Remembering William Burchell

by Ann Sylph on

This month we remember William Burchell as it is 150 years since his death, at the same time we feature some historic photographs to celebrate the opening of a special photography exhibition at ZSL London Zoo displaying the winning entries in the The ZSL Animal Photography Prize 2013.

William Burchell (1781-1863) an explorer and naturalist, began his career as an apprentice at Kew Gardens. In his early 20s he moved to St. Helena where whilst working as a school master, he described the flora, fauna and geology of the island. He then went to South Africa travelling thousands of miles and covering huge distances, collecting over 63,000 specimens. He named and described the first white rhinoceros known to science, named then as Rhinoceros simus, now Ceratotherium simum(Burchell, 1817). His account of his travels together with his illustrations are published in Travels in the interior of Southern Africa, London : Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1822-24.

According to BBC Wildlife magazine `contrary to popular belief, however he did not name Burchell's zebra. That was the work of John Edward Gray, keeper of zoology at the British Museum. Burchell had bickered with Gray over damage sustained to his collection, and Gray retaliated by naming a zebra Asinus burchelli (with `asinus' translating as `ass')'

These stunning photographs of Burchell's zebra are part of ZSL's historic photographic collections. The images were taken at ZSL London Zoo by T.J. Dixon circa 1885. Sadly this subspecies became extinct circa 1910. The subspecies is now renamed as Equus burchelli burchelli but sometimes also referred to as Equus quagga burchelli.

Burchell's zebra 1885

These images of Burchell's zebra are reproduced in London Zoo from old photographs 1852-1914 - 2nd ed / John Edwards, London : Published by the author, 2012. This book features many of the photographs in our historic photograph collections together with images from a wide range of sources. John's book is available from ZSL's Gift Shops and ZSL Library. It can be ordered online from ZSL's Online Shop *

A pair of burchell zebra at ZSL London Zoo by T.J. Dixon circa 1885

Other references and further reading :

Mammal species of the world : Volume 1 - 3rd ed / edited by Don E. Wilson and DeeAnn M. Reeder, Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005

The man who was ... was luckier in science than he was in love: William Burchell (1781-1863) BBC Wildlife, 2013, Vol. 31, No. 7, p. 96

Burchell's original specimens of Rhinoceros simus by A.J.E. Cave, Proceedings of the Zoological Society, 1962, Vol. 139, No. 4, pp.691-700

Burchell's rhinocerotine drawings by A.J.E. Cave, Proceedings of the Linnean Society of London, 1947, Vol. 159, No. 2, pp.141-146

Review of the European perception of the African rhinoceros by L.C. Rookmaaker, Journal of Zoology, 2005, Vol. 265, pp. 365-376 DOI:10:1017/S0952836905006436

These historic photographs form part of the `special collections' in ZSL Library, you are welcome to visit and consult/view them but an appointment is necessary. Please email or telephone 020 447 6293 to make an appointment.

Many resources are available in ZSL Library and no appointment is necessary to use these, however if you are a ZSL member please bring your membership card. Non-members will need proof of address and photographic ID if you are not already a member of ZSL.

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