Museums and the Early Trophy Hunters

Museums and the Early Trophy Hunters

Museums and the Early Trophy Hunters 

Via: Ashmolean Museum.

Trophy hunting has had a very rough time in the eyes of today’s modern media and society, but who could blame them when all they see is hunters killing endangered animals? When many don’t even realise that trophy hunting has been around longer than most think and has a long and tight history to natural conservation efforts to save and fund the populations of endangered species.

Today we will be exploring the rise of natural history collections and their hunting practices, as well as the contentious debates of trophy hunting to show that it isn’t all doom and gloom. Examining this long and complex history may show why trophy hunting isn’t just an essential part of modern-day conservation plans; many species might already be extinct if these organised avenues were not in place.  

The Long and Complicated History of Conservation and The Hunt

medieval hunting 


Throughout history, there have been close ties between hunters and landowners to ensure the continued management of animal populations. 

Farmers in Medieval Times relied on hunters to keep the wild wolf populations down, so they didn’t kill their sheep. Similarly, lords who weren’t a fan of hunting prey allowed paying hunters to hunt game on their land so that the wild boars were kept down. That money fell into the estate that notably maintained the land and, by keeping specific animal populations down, allowed others to flourish, including flora. 

It wasn't just animals that early conservationists oversaw, but the natural enrichment around them. For example, most people knew of adequate upkeep to a garden or forest to ensure the cabbage or gourd wasn’t overrun by a wild invasive weed. This same logic was applied to certain animal species, for this worked well through managed culling seasons that we still see today. 

The First Natural History Museum

 The First Natural History Museum

Via: The Natural History Museum Hintze Hall in the early 1900s, from The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

The Ashmolean Museum opened in 1683 and was the first natural history museum in the world. It had a vast collection of biological specimens celebrating the world's natural diversity and allowing ordinary citizens to see the wonders of the New World for the first time. Many would never see an elephant in person, but the opportunity to see a stuffed carcass of one killed and brought to the museum allowed them to experience a small part of it.

Museums rose during the age of enlightenment at the backend of the Renaissance, and explorers and antiquarians returned home from their overseas voyages. They brought massive collections of exotic creatures and artefacts from the strange ecosystems of the Americas and Africa. Then, slowly as the collectors died or their collections became too vast, they were donated to public organisations known as museums. 

Museums were open to the public, and their primary role in society was to teach people about history, and in the Ashmolean Museum’s case, the natural one. So you could see walls lined with giant cat heads and turn around to look at a display case with over fifty different beetle colours. Such sights allowed researchers to notice physical differences in species and ask questions about the origins of life and the eventual theory of evolution. 

Hunting for the Collector!

Museum collection of beetles 

Via: Natural History Museum.

Hunting for natural history museums was a highly sought-after and popular endeavour. However, it was an expensive sport to get started on, so only the wealthiest could get in on the excitement. 

But just imagine leaving Europe on a ship destined for the New World. The excitement of having your rifle close as you arrive and explore the unknown, not knowing what strange creatures or remarkable sights you might uncover.  The first to discover something and take it back home to show others a taste of what you caught. All of this would have been enthralling.

Although the number of natural museum hunters cannot be known, we can see by the fact alone that we have many natural history collections today, it was quite a lot. Hunting was already a popular pastime for the upper classes, so even if they were not taking a trip to the New World for hunting, many would have still partaken in it. Most explorers brought back souvenirs of their time abroad, and with many a trip, this slowly added to the collection piles. Many were animals ready to be turned into taxidermized specimens on their return. 


The earliest taxidermists were Ancient Egyptians through their early methods of death preservation. They used oils, injections, and spices to fight off the natural decomposition processes on the bodies of their royalty and people of civic importance, as well as cats and other sacred animals. They also removed certain body parts, such as the brain, with a hook through the nose. Although their preservations are less than stellar by today’s standards, it was okay for the Egyptians, who didn’t care for looks, only bodily survival for the afterlife.

By the time of hunting specimens for museums, taxidermy started to come into an art of its own as clients required the perfect preservation of an animal whilst also making it stand as it did in life. With two seemingly impossible tasks, they managed to find a way to do both!

The earliest known ceiling mount was a crocodile hanging from the ceiling in Ponte Nossa, Italy, dated to 1534 (although it could be much older than that). It survived so well because the rough skin requires little retouching.

The early taxidermists stuffed the shells of specimens with sawdust and rags, which often gave them a disfigured appearance compared to how modern-day specialists used sculptured mannequins today. 

The First ‘Modern’ Trophy Hunters

 The First ‘Modern’ Trophy Hunters. Man with cheetah.

Via: Wikipedia.

Before the late 1800s, hunting exotic animals and big game was not heavily regulated. Anyone could go to Africa essentially, kill a lion and get it brought back home and made into a museum exhibit. Although the most damaging hunting came from those seeking rare and expensive parts of an animal for profit, when governments started to bring in legation, this aided in minimising the drastic population decline.

By the end of the 1800s, the population numbers of native fauna in places like Africa had drastically declined with the impact of colonisation from the west over the previous centuries.  For example, 30 million bison resided in Africa before colonisation and fell to just 1000 by the time conservation programs were set up.

To maintain population sizes, conservation programs were started. Part of the funding came from wealthy trophy hunters who would pay big bucks to get a slice of the exotic but give money towards setting up programs to protect and return the decimated populations to the rise. Even if endangered species were killed as part of this, there was a limit to who and how many could be killed each year, and the money paid for these kills was put towards increasing the surviving animals slowly but surely.  

Famous trophy hunters included Frederick Selous, W. D. M. Bell, and Samuel Baker. Although they made their careers hunting big game, they were serious environmentalists and naturalists who exemplified ethical hunting practices. By the end of their lives, they had helped set up extensive conseration efforts in Africa to fund trophy hunting opportunities and save the impacts on the populations made by overhunting. 

The Future of Trophy Hunting?

Free Black and white of sharp antlers of wild deer hanging on white background in light room with decoration and shadow Stock Photo

Via: Free Stock Photo.

Today trophy hunting is still a taboo, even if it has helped in conservation efforts. We can only hope that eventually, the public will see that in some of the worst impacted areas of the world, trophy hunting is essential to funding the long-term conservation of endangered species like lions, tigers and elephants. Although, in an ideal world, if money could be found through other avenues to stop the slaughter of these magnificent species, that would also be amazing. However, there will always be those that seek to hunt these animals, so why not regulate it so that we don’t turn back to the old ways of illegal overhunting?

Final Remarks: Museums and the Early Trophy Hunters

Man with kill on back, poses with rifle.  

Via: Wikipedia.

From this deep dive into the history of museums and early trophy hunters, we have learnt that to maintain natural conservation efforts, trophy hunting is an essential part of that ecosystem. Whether we like it or not, it's better to keep legal avenues in place to allow those that want to hunt big game to pay for the opportunity, or they will find other ways to fulfil these goals in an unregulated way. 

Regulation is important as we don’t want to go back to the wild west of trophy hunting when animal populations dipped and many went extinct due to overhunting. It also ensures that hunters pay their way forward to upkeep these systems and practice ethical hunting despite killing these animals for sport. 

There are a lot of benefits to trophy hunting outside of the conservation payments, from the specimens in museums that taught visitors about the wonderful natural world. These visits to the museums inspired many people to take up lifelong careers in the natural sciences and gain a love for animal life. So maybe it's time we helped rewrite society’s definition of trophy hunting to be something for the greater good, not pure mindless evil.

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