On tours of the stores and in casual conversation down the pub, curators are often asked what their favourite object is. The natural science collections held at the Booth contain almost a million objects from around the world so picking one particular favourite is difficult. Many of Booth’s bird cabinets are fantastic, with the Eagle, Gannet, Kingfisher and Gull cases being particularly impressive in my opinion. However in storage there are many items which only come out for temporary exhibitions and yet are particularly special for the animals they represent, or the collectors involved. The iguanodon fossils, which include some of the first scientifically recorded dinosaurs, are scientifically important. And the plant collections of Sir Alexander Crichton appeal to me because of my interest in the Napoleonic period. However these don’t have the emotional appeal of many of the animals in our collection, which are charismatic creatures in life, but severely threatened due to human activities today.
Based on a general adoration of the living creatures, I’ve narrowed it down to two choices. First up is the kakapo (also known as the owl parrot). These charming parrots, like many bird species on New Zealand, have evolved in isolation and have filled gaps in the environment occupied by mammals in other parts of the world. The kakapo is particularly rotund and is the world’s largest parrot; however it has also lost the ability to fly. This has meant it is ill equipped to cope with predators brought to New Zealand with human settlers. Hunted by Maoris for food and feathers, they were soon threatened by a far more destructive force – European settlers. Along with taking the birds for food and for museums or zoos, the Europeans also destroyed much of their habitat and introduced predators which decimated the slow moving, ground dwelling birds, and their eggs.
By the 1950s there were concerns the kakapo had become extinct. But following the discovery of populations of the birds in isolated areas on the South Island, conservation programmes were set up. This involved moving birds to predator free islands and eradicating predators in areas with extant populations. Following these conservation efforts the kakapo population has steadily begun to rise again but they are still classed as critically endangered with only 126 known individuals remaining in the wild (as of 2012).
My second choice is the pangolin. This is again partly because of the appealing nature of the living creature, but also as the mounted specimen in our collection is very well made, looking quite true to life. Pangolins are the only truly scaly mammals and are named after the Malay word for ‘roll up’, as they curl up into a tight ball when threatened. Their scales form interlocking armour which protects them from predators. However, the armour is no match for humans and these creatures are threatened by hunting as well as habitat loss. The biggest threat to pangolins today comes from Chinese medicine. Despite an international ban on their trade, pangolin scales are falsely believed to aid lactation in new mothers, and to cure cancer. Their meat is also considered a delicacy and they are killed in a particularly cruel manner in Chinese restaurants serving the meat illegally (warning: the linked article is unpleasant reading). These medical claims are absolutely false and have lead to the unnecessary and wasteful slaughter of tens of thousands of animals – pushing two species of pangolin onto the endangered species list.
So those are my choices for ‘favourite object’ (even if I couldn’t pick just one). My concern for their current plight may seem odd seeing as we have dead examples in our collections; however these were collected in the Victorian period long before people knew better. Our collections, and other historic examples in museums around the world, will hopefully inspire future generations in conservation and respect for the natural world, and prevent the disappearance of these creatures from the wild.
Lee Ismail, Curator of Natural Sciences