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Take a walk on the wild side in the Archives

Sarah Cox
18 April 2011
Take a walk on the wild side with botanist and plant hunter Henry Ridley, as Sarah discovers his animal encounters!

Recalling one of his expeditions in ‘Travels of Malaya’, written in 1912, Henry Ridley writes that:

I camped once for ten days in the forests… a few hundred yards away was a track so covered with fresh footmarks of elephant rhinoceroses, tapir deer pig and tiger that it was impossible to put down a stick without touching one of these.” (HNR/4/24)


"Janet" the tiger, an image found amongst Ridley's papers in the Archives (Image: RBG Kew)

This passage shines a light into a different side of the collections held at the archives here at Kew, showcasing the extraordinary wonder of the natural world encountered by plant hunters, beyond the botany! ‘Travels in Malaya’ (HNR/4/24) provides a unique insight, which allows us to see the world through the eyes of the intrepid explorer and botanist at the turn of the twentieth century. Michele recently posted a blog post about the plant hunters of Kew, in which she highlighted the courageous and devoted nature of these individuals who endured extended periods of time in lonely and physically challenging environments.

Ridley, Director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens from 1888-1911, spent a great deal of time exploring the surrounding territories. During his travels, it seems that he took a great interest in wildlife. Even at home he showed a keen interest in the animal kingdom. It is said that “until he became bedridden he was a never-failing observer of the birds in Kew Gardens.” (ODNB)

Image of Ridley feeding a tapir (Image: RBG Kew)

We are fortunate that as well as being a ‘versatile and entertaining conversationalist’, Ridley enjoyed and had a talent for expressing his reminiscences to others. Another animal encounter, this time with tigers, is duly recorded in his notes and begins:

I will now give some account of the most superb and beautiful mammal in the world, the great cat known as the tiger...’ (HNR/4/24)

Ridley's Travels of Malaya, HNR/4/24 (Image: RBG Kew)

Ridley’s ensuing description of the tigers in the Malay Peninsula are just one of many poignant accounts found in his papers, particularly in light of the plight of the many wild and now  endangered species in the world’s forests today. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), who last year celebrated the ‘Year of the Tiger’ with a campaign to save the endangered species, threatened by poaching and deforestation. The comparison between what Ridley saw in Malaya and what one might see today after a night camping in the forest may be quite striking!


Further Information 


11 August 2011
The archived personal records of our early botanists / naturalists are an important and fascinating resource. Thanks for sharing this Sarah.
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