Leicester scientist features in Canadian-British documentary providing new insights into life and death of Jumbo the elephant

New insights into the life and mysterious death of Jumbo the elephant – a celebrity animal superstar whose story is said to have inspired the film ‘Dumbo’ – will be revealed in an international documentary featuring Dr Richard Thomas (pictured) from our School of Archaeology and Ancient History on Sunday 7 January.

The documentary, titled ‘Jumbo: The Life of an Elephant Superstar’, will be broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s ‘The Nature of Things’ and builds upon the recent documentary ‘Attenborough and the Giant Elephant’, which was broadcast early last year and saw Dr Thomas team up with Sir David Attenborough to explore Jumbo’s story and how our attitude towards captive elephants has changed dramatically in recent years.

As part of the project Dr Thomas spent a week in New York analysing Jumbo’s skeleton, which offered vital clues into Jumbo’s life and controversial death.

Dr Thomas worked with Professor John Hutchinson (Royal Veterinary College) and Dr Holly Miller (University of Nottingham) to build a biography of Jumbo’s life – with the hope of resolving the long-standing mystery of how he died.

As part of the analysis the team were given unique access to Jumbo’s skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History.

‘Jumbo: The Life of an Elephant Superstar’ is presented by science broadcaster David Suzuki and examines Jumbo’s forgotten skeleton, building a picture of the course of his life and revealing how a lack of knowledge about elephants at the time affected Jumbo.

Dr Thomas said: “Jumbo is perhaps the most famous elephant in the world. His name is now used as an adjective to describe everything from passenger planes to toilet roll. His story is both captivating and tragic. Born in Sudan in 1860 he was captured as a calf and transported to a zoo in Paris, before arriving at London Zoo in 1865 as their first African elephant. Whilst at London he became the pride of the Zoo, often giving walks to children around the city.

“In America he became centrepiece of the Greatest Show on Earth, a travelling circus that traversed the length of the US and Canada. Unfortunately, Jumbo died in tragic circumstances: contemporary accounts describe that he was hit by a train while crossing the track to reach his carriage, possibly saving a younger elephant in the process; however, a number of stories emerged at the time suggesting that his death may not have been an accident.”

‘Jumbo: The Life of an Elephant Superstar’ will be broadcast on Sunday 7 January, 2018 at 8:00PM on CBC-TV’s ‘The Nature of Things’.