A Wild Child Revisited - Rajah the Auckland Museum elephant

Rajah's mounted bulk at the entrance to the Wild Child Gallery at Auckland Museum

One of the most iconic of exhibits at the Auckland Museum is Rajah the elephant. There are the stories of how Rajah was a bad elephant that spat at visitors, and generally made himself a problem at Auckland Zoo. Back in 2010, my close friend Lisa Truttman who authors the well respected Timespanner heritage blog, had taken a rather haunting image of the iconic elephant. Perhaps it had haunted me enough, to wonder just exactly how Rajah had ended up being a taxidermied specimen in the Auckland War Memorial Museum. So I went looking, and didn't find the story of the bad elephant the stories would have us all believe. What I discovered instead was a tale of misunderstandings, colonial pride and the exploitation of the resources available to the (then) British Empire. Lisa in her own time had gone to Auckland Council Archives, and had taken the trouble to locate the records on Rajah, when he was at Auckland Zoological Gardens. He was destroyed in March of 1936, right in the heart of the depression years. I wrote a guest blog post entitled "The Wild Child" where I covered Rajah's years at the now defunct Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart Tasmania. He was the first, and only, elephant ever held at the Beaumaris Zoo.

Derek Wood in his writings on Rajah in the 1992 publication "A Tiger by the Tail - The History of Auckland Zoo 1922-1992" remarked on how Auckland Zoo had been sold a second hand elephant by the Hobart City Council. He had also made note, that Rajah's bad behaviour was the result of a visitor putting a lighted cigarette in his trunk when he was at Hobart Zoo, based on the notes he had made during his research at the Auckland Council Archives (formerly Auckland City Council Archives). And since 1943, from an old interview with Colonel Sawyer,  a former Curator of the Auckland Zoo, that has been the belief recorded in the history of the Auckland Zoological Gardens. It is also recorded in the history section of the Auckland Zoo website

"Rajah, the Zoo's first male elephant arrived at Auckland Zoo, from Hobart, Australia, in November 1930. Unbeknown to the Zoo at the time, Rajah was a difficult animal to manage. After many years of trying to cope with him, Rajah sadly become too dangerous and unmanageable, and was eventually shot in March 1936. Rajah is currently on display at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.   According to the book, 'Tiger by the Tail', prior to his coming to Auckland Zoo, the brutal action of a visitor at Hobart Zoo placing a lighted cigarette in Rajah's trunk is thought to have been key in triggering his difficult behaviour."

Retrieved 12 August 2013

I'm going to write this brief post with reference to the commentary on the Auckland Zoo website, based on records from both the contemporary newspaper reports of the period (1925-1930), and from the records Lisa had obtained from the Auckland Council Archives.

In the first part of the commentary, Auckland Zoo states:

"Rajah, the Zoo's first male elephant arrived at Auckland Zoo, from Hobart, Australia, in November 1930. Unbeknown to the Zoo at the time, Rajah was a difficult animal to manage." 
However, my previous research into the years spent at Hobart Zoo, shows a completely different elephant from the one portrayed by that statement. Rajah was giving children rides at Hobart Zoo almost right up to the time that he left Hobart in late 1930. His first rides were given to both children adults in October of 1927

Children will hear with pleasure that "Jumbo," the baby elephant at the Beaumaris Zoo, has at last consented to carry them in a howdah on his rolling back on excursions about the gardens. "Jumbo" at first proved a very incorrigible youngster, and it has taken almost a year to train him, but he is now as docile an elephant as is to be found anywhere, and seems greatly to enjoy his role as the zoo's locomotive. He carried his first party of juvenile passengers on Wednesday, and his popularity was instantaneous. He is "open to engagement" between 3 and 4 o'clock each afternoon, and adults are carried as well as children. 

In late 1928, a report again shows Rajah as giving rides at the zoo.

... Rides on the elephant were very popular with the children, and the good natured animal probably carried more youngsters on Saturday than ever he had done before... 

Rajah (then named Jumbo) giving children rides December 1927 (The Mercury 10 December 1927)

The decision to sell Rajah, wasn't because of his behaviour, but rather an economic one. Beaumaris Zoo was already running at a loss. It was also the beginning of the Great Depression years that caused a world wide economic recession. The Reserves Committee opted to write to the Auckland Council in September of 1930, offering the elephant for the Auckland Zoo.

“At our Beaumaris Zoo we have a male elephant (13 years of age) which has been a great source of attraction for children and others, and hitherto has proved a financial success, but the edge of the attraction has, through custom, worn off.”
“The animal is tame and accustomed to taking children for rides, and for many months after its arrival proved remunerative to us, but now the novelty has worn off, and our population being small, it is not much patronised.”
“In common with all other public bodies, we are endeavouring to cut down expenses, and it has been decided to offer the elephant on loan for a term, or failing such arrangements, that it be sold.”

