An icon of childhood. The histories say he was a rogue elephant put to death in 1936 by a curator of the Auckland Zoo — then handed over to the Auckland Museum to be turned into a taxidermied exhibit. A sad ending for an elephant that could have lived another 40 years, beyond the 19 years he had lived.

Wild Child

This is a guest post by local heritage researcher and animal enthusiast Liz Clark.


Since a small child, walking into the great echoing hall where Rajah formally stood, I've been fascinated by his story. Etched for decades into the memories of many is the tale of the mad elephant, driven that way by a boy putting a cigarette in his trunk at Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart and then ultimately shot by an Auckland Zoo curator in 1936. A look into Rajah’s origins revealed a completely different story, rendering a decades-old tale to one of mere myth.

Around a century ago a male elephant was born somewhere in the deep forests of Burma, now Myanmar, and along with his maternal herd was caught in a wild elephant drive. Sold on to international animal dealer George Bruce Chapman, by 1924 the young Asian 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 and its menagerie of exotic animals.

Rajah at Auckland Zoo

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira

When the exhibition ended in 1925, the young elephant was swapped for some thylacines and a Bennetts Wallaby in a deal between the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia and Chapman. From the day a nameless elephant stepped into a transport crate at the London docks and was loaded onboard the SS Curtis for the long sea voyage to Tasmania’s shores the animal’s fate was sealed.

When the Port Curtis arrived in Hobart, with its live cargo on 19 July 1925 - a newspaper of the day commented on the elephant, “the youngster was not adverse to being the centre of public gaze”.

On July 20, the young elephant was unloaded - with difficulty. A Hobart newspaper 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.”

Lediard, R.S. Two Elephants in water at Auckland Zoo.
Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira

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

Arthur Reid, Beaumaris Zoo’s curator, named the new elephant after the more famous African bull elephant Jumbo, owned by the legendary PT Barnum. At the time of landing, young ‘Jumbo’ was described as being around 1.8 metres in height and approximately seven years old.

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. It took more than a few months to train the young animal to carry a load and it wasn’t without protest. During the early stages, the elephant would lie on the ground and refuse to move. Reid persisted and finally Jumbo was ready to carry visitors around the zoo.

Lediard, R.S. Two Elephants at Auckland Zoo.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira

It wasn't until late September 1927 that the Hobart City Council met and set a fee for rides on Jumbo the elephant. The fee 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. For another two years, the elephant carried out his duty faithfully, without any problems according to the reports of the time.

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

By late 1930 things had become difficult for Beaumaris Zoo — 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.

Lediard, R.S. Two Elephants at Auckland Zoo.
Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira.

The elephant was sent on his way to Auckland Zoo arriving on 11 November 1930; where it was hoped he would be both a companion for Jamuna the female elephant and earn his keep by giving visitors rides around the Zoo.

Less than a month later, the now named ‘Rajah’ attacked his keeper causing a serious injury, and things went downhill from there for the then new resident at the zoo. After Curator Griffin’s passing in 1935, Colonel Sawyer took over as zoo curator and in his first report to Auckland City Council noted Rajah was a serious liability, spitting at visitors and striking out at them with his trunk. Sawyer also warned that the elephant was close to approaching maturity and would soon become extremely dangerous. It’s possible Rajah was already experiencing early musth —  a periodic condition in male elephants, characterised by highly aggressive behaviour and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones. Sawyer made the recommendation to destroy Rajah as soon as possible.

So it was that on 9 March 1936, the 19 year-old Rajah was taken to an isolated part of the zoo and destroyed. His flesh was fed to the zoo carnivores and body was donated to Auckland Museum, as was the practice at the time, to be turned into the exhibit that we know to this day.

But what of the infamous story of a mad elephant driven that way by a boy putting a cigarette in his trunk?

A short time after Rajah’s demise a letter arrived at Auckland Zoo written by Northcote socialite Miss LJ Tremain. Tremain wrote:
'Three years ago while on a tour of N.S.W and Tasmania, I visited the Hobart Zoo. While there I got into a conversation with the head curator, whose name I now forget... When he heard that I came from Auckland, he said “Oh you have got ‘Rajah’ there now, whom we once had here, but as he became dangerous, we had to get rid of him.” He told me a story of how a boy had put a lit cigarette in Rajah’s trunk causing the animal such pain, that no child was safe near him.

The curator then had asked of the headmaster of a school nearby, to send the children over each day and then he lined them up, each with a piece of bread, and with keepers held Rajah by means of ropes and pointed instruments, the children filed past and fed him. But being fearful of further outbreak, he was glad to get the permission of his Council to sell the beast to the Auckland Zoo. After he had disposed of Rajah he received some illustrated papers from London, in one of which he saw a picture “of a rogue elephant” chasing the keepers at the London Zoo and identified it as “Rajah”.’

Letter from L. J. Tremain to E.J. Phelan
Chairman Parks & Reserves Committee
18 March 1936
Auckland Council Archives

The claim Tremain made was taken as fact by Colonel Sawyer — untrue as it was. Contemporary reports of the day negate any claims that Rajah's behaviour was due to such an instance and is more likely to be attributed to experiencing early musth. Why would’ve Arthur Reid, the curator of the Beaumaris Zoo, have come up with such a strange method to supposedly cure the elephant of his alleged unruly behaviour. Moreover, Rajah was never at London Zoo and wasn’t given his now iconic name until after his arrival at Auckland Zoo.

So Tremain’s claims were just that, a story. A story that has however fed into a myth of a wild child elephant that has been retold for seventy or so years — until now that is.