Carl Akeley – the contradictory life of a taxidermist and hunter turned wildlife photographer

Inventor, sculptor, and taxidermist by trade, Carl Akeley was an early pioneer of wildlife photography. His life's lessons still echo in the effort to conserve wildlife.

Wildlife photographer Carl Ethan Akeley photographed in 1926. Credit: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery / Public Domain
Wildlife photographer Carl Ethan Akeley photographed in 1926. Credit: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery / Public Domain

The term ‘big five’ was coined by trophy hunters to designate the most sought-after and difficult to bag game:  elephant, lion, leopard, rhinoceros, and Cape buffalo. A recent article highlighted the ‘new big five’, the animals that 50,000 people chose as the ones they most enjoyed seeing photographed: elephant, lion, polar bear, gorilla and tiger, all endangered species. Identifying the new big five was part of a plan involving photographers and conservationists to make these animals ‘global ambassadors for all wildlife and the difficulty it faces.’ British TV presenter Chris Packham remarked that, ‘if hunters were all shooting with cameras that would be significant progress.’

Such progress has been a long time coming considering the use of photography as a wildlife conservation tool was championed in 1919 by Carl Akeley, an inventor, sculptor, and taxidermist by trade, who built a motion picture camera specifically for that purpose. Akeley (1864-1926) is best known for the lifelike dioramas he called ‘a peephole into the jungle’ he conceived and helped create for the African Hall of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).Known as the ‘father of modern taxidermy,’ he was looking for ways to capture the animals he found so instructive, once and for all, meaning for everyone. Photography was more accessible to the public than taxidermy, and it didn’t require the death of its subjects.

Having hunted some of the specimens he mounted for the museum, Akeley knew that mobility was essential for filming. ‘To have even a fair chance of following the action with a camera you need one that you can aim up, down, or in any direction with about the same ease that you can point a pistol.’The dimmed depths of the bush presented another challenge, so he devised a telephoto lens with a shutter that admitted thirty per cent more light. The Akeley camera was soon preferred for newsreels, documentaries and recording sports events; Hollywood used it to film action sequences in motion pictures beginning with Nanook of the North (1922). Akeley described his invention as ‘[resembling] a machine gun … a panoramic device which enables one to swing it all about, much as one would swing a swivel gun, following the natural line of vision.’

The path from shooting bullets to shooting film was, however, encumbered with contradictions.

Raised on a farm in Clarendon, New York, Akeley developed an interest in birds and began mounting them against landscape backdrops he painted himself. He later worked at Ward’s Natural History Establishment in Rochester New York, which along with stuffed animals, supplied botanical and geological specimens to North American museums. Akeley was an assistant taxidermist when the star of P.T. Barnum’s circus, an elephant named Jumbo, died and Ward’s was hired to mount him. Captured as a calf in Sudan (c.1860), Jumbo did time in the Paris and London Zoos until Barnum bought him, in 1882. As the prime attraction of ‘the greatest show on earth,’ Jumbo crisscrossed North America by rail. When he died in 1885, his tusks were sliced and sold as souvenirs. Barnum gave his skeleton to the American Museum of Natural History and the stuffed Jumbo toured with the circus for several years. The cause of the elephant’s untimely death rises to the level of allegory, embodying the collision between the industrial age and nature’s struggle to survive it: Jumbo was hit by a train.

Akeley and his contemporaries foresaw the threats facing animals in their natural habitats. In his foreword to In Brightest Africa (1920), H.F. Osborn, paleontologist and president of the AMNH, wrote:

Their backs are up against the pitiless wall of what we call civilization. Human rights are triumphing over animal rights, and it would be hard to determine which rights are really superior … in the midst of this unequal contest between the flesh and blood of the animal kingdom and the steel and lead of the sportsman, of the food and ivory hunter, [Akeley’s] sympathies were all on the animal side in the fight.

Thanks to Akeley, wrote Osborn, ‘when the animal life of Africa has vanished, future generations may realize in some degree the beauty and grandeur which the world has lost.’ But altering destructive behaviours takes more than rhetoric, especially when societal norms run contrary to the stated aim.  In her dazzling 1984 essay, Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936, Donna Haraway detailed how nature and wildlife conservation were impeded by notions of sportsmanship, manhood, and ‘natural’ hierarchies, at a time when the rich white males perched at the apex of society were suffering an attack of vertigo:

Akeley and his peers feared the disappearance of their social world in the new immigrations after 1890 and the resulting dissolution of the old imagined hygienic, pre-industrial America. Civilization appeared to be a disease in the form of technological progress and the vast accumulation of wealth … by the very [same] wealthy sportsmen who were trustees of the [AMNH] and the backers of African Hall.

Exposure to nature was the antidote, particularly in Africa, where nature seemed to them most at home. In a 1908 report to his trustees, Osborn remarked that since people couldn’t afford to experience it firsthand, ‘the Museum must bring nature to the city.’

