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The search for Levaillant’s Unicorn – Paris, September 2018

Bloubok in Paris Natural History Museum

‘I first mistook it for a white horse for, from the place where I had stayed put, it looked totally white to me (up to then I had never seen this kind of antelope), but I knew better as soon as I saw its horns.’ (Levaillant, Travels, vol 1.)

Where did the Bloubok, Blue Antelope (Hippotragus leucophaeus) in the Paris Natural History Museum (MNHN) come from?  In First Safari I explained why I thought it was Levaillant’s, based on my discovery of the sale of his collection to the Museum and the lack of any historical record of Gordon’s animal, but I had never been able to examine the specimen closely.

So, a report on my September 2018 trip to Paris and the Museum and why I am more convinced than ever that this was Levaillant’s animal.



It was quite an experience to go into the empty hall of extinct animals on a Tuesday when the museum is closed to the public. I was fortunate to have Josephine Lesur and Jacques Cuisin of the Museum to help and instruct me.

The label attributing the Bloubok to Delegorgue, a French hunter and naturalist who only returned to France after 1840, has been removed. I discovered a letter in the museum’s archives that may explain why Delegorgue ever got mentioned: in 1846 he wrote a letter to Daubenton saying that he had sold three Sable antelope to the Museum. It seems quite likely that the confusion arose because of this.

In her monograph on the Bloubok, Erna Mohr describes the specimen as dust-drenched and uniformly grey. Jacques Cuisin who is an expert on the conservation and taxidermy side explained to me that the animals are regularly cleaned and a close inspection of the now cleaned up animal showed details that Mohr was unable to appreciate.

The first surprise was to see Jacques touching the specimen. I asked if he was not worried about a residue of arsenic soap, the method earlier conservators used to preserve specimens. He explained cheerfully to me that the arsenic soap is not put outside the specimen but inside the skin to repel insects coming from outside and also to kill any internal organisms. I have to confess that I’d written about the arsenic soap many times but hadn’t realised that…

The next surprise was to see how much stitching there was on the skin of the animal. In his study, Renshaw talked about Levaillant’s hunter who skinned the animal having worked in a clumsy way, leaving a large gash on the hide, but Jacques said that the way the animal had been skinned was typical of the time in order to produce a very flat hide that would be easier to transport. There is in fact a Gordon illustration of a Roan antelope hide that he sent to the Hague that to me seems to have been skinned in rather different places to the specimen in Paris, though this is something I am trying to confirm with Jacques.


Bloubok Skin

Bloubok frontlegs


I was interested in the measurements of the animal, particularly given that Gordon had given an exact measurement for the height of his specimen at the withers. But Jacques pointed out that as hides dry, there is often a change in these measurements. The discrepancy between Gordon’s own measurement and the actual height of the Paris specimen thus probably does not prove very much.

The next point that Jacques made was that the Levaillant illustration was almost certainly done from a mounted specimen rather than from a skin or from real life. If we assume that the same is true for Gordon’s sketch, then the only real argument for Gordon as the hunter of the specimen in Paris would be that his sketch is closer to the animal than Levaillant’s. This was certainly Mohr’s impression and the best reason she could produce.

A few notes on the photographs: the use of flash was not permitted and the Bloubok is in a glass box with a wooden frame that prevented a full side on portrait. Given the dim lighting, though helped by torches being used by Jacques and Josephine, it is impossible to say what the original colour of the animal is. Nonetheless, this cleaned up specimen certainly seemed lighter in colour than any Roan or Sable antelope and not the uniform dull grey that Mohr described.

My close inspection and photographs of the specimen have hardened me in my conviction that she was wrong. Based on the photographs here, what do you think?



The measurements

What ‘hard’ evidence do we have? Gordon includes a measuring rod to give scale at the right of his original illustration (though this does not appear in the version one can download from the Rijksmuseum website), giving the height at the withers as 3 Rhenish feet and 6 inches, or about 110 cm. Renshaw in his measurements of the Paris specimen says it was 45 inches or about 114 cm at the withers.  Mohr gives two measurements for the withers in Paris: Stockmaß as 111.5 and Bandmaß as 120. Can anybody explain what those terms mean? Some Googling suggests that one is the hand height at the withers while the Bandmaß is measured with a tape measure. Why should they be different?

