A his­tory of Dur­ban’s an­i­mals

Many roamed in city’s bush ar­eas

The Independent on Saturday - - NEWS - TANYA WATERWORTH

FROM a po­lar bear who loved man­goes to fa­mous Nel­lie the ele­phant and a zoo cu­ra­tor who talked to lions.

Those are just some of the weird and won­der­ful an­i­mals of Dur­ban re­searched by lo­cal his­to­rian Pro­fes­sor Donal McCracken.

The pro­fes­sor has writ­ten a num­ber of books and is sched­uled to speak at the High­way Her­itage So­ci­ety at the end of the month on “Nel­lie the ele­phant and other Dur­ban an­i­mals of his­tory”.

The es­tab­lish­ment of Dur­ban’s Zoo­log­i­cal Gar­dens, Mitchell Park Zoo and Robert Jame­son Park took place in the early 1900s. This fol­lowed a world­wide trend of hous­ing an­i­mal col­lec­tions in public parks or botanic gar­dens.

Ac­cord­ing to McCracken’s re­search, the ar­rival of five Mau­ri­tian deer do­nated by Clara Binns, née Acutt, in 1900 saw the be­gin­nings of Mitchell Park Zoo.

A cred­i­ble zoo­log­i­cal gar­den was ex­pected to house large an­i­mals and, over the years, Dur­ban boasted lions, a leop­ard, a pan­ther, ele­phants, a brown bear and a po­lar bear. An­i­mals were ac­quired through dona­tions, ex­change or pur­chase and also in­cluded ba­boons, os­triches, a sea ele­phant, a lynx and yel­low al­ba­tross, eland, a Cape buf­falo, bles­buck, wilde­beest and three lemurs. The po­lar bear was re­port­edly fond of eat­ing man­goes, with its fur turn­ing yel­low as a re­sult.

When it started, the park was unique in that it was run by the po­lice de­part­ment. This came about be­cause the Mitchell Park po­lice sta­tion was right next door. Sergeant-in­charge Stan­ley Apps, a for­mer sergeant in the 7th Hus­sars cav­alry reg­i­ment, took on the re­spon­si­bil­ity of run­ning the zoo.

“Sergeant Apps loved an­i­mals and it re­ally came about by de­fault rather than de­sign that he be­came the cu­ra­tor. He used to sit and talk to the lions,” said McCracken.

Of Dur­ban’s an­i­mals, McCracken said, the ele­phants, Bob and Nel­lie, were among the most well-known and re­mem­bered.

The first was an African male ele­phant named Bob, which ar­rived in 1909 from Fil­lis’s Cir­cus and soon be­came hugely pop­u­lar for giv­ing rides to chil­dren.

But his was a tale of tragedy.

The sum­mer of 1913/14 was ex­cep­tion­ally hot and hu­mid with many of the an­i­mals suf­fer­ing in the heat.

“The sub­trop­i­cal heat of Dur­ban did not suit some of the an­i­mals; for ex­am­ple, the brown bear lost all its fur. The heat may have had an ef­fect, Bob turned rogue and took the ma­hout on his back and slammed him on the ground,” said McCracken.

A news­pa­per re­port at the time de­tails how the ele­phant knelt on the ma­hout “rolling him to death”. Bob was put into an ele­phant cor­ral and even­tu­ally shot.

With an equally tragic end, Nel­lie the ele­phant is per­haps Dur­ban’s most leg­endary an­i­mal. An In­dian ele­phant, she was pre­sented to the park by an In­dian prince in 1927. She was hugely pop­u­lar with chil­dren, could pre­tend to clean her teeth, play the mouth or­gan, turn on the tap for some wa­ter and crush co­conuts with her foot. Her birth­day be­came an an­nual so­cial event for chil­dren.

But by 1944, Nel­lie was be­com­ing un­man­age­able and was sent to Aus­tralia’s Taronga Zoo in Syd­ney.

“Used to peo­ple, she was very lonely. She was kept in an en­clo­sure and as she tried to reach across the pit to touch peo­ple, she fell into the ditch and broke her back,” said McCracken. She was put to sleep.

Ad­mi­ral the Tor­toise, which

cel­e­brates his 106th birth­day this month, and which was fea­tured in The In­de­pen­dent

on Satur­day re­cently, has no doubt seen it all dur­ing his life as Dur­ban’s old­est park an­i­mal. The gi­ant tor­toise from the Sey­chelles was do­nated in 1915 by a naval of­fi­cer, who dropped off Ad­mi­ral and two other tor­toises in a cigar box, with the prom­ise he would be back to claim them. But he never re­turned and Ad­mi­ral still lives in Mitchell Park with three fe­male tor­toises.

McCracken said Dur­ban had many wild an­i­mals in the early days of the city, which roamed in the forests and bush ar­eas. Dur­ban had high stand­ing for­est, good tim­ber for ship­build­ing, which was very rare com­pared with the lower coastal for­est.

“Glen­wood had a wood­land which was more open than the thick dense bush where Florida Road is now, which was a great place for buf­falo,” said McCracken, adding that Berea was home to “a large num­ber of python and leop­ard.

“There were hun­dreds of leop­ards which were a great ir­ri­ta­tion as they would take dogs. Leop­ards have no fear, so they would hunt in town.”

An ele­phant troop, es­ti­mated to num­ber about 300, would move across the Berea and go to the uM­geni River, but hunters ar­riv­ing in 1824 dec­i­mated the ele­phant pop­u­la­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to McCracken, the ivory shipped out of Dur­ban docks was pri­mar­ily used for mak­ing bil­liard balls and piano keys. There was also a roar­ing trade in buf­falo hide.

While the orig­i­nal roads of Dur­ban have been said to fol­low the old ele­phant paths, McCracken said this would only be true of a few roads, such as Mont­pe­lier, which fol­lows a wind­ing di­rec­tion.

“There were also all the great birds of prey such as ea­gles, as well as flamin­gos and pel­i­cans,” he said.

The pel­i­cans died out in the late 1880s but re­turned in the late 1990s when they started nest­ing in the Botanic Gar­dens.

And while Dur­ban has been home to an im­mense num­ber of an­i­mals, McCracken said gi­raffe are not in­dige­nous to this area.

“The only early ref­er­ence to gi­raffe was in Swazi­land in 1897,” he said.

EX­PERT: His­to­rian Pro­fes­sor Donal McCracken has a for­mi­da­ble knowl­edge of Dur­ban’s fa­mous and in­fa­mous an­i­mals.

ZOO KEEPER: Sergeant Stan­ley Apps talk­ing to lions.

HUGELY POP­U­LAR: Bob the African ele­phant.

LEG­ENDARY: Nel­lie the In­dian ele­phant.

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