The great natural history museum collections have at their foundation, specimens collected by 19th century explorers. To look through these collections is to travel back in time to the heyday of exploration; specimens collected by Livingstone, Speke and Stanley are deposited in London, de Brazza, Raffray and Joseph Thomson in Paris whilst the Berlin museum holds specimens collected by Barth, Nachtigal and von Wissmann, but to name a few. These specimens were often new to science and there are many species described with the specific epithet bearing their names.
Many of the explorers wrote about insects encountered during their journey, some devoting a number of pages to their description, habits and most importantly their general nuisance to the traveller. Both Livingstone¹ and Baines² mention the misery inflicted by the Tsetse fly, whilst Speke³ describes an episode where a beetle crawled into his ear whilst camping on Kivira Island on Lake Tanganyika causing him pain and anguish for many months.
However it is James Bruce, who goes into the greatest of detail when describing the Zimb or the Tsaltsalya, a horse-fly belonging to the genus Pangonius he encountered on his journey through Abyssinia. When the flies appear in a swarm, “the cattle forsake their food, and run wildly about the plain, till they die, warn out with fatigue, fright and hunger”⁴. He goes on to add that “those huge animals, the elephant, the rhinoceros, the lion and the tiger, inhabiting the famed woods, are still vastly his inferiors, and that the appearance of this small insect, nay, his very sound, though he is not seen, occasions more trepidation, movement and disorder, both in human and brute creation, than would whole herds of these monstrous animals...”⁵.
My entomological research work in Africa has taken me to many far flung locations from the tropical lowland forests of Sierra Leone to the alpine meadows of the Tanzanian mountains. Each different habitat has their own special species and it is in search of these creatures that I have been lucky enough to travel to places very few have ever visited. A great deal of information about the zoology and botany of an area, as well as the condition and health of the environment, can be derived from sampling and studying the insect fauna.
Hitoshi Takano is an entomologist at the Natural History Museum and has led a number of expeditions retracing Dr Livingstone’s footsteps across Africa’s interior. During his travels he came across many of the same beetle species that Dr Livingstone spotted 150 years before.
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For more information regarding antiquarian travel books or to request our Africa catalogue please contact Julian MacKenzie.