A Gathering of Wonders: Behind the Scenes at the American Museum of Natural History

A Gathering of Wonders: Behind the Scenes at the American Museum of Natural History

by Joseph E. Wallace

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Since it was founded in 1869, the American Museum of Natural History has stood as one of the world's greatest repositories of scientific information and investigation. This delightful book takes us behind the exhibits and shows us some of the great researchers and fabulous objects from the Museum's past and present, including:

* the famous Oviraptor eggs

…  See more details below


Since it was founded in 1869, the American Museum of Natural History has stood as one of the world's greatest repositories of scientific information and investigation. This delightful book takes us behind the exhibits and shows us some of the great researchers and fabulous objects from the Museum's past and present, including:

* the famous Oviraptor eggs unearthed in the Gobi desert.

* the stunning new Hall of Biodiversity, whose trees hold 411,000 model leaves

* the 563-carat Star of India sapphire and the 632-carat Patricia emerald

* Katharine Burden's hunt for the Komodo dragon : "Woman Huntress Revolts Against Playing Safe—-Kills Huge 'Malay Dragon' "

* the epic saga of the huge blue whale model

This book offers a backstage tour through the halls and history of the Museum, venturing into ornithology, invertebrates, zoology, entomology, herpetology, and other disciplines. Museum-goers will find their enjoyment enhanced by the wonderful anecdotes and insights, and armchair travelers will find the back-scenes tour enriching and enlightening.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"I can't begin to enumerate all the riches, tidbits, stories, information, personalities, gossip, and love of science embraced by this fascinating volume about the Museum and its collections, its history, and all its backroom maneuverings. For me, it was as pleasurable to tag along with Joseph Wallace (and all the curators, anthropologists, archeologists, paleontologists, geologists, entymologists, ornithologists, icthyologists, astronomers, oceanographers, taxidermists, mammalogists, titi monkeys, Komodo dragons, pectinoids, bowerbirds, coelacanths, and velociraptors found in these pages) as it had been, back in my wondrous childhood, to cavort behind Pop and Grandpa as they revealed to me the secrets and mysteries of the natural world."