And what, you ask, are the withers and why do they matter? The Van Leen illustration of the Bloubok bending to graze in the King’s Map inset makes it clear. When the head is down, the withers are the highest point of the body. I made it 112 cm. In any event, Mohr does not consider the Gordon measurement at all or account for the discrepancy. Levaillant unfortunately never gave any measurements of his animal.


Bloubok on map


The other piece of evidence is to be found in the horns and particularly in the number of annulations or rings in the horns – in First Safari I described my attempts to count these in the gloom. On the Gordon illustration, where the horns are swept back sharply, there seem to be about 23 on the left horn and 25 on the right. In Levaillant’s case, where the horns are much more upright, the Parliamentary and Leiden illustrations differ. The Parliamentary illustration shows about 23 annulations, while the Leiden University illustration has 27 or 28. The Paris museum specimen has, as the pictures show, 28. If we take the latter illustration as the more accurate depiction, Levaillant has a crucial detail matching. The fact that the Gordon horns seem to be proportionately longer and have fewer annulations than the Paris specimen also counts against Mohr’s hypothesis.



Bloubok real front horns


My own claim in First Safari is that Levaillant’s illustrations are closer to the overall impressions of a horse antelope than Gordon’s. Is there any way of showing this objectively from the illustrations? First, look at the proportion of head and ears to horns. In the Paris specimen itself and in the Levaillant illustrations, the length of head and ears together is almost exactly the same as that of the horns measured in a direct line from base to tip. In the Gordon illustration, the horns are significantly longer.

A second impression is that the neck in the Gordon illustration is too long proportionately. If one compares the length of the body from the base of the tail to where the neck starts rising to the length of the neck, it is almost exactly twice as long in both Levaillant illustrations and in the Paris specimen. In the Gordon illustration, however, the distance from the base of the tail to where the neck starts rising is only about 60% bigger than the neck length. In two cases, the illustrations both seem inaccurate compared to the specimen. Both have too much of the body in front of the withers or where the neck starts rising. If one measures from the base of the tail to the tip of the nose, the withers are about half way in both illustrations, whereas in the actual specimen, the distance from tail to withers is about 25% greater than the distance from withers to nose tip. Another detail that is puzzlingly incorrect in both sketches is the position of the eyes relative to the horns. Both depictions show the eyes well forward of the horns, while the specimen has the eyes more or less directly below the horns, which seems right if one looks at Sable or Roan antelope heads.

What of the grazing Bloubok depicted in the King’s Map? Did the artist here, known to be Van Leen, base this reconstruction of the animal Levaillant had seen grazing and on a specimen? The proportions are very similar to those in Levaillant’s other illustrations and in the Paris specimen. The head and ears are slightly longer than the horns, while the distance from withers to tip of nose is nearly as long as the distance from withers to base of tail.

Other details

There are other minor details that suggest that if both Gordon and Levaillant were sketching their specimens, that Levaillant’s is the more likely to be based on the one in the museum. The tail hairs, for example, are bushy and prominent in Gordon’s illustration, and skimpy at best in Levaillant’s and the museum specimen. Another is that the prominent coils and swirls in the hair pattern of Gordon’s illustration are not nearly as close to the actual texture of the hide as Levaillant’s illustrations.


We have a clear documentary trail for Levaillant’s sale of his Bloubok to the MNHN and the recognition from St Hilaire that his collection had yielded three new mammals. There is also a long tradition that the animal came from him. Against that, we have an argument lacking evidence at every step of the chain: there is, as I reconfirmed in Holland, no record that Gordon’s animal that went to Allamand made its way to William V’s collection at The Hague nor that, if it or any other Bloubok did, that it was taken to Paris as part of the confiscated collection. We have only the vague second hand claim from Cornwallis Harris and Mohr’s claim that there was an overwhelming similarity between the Paris specimen and Gordon’s illustration.

This claim does not, I submit, stand up to scrutiny. In crucial details, Levaillant’s illustrations are much closer to the Paris museum specimen than Gordon’s. The claim for the Gordon provenance thus surely collapses, leaving us with a simple, well-documented provenance… Welcome to Levaillant’s Bloubok!

See for yourself!

Below the three key illustrations: Levaillant’s Leiden University version; Gordon’s version from the Rijksmuseum (without measurements); and the photograph of the Bloubok from Mohr’s book.


Bloubok University version

Bloubok Gordans version

Bloubok Mohrs book

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