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The story about our African elephant

One of the great eye-catchers in the Gothenburg Natural History Museum is the African elephant which stands in the centre of the Mammals gallery. Already at the opening in 1952 visitors rushed to the museum to see it. But how did the great animal get to Gothenburg from Angola? This is the story about our elephant and the man who brought it here.

Already in the 1930s the Gothenburg Natural History Museum was making plans to expand the collections and bring in an elephant. A journey to Angola in the south of Africa was estimated to cost around 20 000 Swedish kronor (which corresponds to about 730 000 SEK in November 2022).

Ultimately the funds were raised. David Sjölander, the museum’s senior curator and taxidermist, would finally be able to realise his dream: to preserve an elephant for the museum.

In the summer of 1948 Sjölander finally started his journey to Angola. He reached the harbour of Lobito in September and established his base in Mossamedes, further south, assisted by a local farmer and hunter. The expedition consisted of about 30 people, not all adults – much to Sjölander’s surprise the men brought their wives and children along.

Sjölander was determined to find a full-grown male elephant, but as it was the dry season the animals had wandered off inland. Not until the 4th of December did he spot THE elephant: a six ton, 45 year old bull.
For a while Sjölander studied the animal’s anatomy and character, made drawings and took photographs. Finally one morning he took his Winchester rifle and shot one bullet straight in the elephant’s heart.
”It dropped straight down. It trumpeted slightly, grabbed the acacia tree and tried to lift itself up and then fell definitively”, Sjölander said afterwards.

People from two villages rushed to assist in the work that followed. It was crucial to skin the elephant quickly. Late at night the job was done, and the hide was processed with salt and chemicals. The elephant was then transported, piece by piece, back to Mossamedes and on to Gullmaren, a motor ship owned by the Gothenburg based shipping company Transatlantic.

In April 1949 the ship reached Ystad harbour, carrying one ton of the elephant’s skin and one ton of it’s skeleton. The cargo was transported from Ystad to Gothenburg by truck.

At the museum it was time to start the assembly. Sjölander built a frame out of wood, iron and steel wire and modelled an anatomically correct sculpture of clay on it. He also used the clay to create a cast for plaster and strenghtened it with sackcloth. 

Simultaneously, in the basement, the janitors were busy processing the skin. It was gradually softened with saline solutions and ultimately with tannins. They also processed the skin to make it thinner. At start it was 5 centimeters thick, in the end only 5 millimeters.

Finally the skin was ready to be put on the frame. But one big obstacle had now become very apparent. The elephant was to have the pride of place in the Mammals gallery, but the work had begun in the lecture hall (currently the library). The connecting doors were small, and the elephant was very large. The solution was a tad drastic: the frame was sawed into pieces and moved to the right location, where the work could be completed. Meanwhile, parts of the Mammals gallery had to be closed for visitors.

As the frame was rebuilt it was time to put on the elephant’s skin. The different parts were stitched together and attached with steel needles. When the eyes were mounted it was time for the finishing touches. Thin layers of plaster were applied to create folds and every crease in the hide was moulded millimeter by millimeter. After drying it was time to apply zapon laquer on the entire outer casing, mask the seams and paint the entire elephant with a true to life colour.

At last Sjölander could view his work. Almost three years had passed since the body parts arrived in Sweden. Now, finally, the mounted elephant was ready for an audience.

The opening on the 28th of March 1952 was a hit. Two weeks later the elephant had already attracted close to 15 000 visitors. On Easter Sunday alone, 4 200 came to the museum. It is truly a breathtaking number of people! Lets compare it with the most visited day in 2022: just over 2 600 people showed up for election day September 11 and the traditional opening of the Malm whale, the only mounted blue whale in the world.

David Sjölander worked at the Gothenburg Natural History Museum between 1925 and 1952 and was considered one of the museum’s – and the world’s – foremost taxidermists of all times. It was often he himself who hunted and shot the animals which he then mounted. The elephant was one of his last projects before his retirement. He died two years later.

In the Mammals gallery you can find more of Sjölander’s work, for instance the zebra, the giraffe and a rhino, which he also brought home from the expedition in Angola.

Updated: 2023-02-16 19:00