—-John T. Nichols, author of The Milagro Beanfield War, from his Foreword

Wallace is a talented science writer whose broad knowledge of natural history is matched by his flair for storytelling. Without both, this book about the American Museum of Natural History might well have fallen flat. Instead, Wallace offers a fascinating look behind the scenes at the people and objects associated with that venerable institution—and comes up with a story that is full of wonder (with elements such as the famous unearthing of the Oviraptor eggs in the Gobi Desert, the Star of India, the slaying of the Malay Dragon), mystery ("Child Frick's Mysterious Trove," "Search for the Living Dinosaur"), human interest (lively anecdotes about and photos of anthropologist Margaret Mead, gorilla conservationist Carl Akeley, curator F.W. Putnam), romance ("The Soul of an Emerald"), humor ("Search for the Fat Catfish")—and of course, natural history ("The Front Lines of Conservation," "Human Prehistory," and so forth). Wallace is so obviously intrigued by his subject that his enthusiasm is infectious. He can follow up a question about how curator Dorothy Bliss could have found crabs so interesting that she devoted her life to the study of their hormonal workings...with an answer that makes us see just how. Anyone who has ever been to the Museum of Natural History in NYC and wondered, among other things, how they did get that gigantic whale model up there, will especially enjoy the book. In fact, anyone who has ever visited any natural history museum anywhere will probably enjoy finding out more about the teamwork, research, travel, and happenstance that are often involved in museum set-up. For those using the book for research, there is a thorough index (withsubjects that range, literally, from acid rain and Louis Agassiz to the Williamette Meteorite and famous herpetologist Richard Zweifel)—plus there is an interesting center-section of photographs (and how DID James Shackelford get that donkey in the car with him, anyway)? Category: Nature & Ecology. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, St. Martin's, Griffin, 288p. illus. index., Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Gloria Levine; Reading Teacher, Hoover M.S., Potomac, MD
Library Journal
This book delves behind the scenes of the American Museum of Natural History, revealing its wonders and the extraordinary commitment of its scientists. Science writer Wallace (The American Museum of Natural History's Book of Dinosaurs & Other Ancient Creatures) combines the anecdotes of scientists and curators with his own historical research, providing a narrative of the museum not only as a physical repository but as a leader in scientific research and public education. The explorations highlight many fields, such as gemology, entomology, zoology, invertebrate paleontology, planet sciences, and herpetology, with special attention paid to the museum's departmental contributions and administration. Not surprisingly, this celebratory account of the museum does not mention its controversies, such as the study of indigenous peoples, as recounted in Kenn Harper's Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Mink, the New York Eskimo (LJ 3/1/00). Still, scientists and science historians alike will find interest in this text, as will the avid or first-time museum patron. Recommended for academic and larger public libraries. (Photos not seen.)--Trisha Stevenson, New York Univ. Sch. of Medicine Lib. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
An informal history of the displays and personnel of the American Museum of Natural History. The vignettes range through such fields as ornithology, zoology, geology, entomology, and other disciplines and describe the scientific researches that have led to the discovery and consequent explanations of many of the museum's exhibits and finds. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
A catalogue and chronology of the curators of the great (dinosaurs) and small (insects) who have graced the halls of the Museum since its inception in 1869. Wallace (The American Museum of Natural History's Book of Dinosaurs and Other Ancient Creatures, 1994) goes the whole nine yards in this paean to the scholars and artists who amassed and mounted the collections on view (or more likely in storage) on New York's Central Park West. For starters, he celebrates Carl Akeley as both collector and taxidermist: an early voice for biodiversity; Akeley lived to see a sanctuary for the mountain gorilla established in the Belgian Congo in 1925. Also celebrated in the how-to-display-it category is the ceiling suspension of a model of the great blue whale, the largest mammal ever (earlier, fairly preposterous ideas were happily scotched when a canny curator suggested that decaying whale flesh odors wafting across a proposed model of a beached whale would create just the right atmosphere). Best are these longish pieces that create a sense of time, place, and character of the museum and its stars (from Roy Chapman Andrews to Margaret Mead). Otherwise, one tends to get lost in the archives of ichthyology, herpetology, gems, entomology, paleontology (big and little beasts), ornithology, and finally anthropology/ethnography. Yes, they are all here—the painstaking dissectors who sort out species of juncos, spiders, and mammals, fossil fishes and turtles and flies in amber. Some, like Libbie Hyman, spent over 30 years producing volumes of information on all known invertebrates. Others have developed or promoted cladistics (a system of classifying species) or proposed still-controversialideasabout evolution (like the punctuated equilibrium theory of Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge). Wallace's telling tends to glorify them all—no warts at all in this display. Despite that, this is a fascinating portrait of one of the world's great museums—and one of New York's crown jewels.

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Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
4.70(w) x 8.56(h) x 0.81(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Specter of Extinction

Into a Wild World

It was extraordinary how quickly that rhino was on his feet. More than that, he no sooner was up than he was charging. I can see him yet. His head was down and he snorted like a switch engine. His tail was up and his short, heavy legs were pounding along furiously.... It certainly took that rhino a very few seconds to cover half the distance to us, but it seemed more than long enough to me. He seemed to be the size of a freight car, and his snorts were actually terrifying.

Museum preparator James L. Clark, describing
a 1909 encounter in Lives of the Hunted (1929)

James L. Clark wasn't alone among the early employees of theAmerican Museum of Natural History in risking his life forscience. Again and again, Museum scientists gloried at the opportunityto confront the largest, most untamable, most dangerousanimals in existence. This thrill of the chase (bordering onmachismo but thankfully leavened by humor and even self-deprecation)shines in the letters, field journals, and publishedwritings of nearly all of the Museum's explorers during the institution'sfirst fifty years.

    The need to challenge the unknown is what drove Roy ChapmanAndrews ("I was born to be an explorer.... I couldn't doanything else and be happy," he said) to spend years on pitchingboats in frigid northern seas, studying whales. It's what sent CarlAkeley into the African wilds again and again, even after hisnotorious(and almost fatal) encounters with a charging elephantand a wounded leopard. And it's apparent today to anyone whowalks through the Museum's magnificent halls of North American,Asian, African, and marine mammals, with their lions, grizzlies,walruses, and other spectacular creatures.

    Joel Asaph Allen (1838-1921), the first curator of the then-joinedDepartment of Mammalogy and Ornithology, would seeman unlikely choice to hire such a group of risktakers. By the timethe forty-six-year-old Allen joined the Museum in 1885, he wasplagued by a variety of physical and emotional ailments, illnessesthat bedeviled him for the rest of his long life. A mild-mannered,shy man (though often witheringly forthright in his written opinions),Allen spent most of his time at the Museum or convalescingat home, not in the field.

