This skull of a female Western Lowland Gorilla was collected on 5 March 1935, between the towns of Batouri and Lomie, an area of Cameroon that was under French colonial control from 1922 until 1960.

This skull belongs to a collection that came to the Museum through Fred Merfield, an English hunter who lived in Cameroon for many years between 1910 and the 1940s. Merfield obtained specimens on behalf of Percy Powell-Cotton, and for other museums, universities and private collectors, during the 1930s.

Merfield had little money, and to make a living from selling animal remains as scientific specimens he needed to sell a lot of them. To be able to collect large numbers of animals, he would offer to pay communities to hunt and bring specimens to him. This gorilla skull was collected by local Kako or Mézimé people, and the collector was paid five Francs for it. Only the skull was taken from this animal, so it isn’t clear whether it was hunted or if the skull was found and picked up.

The local name for the gorilla is listed by Merfield as ‘Ngili’. The language isn’t recorded, but it is probably from one of the local Bantu dialects spoken by the Kako and Mézimé people.

By 1930 the practice of paying Indigenous people to hunt and collect animals was made illegal under French colonial law, and gorillas were protected by game laws. Even with a special ‘scientific permit’, the maximum number of animals of any species allowed to be collected in 1930 was three. However, in 1935 alone Fred Merfield shipped the remains of 51 gorillas back to the UK, for the Powell-Cotton collection and for sale. In total, the Museum houses 244 gorilla specimens, of which 158 were obtained through Merfield. It is likely that the majority of these animals were killed and collected illegally. Merfield was wary of being caught but was probably able to continue collecting because he had good relationships with many of the local officials, who turned a blind eye. The Indigenous people who were exploited by Merfield do not carry the blame for this wildlife crime – they were simply offered a way of making a living. Fred Merfield was also being exploited by Percy Powell-Cotton to some extent: Powell-Cotton was keen to build a large collection of primates, and encouraged Merfield to collect as many animals as he could.

Our knowledge that these animals were killed and transported out of Cameroon illegally brings up some interesting ethical questions for their curation. At a time when more publicity is being given to communities campaigning for the return of looted cultural items, what does this mean for natural history collections? Can animals also be thought of as loot?