How to stuff an elephant

Rajah the elephant on display at Auckland Museum

Rajah the elephant on display in the Auckland Museum Wild Child gallery

The Auckland Museum blog is still finding its footing a little bit. And that’s OK. Like stuffing an elephant, good things take time.

Meanwhile I thought I’d chip in and share some pictures that I came across during a recent visit with some of the curators who look after our wonderful collections.

Behold then: the making of Rajah, one of Auckland Museum’s best-known exhibits – and a somewhat mammoth exercise in taxidermy.

Rajah the elephant has a special place in my memory just as he does in the memories of many visitors to Auckland Museum of a certain age.

Funnily enough I don’t recall ever considering how he came to be stuffed. Possibly, like my teddy bear, he was alive in my childhood imagination (just keeping very still around others who didn’t understand him like I did).

Here he is when he was actually alive, trumpeting around the Auckland Zoo.

Rajah the elephant eating leaves

Rajah the elephant in the flesh (ID:C23261)

The Zoo bought him for 125 pounds in 1930. Not sure what the equivalent of that would be today.

I’m sad to discover that Rajah wasn’t a happy elephant when he was alive. Aside from being in captivity, some horrid person had stubbed their cigarette out on his trunk, making him (rightly, I’d say) rather hostile to visitors.

So the Zoo put him down – all 4 tonnes of him (or 4000 kilograms, the equivalent of around 200 six-year old boys).

Enter Charles Dover, a taxidermist on Auckland Museum’s staff, who got to work making him into a museum exhibit.

Here’s how our curator of land vertebrates (things that live on the land and have backbones), Brian Gill, describes the rather gruesome process in a New Zealand Geographic article from 2002:

“Three weeks were spent on the hide alone, scraping and paring it down on the inside to remove fat and connective tissue. Meanwhile the scraped-down bones were placed on the roof of the museum to weather. [...]

Dover built a framework of timber struts and iron rods, incorporating papier mache casts of the skull and pelvic girdle for added fidelity. Wooden replicas of the ribs were made. The framework was finished with a layer of fine wire-netting covered with scrim and packed out in places with fine wood shavings.

The outer most layer was papier mache, painted when dry so as to be waterproof. Finally, the wet skin was taken from a tank of preservative and slid into place on the framework, which had been oiled to make the job easier. While still pliable, the cut edges of the skin were sewn together, final adjustments made and the finished mount left to dry” (The full story is called “The rogue’s return” and is published in Volume 55 of the New Zealand Geographic, on pages 8-9).

And here are the photos that I found on my tour with our pictorial collections curator, Gordon Maitland, during a welcome chance to leave my computer and my desk in the part of the Museum that does digital stuff.

(It seems somewhat cruel irony that Charles Dover is often pictured smoking).

Charles Dover with elephant hide

Prepare the hide (ID:C23258)

Charles Dover with elephant frame

Build a framework to replace the skeleton. (ID:C23262)

Charles Dover padding out the framework for the elephant

Flesh it out with Scrim (a kind of gauze) and woodshavings. (ID:C30452)

Charles Dover with Rajah the stuffed elephant

Result. One stuffed elephant. (ID:C23255)

So there you have it. The making of Rajah – a project that took seven months to complete. And you were thinking this was going to be another food post!

You’re either a taxidermy person or you’re not. I’m not sure I am…

But I do enjoy finding out about how things get made, and what lies beneath the surface of the objects we encounter around us in the world.  I hope that you do too.

July 1, 2010

Posted by:

Virginia Gow




Rae Nield

July 9th, 2010 at 11:18 am    

According to my grandmother, being stuffed was the best thing that happened to Rajah. Poor lad, he wasn’t the right temperament to be a zoo elephant and possibly wasn’t handled correctly. My mother was terrified of him.


July 20th, 2010 at 5:18 pm    

I think I’m a taxidermy person. Great blog. I feel a Phar Lap version coming on – Te Papa recently readjusted his skeleton…. the wonderful world beneath the surface of our museums :-)

Virginia Gow

July 21st, 2010 at 10:34 am    

@Rae I think he’s had a pretty good run in the Museum, so that’s something. I frequently see people patting his trunk on the way past… and he hasn’t tried to attack any of them!

@Pamela thanks! Will look out for your post.

Liz Clark

September 23rd, 2010 at 5:30 pm    

The sad part behind Rajah’s story is how little understood elephant behaviour was then. The real reason behind his apparently hostile behaviour may be in the nature of the male elephant itself. I remember a school trip to the Auckland Museum way back in the early seventies. Our teacher told us Rajah had gone ‘mad’ and he had been shot. I’m glad the museum restored old Rajah he’s a bit of an icon.

Mary Dover

October 28th, 2011 at 4:39 am    

We were very interested to find your article on the web as we are related to Charles Dover. We knew that he had emigrated to NZ and that he was a taxidermist (on the 1911 UK census he is
working as a taxidermist in Cheltenham,UK)

Fascinating to see him working on poor
Rajah – it would appear that Charles was skilled in his job if Rajah is still on display

Emma Holden

December 18th, 2013 at 8:08 pm    

This is such a great thing to find on the web as this is my husbands great grandfather therefore my children’s great great grandfather. I’m sure this will come in handy for a school project in the future. Charles Dover was also a very talented artist and have a lot of his sketches and paintings.

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