    But before joining the Museum, Allen had participated insome memorable surveys of the wildlife of the American frontier—expeditionsthat reveal why such adventurers as Andrewsand Akeley would later feel at home in the Museum. Undoubtedlythe most remarkable of all was an 1873 engineering and scientificexploration of the Yellowstone River area in Dakotaterritory, a journey that ranks among the most dangerous expeditionsof all time.

    This region harbored dangers above and beyond those posedby wild animals and disease-bearing insects, Allen later recalled.The resident Sioux Indians, having clashed frequently with federalsoldiers, were naturally suspicious of any visitors from theEast. "Hence a heavy military escort was this year provided forthe protection of the engineers," Allen recalled. "The escort comprisedthe famous Seventh Cavalry, with Gen. George A. Custerin command, and parts of the Eighth and Twenty-SecondInfantry, and a company of Indian scouts."

    Allen, employed at the time by the Harvard Museum of ComparativeZoology, sought to capture and collect specimens of asmany bird and mammal species as possible. But the difficulties ofthis task became clear once General Custer—whose reputationfor brutality against Indians preceded him—and the local Siouxbegan skirmishing. "Indians were first seen watching us fromneighboring bluffs near the mouth of the Powder River; theysoon became bolder and were seen daily, when orders were givenforbidding straying from the line of march, or the use of firearmswithout permission from the commanding officer," Allen wrote."This compelled us to abandon bird collecting and side excursionsfor several weeks."

    Soon the standoff broke into open fighting, in which both sidessustained casualties. Although the remaining expedition memberseventually made it to safety, these were not the last confrontationsbetween Custer and the Sioux. "It was only three years later, andabout sixty miles south of Pompey's Pillar, on the Little Big Horn,that General Custer and his whole command were massacred in afight with this same band of Sioux Indians," Allen pointed out.

    Given his experiences, no one would have blamed Allen forturning his back on field research forever. Instead, he saw suchthreats merely as challenges to be overcome. "The opportunitiesfor natural history collecting and field research on this expeditionwere far from ideal, but we did not return empty handed norwithout well-filled notebooks," he wrote later. "To me it was anexperience of great value from the naturalist's point of view, andone I have never ceased to recall with much pleasure for its personalassociations and its dash of military flavor."

    Allen's early exploits also brought him face to face with one ofthe driving forces behind nineteenth-century science: the decimationof North America's wild game, especially the bison. "In thesummer of 1871 the author saw on the plains of western KansasBuffaloes by the hundred thousand, if not by the million," hewrote in 1902. "Three years later these same plains were coveredwith the bleaching carcasses of these hundreds of thousands ofBisons, from which merely the hides had been removed and thebodies left to rot."

    Allen brought passion for exploration and outrage at theslaughter of wild mammals and birds to the Museum when hearrived in 1885, but at first his new employer's financial problemsdid not allow him to act on either. The Museum couldafford to employ only a few scientists in the 1880s and 1890s. In1888, for example, Allen's title was "Curator of the Departmentof Ornithology, Mammalogy, Fishes and Reptiles. Also temporarilyin charge of the Department of Invertebrate Zoology."Who had time for fieldwork?

    Instead, he was determined to greatly enlarge the mammal-and-birdstudy collections. With few exceptions, during his earlyyears, this goal was achieved more through donations and purchasesthan collecting expeditions. And, as early annual reportsmake clear, progress was slow, with typical donations including"1 Mole; 1 White-Footed Mouse; I Bat; 1 Cow; 1 Angora Cat"and "1 St. Bernard Dog"—this last donated by future MuseumPresident Henry Fairfield Osborn.

    Eventually, purchases and other acquisitions helped theMuseum's exhibit and study collections grow by thousands ofspecimens. But Allen and Museum President Morris K. Jesup wellrealized that no Museum can build a truly comprehensive collectionby merely accepting what is offered to it. So, when financesallowed in the early 1900s, the Museum began hiring new scientistsand preparators, all of whom soon began to build the swashbucklingreputation that would characterize the Museum in thedecades preceding World War II.

    Roy Chapman Andrews, Carl Akeley, and James L. Clarkwere joined by a host of other scientist-adventurers, includingHerbert Lang, Harold E. Anthony, James Chapin, Rollo Beck,and George Cherrie. Collectively, they spent decades trackingthrough the uncharted forests, swamps, coasts, and deserts ofpreviously unexplored regions of South America, Asia, andAfrica, and added tens of thousands of specimens and a host ofindelible stories to the collections of the American Museum.

