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In A Terrible Death, A Great Discovery

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 19, 2011

Eugenio Ruspoli

Readers have been sending in a steady stream of naturalists who lost their lives in the cause of discovery and I have been adding them to the Wall of the Dead.  This one, suggested by reader Cagan Sekercioglu in Utah, caught my eye:

In the early 1890s, the Italian government sent out a mission to secure its colonial pretensions to an Ethiopian protectorate.  Prince Eugenio Ruspoli, the son of the mayor of Rome and scion of a venerable noble family, seems to have played the multiple roles of emissary, leader of a conquering military force, explorer, and great white hunter.

He apparently wrote a book about his time in Ethiopia, In the land of Unexplored Africa and Mirra, published in Italian in 1892.

The following year, Ruspoli led an expedition to the Amara Mountains.  In his 1897 book Through Unknown African Countries, the American explorer Arthur Donaldson Smith suggests that Ruspoli traveled with a large armed force and frequently waged war on local tribes.  He also came to a violent end:

I now learned that Prince Ruspoli had got as far as the Amara, having followed up the river Jub far to the north of my line of march, and that he had been killed by an elephant near the foot of the Amara Mountains.  The chief told me that Ruspoli had spent a long time in his village, and that after his death his body had been taken up the mountain again and buried alongside of the graves of some noted chiefs.  One of the Amara told me that he was an eye-witness of the thrilling scene of Ruspoli’s last hunt.

When he reached the Galana Amara with his caravan, death overtook him.  In the open plain ahead of his line of march appeared a large elephant.  Ruspoli, who was ahead, motioned to his caravan to stop, and walked out alone to have a try for the beast.  He crept to within thirty yards, and fired.  Suddenly the huge animal turned on him, and in the twinkling of an eye the Prince was suspended aloft in the grasp of that powerful trunk.

To the excited natives, powerless to interfere, it seemed an interminable time that the beast kept swinging Ruspoli about in the air before he lowered the body to the ground and stamped out the little life that was left.


Ruspoli's turaco

But in his baggage, Ruspoli had left behind a spectacular discovery, a specimen of the brightly colored bird that would later become known as Ruspoli’s turaco (Tauraco ruspolii).  It was named by T. Salvadori, who studied and wrote about Ruspoli’s collection.  You can find out more about the species here.

(A curious sidenote, you can now rent the Ruspoli family’s villa outside Rome.)

4 Responses to “In A Terrible Death, A Great Discovery”

  1. Thank you for your acknowledgement. It took me a lot of work to get the local observation permits, a 3AM drive from Yabelo (southern Ethiopia) through bandit (shifta) country, desperate efforts to convince the local warden, and a nine hour struggle to see this bird, but it was nothing compared to what the prince experienced. It was definitely worth it for this rare, beautiful specialized, and threatened bird that was chosen from among 2105 African bird species to illustrate the cover of the Field Guide to the Birds of Africa.

    On November 2,2007, at about 7AM, we finally got to the rocky outcrop in Arero, Ethiopia where one gets to see see the forest from above. After 1.5 hours of no sightings, we decided to head to another nearby site where they are sometimes seen. The very second I turned my back to the forest, one turaco flew over the forest and was seen by our driver. So we waited another half hour, hearing the turaco call from the forest but no sightings. Then I decided to go down some vines that dangled from the rocky outcrop, towards the sounds. Just as I started going down, covered in dirt, I heard the rest of our group shout, when the turaco flew over the canopy again. I was very frustrated. After another 45 minutes of waiting, two people in our group decided to go into the forest. This time I decided to wait and was quite upset when they got to see it inside the forest and I did not, for the third time in three hours. By now, it was 11AM and I went down the rock into the forest. After half an hour, I finally spotted it. I could see everything but the diagnostic part of the face, and I climbed a tree to get a better look. When I saw the white markings on the face, I realized it was the similar but widespread species the white-cheeked turaco, which I had seen many times and which was not supposed to be here. I wondered how many birders came to Arero, saw a white-cheeked turaco in flight and assumed it was Prince Ruspoli’s. We were back to square one and it was almost noon, with all the birds now quiet. As a last ditch attempt, we went to the other good site, but after 20 minutes of not hearing or seeing a single bird, we gave up and headed towards the vehicle. 10 meters before we got to it, I heard the raucous rattle of a turaco and looked to my right. There they were, two Prince Ruspoli’s turacos in full view! As I got one in my binoculars it raised its beautiful pale pink crest and I was in heaven.

    Cagan Sekercioglu
    Department of Biology
    University of Utah

  2. […] Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco, whose first specimen was found in the prince’s hunting bag after he was trampled to death, age 27, by an angry […]

  3. Matt said

    I came across your page today– three years after it was posted, I realize– but perhaps you might still check this site and comment. As you know and acknowledge, “the Italian government sent out a mission to secure its colonial pretensions to an Ethiopian protectorate,” and Ruspoli was one of the many who participated in this endeavor. Yet you include him “naturalists who lost their lives in the cause of discovery,” a celebratory list. The motives were far from honorable, and more in the spirit of conquering than of discovery. I don’t mean to imply that this is intentional, but are you concerned that examples such as this one might overly celebrate colonial and imperial activity? Perhaps new information was uncovered about animal species, but at what cost?

    • Matt, you are no doubt right about his motives. My impression is that Ruspoli was a particularly bloody-minded imperialist. But if we confined the history of nineteenth-century discovery to those operating outside the colonial and imperial context, there wouldn’t be much history. Even Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle would be excluded. So what I am celebrating is the work of these explorers as naturalists, not the totality of their lives and beliefs.

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