A beautiful new addition to one of Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s most popular exhibit halls is a lesson in the complexities of respecting the natural world.
Photo: Joshua Franzos
One day last spring, John Wible, curator of mammals at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, stood beside a giant wooden crate in the museum’s research facility in East Liberty. He and three staff members clustered around the open side of the box, gently extracting large handfuls of shredded filler paper, occasionally snapping photographs. After a half an hour, they finally saw a small, white nose emerge.
“That was our first view of the bontebok. He was sort of peeking through,” says Wible.
In December, the Museum of Natural History welcomed a new mammal display to its Hall of African Wildlife—a bontebok, the rarest antelope in the world and the only animal on display to have been acquired while endangered. (Many older dioramas include animals that, though endangered now, were hunted and collected legally, in some cases more than 100 years ago.)
It all began with a phone call from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service nearly one year earlier: An inspector at the Los Angeles International Airport had discovered an endangered species among a shipment of 20 mounted mammals from South Africa and confiscated it. “The policy is they don’t send anything back to the country of origin,” says Suzanne McLaren, the museum’s long time collection manager for mammals. So the federal agents, aware of the Museum of Natural History’s strong collection of African mammals, called McLaren with a question: Do you want it?
Though perhaps unexpected, it’s not entirely rare for museums to acquire animals in such a fashion (in fact, the museum has received numerous research specimens in this manner over the years, but never a beautifully prepared and ready-for-display mounted animal). Often, it’s private individuals offering the heirlooms of a family collection. Big-game hunting is no longer as popular as it once was, notes McLaren, and many of those who participated are becoming quite elderly or passing away. “These are well-loved specimens in a lot of cases,” she says, “and [donors] want to feel that the animals are going somewhere where people will enjoy them.” While there’s simply not room at the museum for every donation, the bontebok, museum leaders decided, was special.
“We thought it was possible to use [the bontebok] to tell a lot of different stories— about conservation and endangered species,” McLaren says. So they accepted the mount, but still had to come up with just over $1,000 for shipping.
The bontebok is native to a small area of the coastal plain in the Western Cape Province of South Africa. The medium-sized antelope—standing about 3 feet at the shoulder— flourished there in small herds until 1652, when the Dutch East India Company settled a port colony in Cape Town. The rapid expansion of the city and hunting by roaming farmers interested in meat and pelts decimated the species’ population. In 1931, when South Africa opened the first Bontebok National Park, merely 17 of the animals remained.
But surprisingly, McLaren says, the bontebok’s story is ultimately one of conservation: “It’s a quintessential picture of how most people don’t want something to be completely wiped out.”
In 1837, just after the abolition of slavery prompted a huge exodus from the Western Cape through the bontebok’s habitat, a small farming family corralled several dozen into a small portion of their farm, creating a reserve. “The only reason they were able to corral them is the bontebok can’t jump a 4-foot fence. They’re just incapable,” says Wible, a trained anatomist interested in mammalian evolution. The bontebok’s lifestyle and environment were such that a leaping ability never developed.
Neighboring landowners caught on and joined forces to protect the population later transferred to the national park. Initially just 17- strong, the herds at the park now contain about 160 bonteboks. And the worldwide bontebok population, including those at farms, zoos, and preserves, is approximately 3,000.
Nevertheless, having a bontebok display is quite rare in the Northern Hemisphere. And getting the mount from Los Angeles took many months of logistical planning. The first obvious obstacle was funding. So last January, Wible wrote to Richard Moriarty, a retired pediatrician, founder of the Pittsburgh Poison Center, and current president of the Carnegie Discoverers, a group of enthusiastic Museum of Natural History supporters. Annual membership to the group includes perks like behind-the-scenes tours and special lectures by museum staff.
Five years ago, as part of the Discoverers, Moriarty began a program called the “Wish List,” wherein the museum’s educational and scientific staff can request project-based funding of up to $2,500. “Nobody writes a grant for $2,500, and nobody reads a grant for $2,500. But I know from when I was looking for money for the Poison Center that inevitably you’d forget something,” says Moriarty.
Wible hoped this rare opportunity for the museum to be given the bontebok would make the Wish List. To date, the program had funded some 60 requests to the tune of nearly $90,000—for items such as deer fencing at Powdermill Nature Reserve in the Laurel Highlands, airfare for a research expedition to Australia, digital cameras, and DNA analysis software. When Moriarty received Wible’s request, to avoid any delays, he immediately footed the bill. The bontebok was shipped by plane to Detroit, trucked to Pittsburgh, and transported via moving van to the museum’s research annex.
A great deal remains unknown about Carnegie Museum’s very own bontebok—its age and intended U.S. destination, for example — because legal proceedings continue on the West Coast. “It’s kind of like old-time adoptions. You just aren’t allowed to know that stuff,” McLaren jokes.
Today the animal sits at the top of the stairs in the Hall of African Wildlife, next to the Barbary lions attacking the Arab Courier and nearby a sign that tells visitors the tale of how the bontebok arrived. It’s a story McLaren and Wible hope will inspire visitors to learn more about endangered species and ponder the complex relationship between hunting and conservation worldwide.