Local historian Professor Donal McCracken has researched some weird and wonderful animals of Durban over the years.
The professor has written a number of books and is scheduled to speak at the Highway Heritage Society at the end of the month on “Nellie the elephant and other Durban animals of history”.
The establishment of Durban's Zoological Gardens, Mitchell Park Zoo and Robert Jameson Park took place in the early 1900s. This followed a worldwide trend of housing animal collections in public parks or botanic gardens.
According to McCracken's research, the arrival of five Mauritian deer donated by Clara Binns, née Acutt, in 1900 saw the beginnings of Mitchell Park Zoo.
A credible zoological garden was expected to house large animals and, over the years, Durban boasted lions, a leopard, a panther, elephants, a brown bear and a polar bear. Animals were acquired through donations, exchange or purchase and also included baboons, ostriches, a sea elephant, a lynx and yellow albatross, eland, a Cape buffalo, blesbuck, wildebeest and three lemurs. The polar bear was reportedly fond of eating mangoes, with its fur turning yellow as a result.
When it started, the park was unique in that it was run by the police department. This came about because the Mitchell Park police station was right next door. Sergeant-in-charge Stanley Apps, a former sergeant in the 7th Hussars cavalry regiment, took on the responsibility of running the zoo.
“Sergeant Apps loved animals and it really came about by default rather than design that he became the curator. He used to sit and talk to the lions,” said McCracken.
Of Durban's animals, McCracken said, the elephants, Bob and Nellie, were among the most well-known and remembered.
The first was an African male elephant named Bob, which arrived in 1909 from Fillis’s Circus and soon became hugely popular for giving rides to children.
But his was a tale of tragedy.
The summer of 1913/14 was exceptionally hot and humid with many of the animals suffering in the heat.
“The subtropical heat of Durban did not suit some of the animals; for example, the brown bear lost all its fur. The heat may have had an effect, Bob turned rogue and took the mahout on his back and slammed him on the ground,” said McCracken.
A newspaper report at the time details how the elephant knelt on the mahout “rolling him to death”. Bob was put into an elephant corral and eventually shot.
With an equally tragic end, Nellie the elephant is perhaps Durban's most legendary animal. An Indian elephant, she was presented to the park by an Indian prince in 1927. She was hugely popular with children, could pretend to clean her teeth, play the mouth organ, turn on the tap for some water and crush coconuts with her foot. Her birthday became an annual social event for children.
But by 1944, Nellie was becoming unmanageable and was sent to Australia's Taronga Zoo in Sydney.
“Used to people, she was very lonely. She was kept in an enclosure and as she tried to reach across the pit to touch people, she fell into the ditch and broke her back,” said McCracken. She was put to sleep.
Admiral the Tortoise, which celebrates his 106th birthday this month, and which was featured in The Independent on Saturday recently, has no doubt seen it all during his life as Durban's oldest park animal. The giant tortoise from the Seychelles was donated in 1915 by a naval officer, who dropped off Admiral and two other tortoises in a cigar box, with the promise he would be back to claim them. But he never returned and Admiral still lives in Mitchell Park with three female tortoises.
McCracken said Durban had many wild animals in the early days of the city, which roamed in the forests and bush areas. Durban had high standing forest, good timber for shipbuilding, which was very rare compared with the lower coastal forest.
“Glenwood had a woodland which was more open than the thick dense bush where Florida Road is now, which was a great place for buffalo,” said McCracken, adding that Berea was home to “a large number of python and leopard.
"There were hundreds of leopards which were a great irritation as they would take dogs. Leopards have no fear, so they would hunt in town.”
An elephant troop, estimated to number about 300, would move across the Berea and go to the uMgeni River, but hunters arriving in 1824 decimated the elephant population.
According to McCracken, the ivory shipped out of Durban docks was primarily used for making billiard balls and piano keys. There was also a roaring trade in buffalo hide.
While the original roads of Durban have been said to follow the old elephant paths, McCracken said this would only be true of a few roads, such as Montpelier, which follows a winding direction.
“There were also all the great birds of prey such as eagles, as well as flamingos and pelicans,” he said.
The pelicans died out in the late 1880s but returned in the late 1990s when they started nesting in the Botanic Gardens.
And while Durban has been home to an immense number of animals, McCracken said giraffe are not indigenous to this area.
“The only early reference to giraffe was in Swaziland in 1897,” he said.