    Oddly, the most colorful, poignant, and influential of all thesemen, Carl Akeley, was not a scientist at all, but a sculptor andpreparator of habitat groups. No matter: Whatever his qualifications,Akeley was the man who first made us familiar with thetrue character of the animals of what he called "brightestAfrica." Most importantly of all, he introduced us to one of ourclosest relatives, the mountain gorilla, and by helping insure thatspecies' survival, marked himself as one of the world's first great,if unsung, heroes of conservation.

Carl Akeley's Great Dream

"The game must go," is the cry of Africa. "This is no longer the world's zoo but an agricultural country." Unfortunately the beasts of the forest are communists. They have no sense of property rights; to them a tilled field is a strip of particularly delectable vegetation, an ideal feeding ground—nothing more.... Add to the bands of hunters officially appointed to protect gardens and flocks those who kill for food, for gain and for "sport" and it becomes evident that the wild life of Africa is doomed.

Carl Akeley, the Mentor
magazine, 1926

The Museum has benefited throughout more than half a century by high talent among men and women in its service, but Akeley was the only genius who has been one of us.

Museum president Henry Fairfield Osborn,

after Carl Akeley's death in 1926

What sort of a man was Carl Akeley? He was a brilliantly innovativesculptor and preparator, a man who knew what a wildcreature should look like in a museum, and who revolutionizedthe field of taxidermy to bring his vision to life. He was an experthunter who was thoughtful enough to shrug off society's expectationsand abandon hunting for "fun." He was a tireless self-promoterwhose story is still familiar today, more than seventyyears after his death.

    But mostly, Carl Akeley was this: A man who, upon realizingthat the wilderness and the animals he loved were threatenedwith destruction, engaged in a lifelong battle to ensure that thiscatastrophe did not happen.

    Carl Akeley was born in 1864 in rural New York. "By all rulesof the game, I should have been a farmer," he recalled, "but forsome reason or other, I was always more interested in birds andchipmunks than in crops and cattle." At the age of thirteen, healso became interested in the field of taxidermy, an enthusiasmthat would never leave him.

    Before his twentieth birthday—and before contacting anymuseum or professional taxidermist—Akeley was already beginningto stretch the boundaries of what a museum exhibit shouldinclude. "I went so far as to take a few painting lessons from alady in Holley, New York, a village near my father's farm, inorder that I might paint realistic backgrounds for my stuffedbirds and animals," he wrote many years later. "So far as I know,my early attempts in this direction were the first experimentswith painted backdrops for taxidermic groups. At least one ofthem is still in existence, but I have been a bit afraid to go see it."

    After a stint as a taxidermist at Ward's Natural Science Establishment(a then-famous supplier of mounted animals, fossils,meteors, and other objects to museums and collectors), Akeleymoved on to a museum in Milwaukee and then to the famousField Museum in Chicago. There he honed his vision of animalpreparation, rejecting the old method of stuffing skins withstraw, a technique that resulted in lumpy, unnatural specimens.

    Instead, Akeley's method, developed during his years at theField Museum, involved modeling a lifelike clay mannequin ofthe specimen on a rough wood-and-wire armature, casting thelife-sized clay model in plaster, and then molding a final imageover the plaster model out of cheesecloth, papier-mâché, shellac,and wire. The plaster was removed, and the prepared skin of thespecimen was then cemented to the model, resulting in a far morerealistic mount than was ever possible before.

    In 1896, Akeley visited Africa for the first time, on an expeditionto Somaliland with the great zoologist Daniel Giraud Elliotof the Field Museum. By the time he returned, Akeley recalled, "Ihad determined upon Africa as the country whose superb animalsI would re-create through museum groups for the benefit of theAmerican public. I was so bewitched by the beauty and splendorof Africa that it seemed to me inconceivable then that I would notimmediately return."

    Instead, Akeley spent the next nine years improving hismounting technique, teaching his methods to other preparators(including James L. Clark at the American Museum in 1903),and dreaming of his next trip. He finally got to visit East Africa in1905; it was on this trip that he first made the acquaintance ofthe African elephant, "the most fascinating of all wild animals,"in Akeley's words. Soon after, however, the Field Museum cancelledplans for an African mammal hall, and Akeley took hisdrive and determination to the American Museum, beginningwith a 1909 collecting expedition to East Africa.

