.
Back on show
When the Museum employed a preparator who happened to have experience restoring museum elephants, it was possible to have Rajah's appearance improved. The elephant worked his way back into planning for one of the new social history galleries, which had the theme of connections with childhood.
In 10 weeks, David Weatherley, the preparator, cosmetically restored Rajah by remodelling his damaged ears and fashioning replicas to substitute for his missing tusks and tail. He strengthened his legs internally using aluminium rods. He cleaned his skin, filled holes - especially the amputation scars and gaps along the stitching lines - and painted the outer surfaces an elephant grey. Rajah looked surprisingly good.
On New Year's Day 2000, just a few weeks after the restored elephant had been unveiled, ivory hunters - or just plain old vandals - broke off his right tusk. A stronger false tusk was installed. This was followed by minor vandalism to the tail.
Today, cracks are evident in the cosmetic repairs of 1999 and more conservation work is needed. Rajah is currently off-display and undergoing required conservation work.
Gill, B. (2002). The rogue's return. New Zealand Geographic. Volume 55.
A longer version of this article was first published in 2012 as 'Rajah, the elephant' in The owl that fell from the sky. The ebook is available from Awa Press.
Cite this article
How to stuff an elephant. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 14 January 2016. Updated: 12 November 2019.