Letter from Hobart City Council to Auckland City Council 15 September 1930
(Auckland Council Archives)

The letter from Hobart City Council is further supported by the reports in the Mercury in 1930
There is a possibility that the days of Jumbo, or whatever the name of the elephant is, at the Beaumaris Zoo, are numbered. Owing to the state of the finances of the Reserves Committee of tho Hobart, City, Council this year, economies have to be made regarding reserves generally, and particularly the Zoo. The elephant being the most laborious item of upkeep, the question of his sale has received, the consideration of the committee, and an offer, has been received from New Zealand.  The matter, will probably be decided at an early meeting.

 His nature was reported as being docile when he was being shipped to Sydney for a brief spell at Taronga Park Zoo, prior to his shipping to Auckland.

Jumbo, the Beaumaris Zoo elephant that left Hobart on Friday for the Auckland Zoo, to which he has been sold, was docile throughout the preparations for his departure, and this permitted of arrangements being made by the Curator of the Zoo (Mr. A. R. Reid) without hindrance. But, as Mr. Reid said, animals are controlled by the voice, and it is not everyone that has this influence.  The large bulk of an elephant in itself is terrorising, and there are some who did not get used to Jumbo. Even on the wharf the labourers called warnings to one another, as an inquiring trunk came wandering in and out of the bars of the crate, but Jumbo did no harm to anyone. Mr. Reid, who was naturally sorry to see the animal go, has hopes of getting another young elephant for Beaumaris Zoo some time in the future. He said he would miss the trumpeting at night at the Zoo. The animal's good growth in Tasmania, Mr. Reid attributed to the climate, but he was modest.

In the second part of the information on Rajah noted on the Auckland Zoo History page it states:

"According to the book, 'Tiger by the Tail', prior to his coming to Auckland Zoo, the brutal action of a visitor at Hobart Zoo placing a lighted cigarette in Rajah's trunk is thought to have been key in triggering his difficult behaviour."

This information was based upon a letter written by Northcote socialite  Miss L. J. Tremain to the head of the Parks & Reserves Committee E. J. Phelan dated 18 March 1936, sent 9 days after Rajah had been shot at Auckland Zoo on 9 March 1936. In the letter she wrote, Tremain made the following claims:

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 lighted cigarette in Rajah’s trunk causing the animal such pain, that no child was safe near him that the curator 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 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 makes is completely without any substance. Contemporary reports as illustrated previously, negate any claims that Rajah's behaviour was due to such a ludicrous notion. Not one part of the story makes any logical sense as to 'why' Arthur Reid the curator of the Beaumaris Zoo, would even come up with such a method, to supposedly cure the elephant of his alleged unruly behaviour. The letter from the Hobart City Council in September clearly states :

In common with all other public bodies, we are endeavouring to cut down expenses, and it has been decided to offer the elephant on loan for a term, or failing such arrangements, that it be sold.”

Her claim that Rajah was at London Zoo is another point of contention. Rajah was never at London Zoo. He was the property of London based animal dealer George Bruce Chapman who owned Chapman's London Zoo Circus. Rajah had no name either prior to coming to Beaumaris Zoo, as he was still a calf at the time. Arthur Reid named him "Jumbo" after he had arrived at the Hobart facility. Chapman most likely had obtained the young elephant, from one of the many elephant drives through out Burma and India. The small elephant was exhibited as part of a group of 15 others in the Burma court at the Wembley Exhibition in 1924. Surplus to requirements, Reid and Chapman did a trade, the elephant was swapped for a Bennett's Wallaby and a Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacine). Chapman got his curiosities to pass on to another zoo, and Hobart got its first and only ever elephant for the municipal zoo.

My point is this. The myth surrounding the cause of Rajah's alleged bad behaviour had absolutely nothing to do with any cigarette being stubbed on his trunk. The cause is more likely in the fact that Rajah was a male elephant. A male elephant removed far too early from his social group, and that needs to be taken into serious consideration, when coming to any conclusions about 'why' he was destroyed. From Sawyer's initial report after Curator Griffin's death in 1935, Sawyer had considered that Rajah was a liability, and was well aware of the consequences in not having the facilities to deal with an adult bull Asian elephant coming into possible early musth condition.  I covered this issue in the blog post I wrote in 2010 (see link in the first paragraphs). Auckland Zoo needs to remove the cigarette in the trunk reference completely, and the causes of Rajah's unfortunate destruction revisited from a better perspective based on the available research done of elephant behaviour, rather than a story written by a Northcote socialite.


Since the writing of this post, Auckland Zoo have amended the reference to Rajah on their website. They are to be commended for taking the information provided and acting professionally on this issue. Thank you Auckland Zoo.