Live by the gun; Die by the gun

While I’m sorry, of course, that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, there’s a little bit of me that feels he had it coming to him. I speak not on behalf of Serbian nationalism, but on behalf of Antipodean wildlife.

Last year when I was in Vienna I visited the Natural History Museum. There are some wonderful items in this rather fusty old museum, including the Venus of Willendorf and other archaeological treasures, but also far too many dead animals and birds, which don’t really do it for me. Franz Ferdinand shot an amazing number of these animals during a world tour on the Imperial battle cruiser Kaiserin Elizabeth in 1893, accompanied by his own personal taxidermist and a zoologist from the Imperial Natural History Museum.

His voyage took him to the Pacific, visiting Australia and New Zealand, then northwards, touching at New Caledonia, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, then on across Indonesia to Thailand, Hong Kong and Japan. From Yokohama he crossed the Pacific to Vancouver, before heading for home across Canada and the Atlantic.

His voyage had political implications, an attempt by Imperial Austria to show that it was still a player on the world stage, but by the 1890s, the Pacific Islands were being drawn into other orbits: Britain (Solomons, 1893), Germany (New Guinea, 1884) and the United States (Hawaii, 1898).

Franz Ferdinand just kept shooting wherever he went.

Kakapo 1873

Walter Lawry Buller, A History of the Birds of New Zealand,1873.

The New Zealand kakapo is one of the world’s most endangered species. It is a tubby, utterly inoffensive flightless parrot, which can live for 80 years or longer and reproduces very slowly. As of March 2014, according to Wikipedia, there are just 126 kakapo alive. I counted 5 faded and molting kakapo in the Vienna Museum, thanks to Franz Ferdinand and his party. There was a thylacine, now extinct, as well as other inoffensive Australian animals such as koalas and platypus. They all looked rather moth-eaten and sad.

During 1893 Franz Ferdinand shot his way around the world. The next year, back in Vienna, he met and fell in love with Countess Sophie Chotek. Although a countess, she wasn’t sufficiently noble for a Habsburg and their marriage was morganatic.

Franz Ferdinand continued to shoot animals wherever he went, recording his kills in his diaries. Someone equally anally retentive has subsequently gone to his diaries and counted. During his truncated life, he killed some 300,000 animals and birds. He came from a hunting culture, and perhaps a Prince needs to be a good shot. I can forgive him most of those deaths – but not the kakapos.

New Zealanders already knew by the 1890s that the kakapo population was declining. First the Maori with their rats, then Europeans with their cats, had decimated the birds, although because they are so long lived, it took a while to realize how seriously endangered they were. The first ineffectual efforts at conservation began in the 1890s – but declining numbers just provided an incentive for museum collectors to get one before they died out. Hunters and collectors can be equally acquisitive.

Like the kakapo and the thylacine, Habsburg Archdukes were also heading for extinction by the 20th century, and that day in Sarajevo was to set the fuse. Hard luck on Sophie, and several million war dead.

Shane Maloney, ‘Archduke Franz Ferdinand & the Platypus’, in The Monthly, May 2011

5 responses to “Live by the gun; Die by the gun

  1. Yes. The piece by Shane deserves a plug. Honest History noticed also this: Lord Lansdowne pays tribute to the ‘manliness’ and ‘ability’ of the Archduke, possibly referring to his markmanship.

    • Yes, apparently the parrot concerned is named Sirocco, and he was appointed ‘spokesbird’ for conservation by the NZ PM in 2010 after his shagging activities reached an audience of millions on YouTube. Go Sirocco!

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