    This famous African expedition included, at times, James L.Clark, Theodore Roosevelt, and Chicago Tribune cartoonistJohn T. McCutcheon, who not only memorialized the trip'sadventures in a lively book called In Africa but also shot one ofthe elephants that now make up the magnificent group thatanchors the Museum's Akeley Hall. It was during this expeditionthat Akeley first envisioned a massive hall that would show manyof the animals of brightest Africa.

    Akeley spent the remaining seventeen years of his life planning,designing, collecting for, and trying to finance the Africanhalls. He died ten years before they were finally completed underthe guidance of James L. Clark and Akeley's widow, Mary L. JobeAkeley. There's little doubt, however, that he would have beenthrilled with the result. More than seventy years after his death,the hall's dioramas of African savannas and rain forests, filledwith lions, rhinos, zebras, and dozens of other species, still seeminfused with Carl Akeley's unflagging energy. They are lit with thevividness of his memories of the continent he loved so much.

    Akeley achieved his goal of displaying Africa's mammals inrealistic settings. But he wanted much more. His passion—hismission—was to exhibit animals that he believed would soon begone from their homelands, driven into extinction by huntingand habitat loss. The goal of the Akeley Hall was always toremind us that such spectacular, irreplaceable animals exist andperhaps to inspire us to help prevent their destruction.

    When he was still a young man, Akeley began to have doubtsabout the propriety of hunting for sport. During his very first tripto Africa, his 1896 expedition to Somaliland, he collected somespecimens of the native donkey called the "wild ass." Shootingone, he was surprised to see it make no attempt to flee. Instead, itstood calmly nearby until, Akeley recalled, "I put one hand onhis withers and tripping him, pushed him over. I began to feelthat if this was sport I would never be a sportsman."

    Akeley's discomfort turned to disgust when he shot another,inflicting a flesh wound that the animal would certainly haverecovered from if it had run away. But, like the first, it didn't. "Aswe got near he turned and faced us with great gentle eyes," Akeleywrote. "Without the least sign of fear or anger he seemed towonder why we had harmed him."

    Again, the hunter was able to approach the animal so closelythat it seemed almost tame. The two wild asses, Akeley marveled,"appeared not to realize that we were the cause of their injuries butrather seemed to expect relief as we approached—yet one English`sportsman' boasted of having killed twenty-eight." As for Akeleyhimself: "I announced that if any more wild asses were wanted,someone else would have to shoot them. I had had quite enough."

    Akeley's scorn for European "sportsmen" runs like a stream oflava through his writing. He blamed them for the fact that, asMuseum President Henry Fairfield Osborn put it, "in Africa theremnants of all the royal families of the Age of Mammals aremaking their last stand, that their backs are up against the pitilesswall of what we call civilization."

    Each time he returned to Africa, Akeley could see the results ofhunters' depredations with alarming clarity. In 1926, during hisfinal trip to Africa, he found that the plains that had swarmedwith game just fourteen years before were now barren. "I havenot appreciated the absolute necessity of carrying out the AfricanHall, if it is ever to be done, as I now do after this painful revelation,"he said in an anguished letter home to Museum DirectorGeorge H. Sherwood. "The old conditions, the story of which wewant to tell, are now gone, and in another decade the men whoknew them will all be gone."

    In a remarkable article entitled "Have a Heart," written forthe Mentor magazine just before he embarked on this final expedition,Akeley excoriated those who hunted African animals forfun. "Two types of so-called 'sportsmen' who have no possibleexcuse for their slaughter of African game and who might well becontrolled are the man who is dominated by blood lust, and the`game hog,'" he wrote. He described the former as a man whowould rather wound an animal and then slit its throat than kill itcleanly with a single shot, and the latter as someone who killed asmany animals as his hunting license permitted—even if it meantthrowing away the bodies afterwards.

    The local tribes could not be held responsible for the disappearanceof the game, Akeley believed. "The white man of Africablames the native for the present depletion. It is true that inplaces the natives have great drives, using pits, poisoned arrowsand such other methods as they have used from time immemorial,and thus occasion the killing of great numbers of animals,"Akeley pointed out. "But we must remember that when the whiteman came the land was teeming with animal life and for generationsthat game and the natives had been there together. Directlyor indirectly, civilized man is responsible for the rapid disappearanceof wild life in Africa."

    It's clear that Akeley cared deeply about the animals ofAfrica's plains, rivers, and forests. But it was the mountainousrain-forests of the Kivu region of the Belgian Congo that movedhim most deeply, especially one resident of these cold, mistyforests: the mountain gorilla.