African Hall is in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall, the centrepiece of the AMNH, whose walls bear the former president’s aphorisms under the headings Nature, Youth, Manhood, and the State.  Roosevelt, who served in office 1901-1909, was an avid hunter. His view of manhood was that ‘only those are fit to live who do not fear to die.’ As for the state, he maintained that ‘aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport.’ On nature, he opined: ‘The nation behaves well if it treats its natural resources as assets it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value.’ Akeley dedicated In Brightest Africa to Roosevelt and accompanied him on safari in Kenya in 1909-1910, when they shot one of the elephants Akeley displayed in the Museum.

Another friend of Roosevelt’s, Frederick Courteney Selous (1851-1917), helped arrange the safari, recommending provisions and personnel, and accompanying Roosevelt on part of the journey but not the hunt. Selous (aka ‘the mighty Nimrod’) was the quintessential great white hunter (specialising in elephants and lions), the model for H. Rider Haggard’s fictional adventurer, Allan Quatermain. Selous, who assisted Cecil Rhodes in the British colonisation of central Africa and killed hundreds of animals, disapproved of American sportsmanship. He was dismayed by Roosevelt’s animated account of hunting cougars in Colorado with the help of a pack of dogs who worried them until they were exhausted enough to have their throats slit.  Selous visited Roosevelt during the Kenya safari and was distressed that two of his trophies were lions that were little more than cubs. Unlike Roosevelt (and Selous) Akeley was conflicted about killing:

While I have found but little enjoyment in shooting any kind of animal, I confess that in hunting elephants and lions under certain conditions I have always felt that the animal had sufficient chance in the game to make it something like a sporting proposition. On the other hand, much of the shooting that I have had to do in order to obtain specimens for museum collections has had none of this aspect at all and has made me feel a great deal like a murderer.

Akeley found portrayals of wild animals as ferocious and aggressive unfair, and felt that animals only fought if they or their families were threatened. He disapproved of popular narratives lauding the courage of hunters defeating vicious beasts, and took women hunting to show it was safe. If they could do it, he reasoned, with unselfconscious condescension, ‘much of the heroics which have attached to African big-game hunting would begin to wane,’ continuing ‘as a naturalist interested in preserving African wild life, I was glad to do anything that might make killing animals less attractive.’

Akeley could justifiably claim the title of naturalist; he studied animals in the field, recording his observations, and was instrumental in convincing the government of Belgium-colonised Congo to establish a wildlife park, Africa’s first, to conserve the gorilla habitat. He was nonetheless susceptible to expectations concerning manhood and sportsmanship, whereby killing animals was viewed as a gesture of respect, the facing of a worthy foe. His wife Delia remarked that her husband suffered frequently from fever in Africa, yet even while recovering from injuries inflicted by a charging elephant, he insisted on hunting. Carried by porters, he managed to shoot an elephant and in doing so ‘settled the question of his morale.’ Like death, nature had to be looked in the eye and shown who was boss, so that it might be properly protected. ‘With Akeley’ writes Haraway, ‘manhood tested itself against fear … even as the intellectual and mythic certainty grew that the savage beast in the jungle was human, in particular, industrial human.’

Akeley, who sometimes filmed animals before killing them for mounting, found camera hunting more useful, humane, and significantly more dangerous than hunting with a gun, since photographers had to hold their ground in proximity to wild animals. ‘According to any true conception of sport – the use of skill, daring, and endurance in overcoming difficulties – camera hunting takes twice the man that gun hunting takes’ he wrote, concluding that ‘it is fortunate for the animals that camera hunting is becoming popular.’ But was it really? Rave-reviewed films like Simba: King of the Beasts (1928), a documentary about lions that Akeley helped produce, may well have whet appetites for safari. And even if his ideas spared some animals, shot on film, rather than with guns,  so long as the motivations behind hunting (whether for sport, commercial gain, or food) went unaddressed, it was and remains a doomed proposition.

Perhaps the most striking of Akeley’s dioramas is the ‘the giant of Karisimbi,’ a male gorilla named after its home, near the highest peak of the volcanic Virunga Mountains on the border of the republics of Congo and Rwanda.  Looking at the dead animal, shot by a hunting companion in 1921, Akeley wrote, ‘it took all one’s scientific ardour to keep from feeling like a murderer. He was a magnificent creature with the face of an amiable giant.’ Akeley spent five years creating the setting for the animal he displayed in such a way as to preserve its majesty. In 1926 he returned to the gorilla’s homeland, where he died of exhaustion while climbing Mt. Mikena.

Akeley’s second wife, Mary Jobe Akeley, described the provisions made for his burial in the rainforest: a mahogany coffin with an inner coating of galvanized steel, wrapped in camp blankets and placed in a 2.5 metre deep lava rock pit lined with timber, and backfilled with gravel. Porters carried sacks of cement over kilometres of rough terrain to make a slab to seal the tomb, whose site was surrounded with a high, sturdy fence. Despite all this, Akeley’s grave was raided by gorilla poachers in 1979. They smashed the slab inscribed with his name and dates, hoping to find something of value, their act of vandalism a poignant epithet for a man whose wish to protect great nature failed to take human nature into account.


Maria Golia