Raf De Bont has an article in the next issue of Environmental History. “The Economy of Rarity: Animal-Catching, Cryptozoology, and the Mid-Twentieth-Century Zoo” is available ahead of print and open access HERE.
From the mid-twentieth century onward, zoological gardens across the world gradually developed an agenda of ex situ conservation. An obvious prerequisite for such an agenda to succeed was that the zoos in question obtained endangered animals from the wild. This article analyzes the “economy of rarity” created by this demand by focusing on the career of the Swiss couple Emy and Charles Cordier, who made a business of catching, acclimatizing, and transporting rare wildlife for some of the oldest and most prestigious zoos in the world. Beyond trading elusive animals, the Cordiers acted as producers and mediators of knowledge about these creatures, and they set up expeditions to find completely unknown and legendary ones—thus engaging in the (pseudo)science of cryptozoology. The success of their business drew on the broad cultural fascination for the rare, the elusive, and the unknown that characterized the mid-twentieth-century international zoo world. While the trade of the Cordiers—supported by a rhetoric of Western discovery—produced new types of knowledge, it also created and perpetuated ignorance. Moreover, the work of Emy and Charles Cordier highlights the ambiguities of the movement of animals associated with early ex situ conservation. Despite being presented as acts of “rescue” and “care,” their trade inherently involved violence, practices of extraction, and power imbalances between the Global South and the Global North.
Bernard Heuvelmans’s two-volume Sur la piste des bêtes ignorées (1955). Credit: Photo of covers by author.
Top Image: Charles and Emy Cordier showing a Congo peacock at a press moment with the president of the New York Zoological Society, Fairfield Osborn, in 1949. Credit: Image courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society, BZ_1949-06-23.