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Stepping into a lost era - the Powell-Cotton Museum collection of African and Asian mammals at Quex Park

Monday evening, in preparation for a conference to acquaint teachers from about 50 schools in Kent about the need to integrate conservation into the curriculum, we went to have a look at the venue – Quex Park. Not many of you (we sure hadn’t) will have heard of this place located near Ramsgate in the town of Birchington.

A bit of history first. Quex was named after the original owners, the Quekes family of rich wool merchants. The Powell-Cotton family, extensive landowners, came on the scene in 1777 and bought them out. Possibly the best known family member was Major Percy Horace Gordon Powell-Cotton, an explorer/naturalist. Major Powell-Cotton mounted something like 28 expeditions to Africa and Central Asia over 26 years to areas that held a great diversity and density of endemic fauna – and amazingly for those days was able to bring back hundreds of specimens from far distant places. He established his museum in 1896, and this is the hidden treasure of Birchington.

In Victorian tradition, the mounted animals, prepared by the famous taxidermist Rowland Ward, are presented in dioramas and give us a rare view of what the natural world was like during the Major’s days of expeditionary travel. Sadly, a visit ends up as an effective reminder that we now live in a very diminished and impoverished time despite all conservation efforts. The dioramas present a very poignant message of biodiversity lost.

We did not have much time to see all the displays, but immediately I saw animals now extinct  – the Northern White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni – pictured above) -  and animals critically endangered like the Hirola (Beatragus hunteri) of which there might be 300 animals left, the Simien Wolf of Ethiopia (Canis simiensis) of which 200 might now survive, the East African Golden Cat (Profelis aurata cottoni), the Southern Roan Antelope (Hippotragus equinus cottoni), the Angolan Colobus Monkey (Colobus angolensis cottoni), etc. Note all those subspecies named “cottoni” – after the Major. Evidently in his day he was able to collect these specimens readily that 100 years later can hardly be found in the wild.  In all, about seven subspecies of mammals ranging from cats to primates were named after the Major.

As a graphic reminder of the times we live in, in April this year thieves attempted to steal rhino horns collected by the Major. Fortunately the curators had replaced the horns with fakes after a previous successful robbery of the Natural History Museum at Tring of horns worth £250,000.

Major Powell-Cotton wanted to display to and educate everyone about the wonders of the natural world he encountered. Sadly his modern-day legacy is a snapshot of what once was and what we are soon to lose in the very near future unless we double, triple, quadruple or quintuple our conservation efforts. Major Powell-Cotton would be sadly disappointed at the state of biodiversity in 2012 despite his efforts to educate Victorian England about the splendour he saw and was greatly dedicated to maintain.  

Those were the days my friend
We thought they'd never end
We'd sing and dance forever and a day
We'd live the life we choose
We'd fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.

Lyrics by Mary Hopkins

Picture credit: www.green-blog.org

Read more: MARY HOPKINS - THOSE WERE THE DAYS LYRICS

Posted by Pieter Kat at 12:41

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