    Akeley's first encounter with the gorillas was in 1921, on theslopes of Mount Mikeno and Mount Karisimbi. He journeyed tothe remote forests to collect a family group for the African hall,and he was admittedly nervous as he entered gorilla country forthe first time.

    The fact that a man who had faced down elephants, lions, andleopards would tread cautiously in the mountain gorilla's hauntsis proof of how inaccurate early depictions of the gorilla hadbeen. Early explorers, such as Paul Du Chaillu, published shamefuldistortions that led the public to believe that the gorilla was aviolent, ferocious creature much given to killing local men andcarrying away their women.

    Once Akeley came in contact with the gorillas on Mikeno andKarisimbi, he realized how unrealistic earlier descriptions hadbeen. "I saw no indication that the gorilla is in the least aggressiveor that he would fight even on just provocation," he wrote in1923. "I have trailed him through his jungles, come on him atvery close quarters, and shot him without seeing the slightest intimationon his part of an intention to start a fight."

    It became one of the obsessions of Akeley's final years todepict accurately these giant creatures whose gentleness hadmoved him so much. "The gorilla group in the Roosevelt Africanhall will be a great disappointment to that portion of the publicwhich has expected and would prefer to see the gorilla made ashuman and as horrible as the imagination has painted him," hewrote on returning from Africa, "for it will show the gorilla as agreat amiable creature in a setting of extraordinary beauty."

    If the explorer was determined to mount a revisionist gorilladisplay in New York, he was fiercely passionate about a goal heconsidered far more important: preserving the mountain forestsof the Kivu country and the gorillas that lived there. As soon ashe glimpsed the view that stretched from the slopes of Karisimbiacross "a beautiful forested valley to the gorgeous pinnacle ofMikeno on the right and to the smouldering craters of Nyamlagiraand Chaninagongo in the distance," Akeley knew that thiswas a landscape he had to fight to preserve, both in the gorillahabitat group and in reality.

    Almost immediately upon his return from the 1921 collectingexpedition, Akeley began to enlist support for the establishment ofa Kivu gorilla sanctuary. Among his ardent backers were John C.Merriam, of the Carnegie Institution and National Academy ofSciences in Washington, and a pair of Belgian government officials,Ambassador to the United States Baron Emile de Cartierde Marchienne and Consul-General James Gustavus Whiteley.Most crucially of all, King Albert of Belgium, the colonial ruler ofthe Belgian Congo, had toured U.S. national parks in 1919 in thecompany of Henry Fairfield Osborn, and was receptive to the idea.

    As early as September 1922, Consul-General Whitely hadencouraging news for Akeley: "I have also had a letter from theBelgian Ambassador Baron de Cartier, in which he says that hethinks the Kivu District will 'be made safe for Gorillas,'" Whiteleywrote. "I hope it can be done, and that 'our poor relations'will be made safe and happy."

    But these supporters of the proposed sanctuary, along withAkeley himself, were well aware that powerful special interestswould battle the proposed sanctuary. The main threats to thegorillas of Kivu country were the white hunters who saw gorillahunting as a potential gold mine. Even limited hunting mightdestroy the small population that lived there, Akeley told Baronde Cartier, pointing out that "the number of animals in thecolony is small. I doubt if there are fifty all told and the numbershould not be reduced unnecessarily."

    Unsurprisingly, hunters raced to kill as many gorillas as possiblebefore the proposed park became a reality. One hunter "waspermitted to go in and I have partial reports of his work and photographswhich show him with four baby gorillas which he captured,"Akeley wrote to Baron de Cartier in January 1924. "It issafe to assume that in capturing them, there were four motherskilled and I fear this would be only a part of the story."

    Nor were all supposedly "scientific" collectors free fromblame, Akeley told de Cartier in the same letter. Referring to anexpedition from another natural history museum in the UnitedStates, Akeley wrote, "One member of said expedition said to methat they were not worried because of the fact that they had nopermit to kill gorillas in the Belgian Congo, because they hadevery assurance that it was perfectly simple to poach gorillas andget away with it."


Excerpted from A Gathering of Wonders by Joseph Wallace. Copyright © 2000 by Joseph Wallace. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Meet the Author

Joseph Wallace has written numerous books on science and natural history. An adventurer at heart, he has been menaced by leopards in the midst of African game parks, canoed through rainforests, and even stumbled upon the wreck of a World War II fighter jet in Papua, New Guinea during the course of his career as a writer. He lives with his family in New York state.

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