Model of Obaysch, by Joseph Gawen. Figure constructed of Nile mud, on carved wooden base, with gilded plaque on side, c1855.

by Ann Sylph on

This month's artefact is a model of Obaysch, the famous hippo that arrived at London Zoo in May 1850.

Obaysch the first hippopotamus, a sculpture made from Nile mud, Joseph Gawen, circa 1855
Obaysch sculpture made from Nile mud, Joseph Gawen, circa 1855


The sculpture can be found in ZSL Library, the label next to it reads:

In 1849 H.M. Abbas Pasha, Viceroy of Egypt, presented to H.M. Queen Victoria a young hippopotamus named Obaysch - the first hippopotamus to be seen in Great Britain and, so it is believed, the first hippopotamus to be imported alive into Europe since the Imperial Exhibitions in the Arenas of Ancient Rome.

The history of Obaysch's capture is recorded by Samuel Shepheard, the founder of Shepheard's Hotel, Cairo, who wrote on November 14th, 1849:- "In the spring of the year, Inshallah!, your London visitors will be gratified with a sight of one of our river monsters - the Hippopotamus. Our consul here, the Honble Mr Murray, having expressed a wish to have one sent to England, where such a thing had never yet been seen, His Highness ordered off a Captain with a troop of twenty men to proceed up the interior of Africa to follow the course of the white river and not to return without one. After having been five months away they have returned and brought a very fine specimen 5 or 6 months old. He is yet a suckling and drinks 80 pints of milk at a meal and, unwieldy as he is, plays about with the keeper like a great fat pet pig with a square head. The Pasha has presented him to Mr Murray."

The young hippopotamus was transported to London and in 1850 the Hippo House in the London Zoo was built to accommodate Obaysch, which lived there until its death in 1878. This model, commissioned by Samuel Shepheard, was bequeathed to the Zoological Society of London in 1946 by his grandson, the Reverend G.S. Bird, FZS.


Visting the Library

If you are a member of ZSL, please bring your ZSL membership card when visiting the Library. If you are not a member you will need to show proof of address and photographic ID - this is essential.

Although much of the Library is open access, an appointment is needed to view historic books and archives. Please email to make an appointment or telephone 02074496293

Select a blog

Careers at ZSL

Our people are our greatest asset and we realise our vision for a world where wildlife thrives through their ideas, skills and passion. An inspired, informed and empowered community of people work, study and volunteer together at ZSL.

Nature at the heart of global decision making

At ZSL, a key area of our work is the employment of Nature-based Solutions – an approach which both adapt to and mitigates the impacts of climate change. These Solutions, which include habitat protection and restoration, are low-cost yet high-impact, and provide multiple benefits to people and wildlife. We ensure that biodiversity recovery is at the heart of nature-based solutions. 

ZSL London Zoo

A blog for lovers of ZSL London Zoo, bringing you extraordinary animal facts and exclusive access to the world's oldest scientific zoo.

ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

Do you love wildlife? Discover more about our amazing animals at the UK's biggest zoo!


We're working around the world to conserve animals and their habitats, find out more about our latest achievements.


From the field to the lab, catch up with the scientists on the cutting edge of conservation biology at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.


A day in Discovery and Learning at ZSL is never dull! The team tell us all about the exciting sessions for school children, as well as work further afield.

Artefact of the month

Every month, one of the pieces held in ZSL’s Library and at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will feature here as Artefact of the Month.

Wild About

Read testimonials from our Members and extracts from ZSL's award winning members' magazine, Wild About.

Chagos Expedition

The Chagos archipelago is a rare haven for marine biodiversity. Hear from the team about our projects to protect the environments in the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).

Asia Conservation Programme

ZSL works across Asia, from the famous national parks of Nepal to marine protected areas in the Philippines. Read the latest updates on our conservation.

Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation

An Open Access journal for research at the interface of remote sensing, ecology and conservation.