I discovered these intersections among history, ecology and cognitive dissonance thanks to my own travels and PBS’s recent documentary, The American Buffalo. Part Two of the series covers late nineteenth-century conservation efforts. Ironically, some rugged frontier types who had engaged in wanton slaughter of bison in the 1870s numbered among the species’ most avid preservers by the end of the century – once they’d recognized the looming danger of extinction.
One such personality was Buffalo Jones, a Kansas settler and hunter-turned-breeder, appointed Yellowstone’s first game warden by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. Around 1890 he’d complained that a military detachment stationed in the park shirked its duty of wildlife protection.
As I heard these accounts, I wondered if the program narrator would mention Archduke Franz Ferdinand, as I was already familiar with his passion for hunting and his visit to North America in the 1890s. When his name didn’t come up in the documentary, I did a little online research and found that, indeed, there was a connection between this member of the Habsburg family and one of America’s most well-known national parks, which I’ll return to later.
But first, a little background...
I’d been curious about the Archduke since high school lessons on the outbreak of WWI, but it wasn’t until about fifteen years later, that I first visited Konopischt, his estate outside Prague. By this time, I’d spent five years teaching English in Slovakia, which like the Czech Republic had been part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and had steeped myself in the history of that empire.
On that occasion, Konopischt was a side trip, allowing only enough time for a self-guided stroll through the Archduke’s collection of armor, one of the largest in Europe. Though brief, it was an eye-opening snippet of his world. Thanks to an inheritance from his cousin, Duke of Modena and last male of the House of Este, he’d become one of the wealthiest men in Austria in 1875, which explains how he’d been able to afford all the chain mail suits, helmets, swords and jousting lances of various periods.
In 1889, as a result of the suicide of another relative, the Crown Prince Rudolf (at his hunting lodge, no less), Ferdinand became heir apparent to the imperial throne of Austria. Just three years later, he embarked on a round-the-world trip, encouraged by relatives to become a man of the world and gain a perspective on international affairs.
But much of this time was spent indulging his passion for the hunt. I became acutely aware of this fact while viewing an exhibition at Vienna’s Hofburg complex. I wandered through the halls and rooms with their fifteen-foot ceilings and parquet floors, marveling at the items on display: a stuffed kangaroo, numerous photos of Ferdinand hunting with dignitaries from India, Java and elsewhere, a picture of him standing in front of a dead elephant, one boot triumphantly planted on the beast’s front leg.
That was during my 2014 trip, an exploration of Austro-Hungary for the centenary of the events that had led to WWI. I also took the occasion to re-visit his castle/hunting lodge for a second time. Touring the main living quarters, where numerous stuffed animals and antlers line hall and stairways, I learned that he’d killed roughly 275 thousand animals in his lifetime, a record catalogued by servants. He was known for a short temper – and I wondered if his hunting mania wasn’t an outlet for bottled-up violent tendencies.
While sightseeing at the castle on that later trip, I viewed a display of items related to Ferdinand’s childhood and partly Czech origins, as well as those of his wife, Sophie Chotek. Despite her Bohemian background, she was still not considered high-ranking enough to marry the heir apparent. The match was finally approved by Emperor Franz Joseph, the Archduke’s uncle – but only after the heir apparent signed an agreement renouncing the right of the couple’s children to succeed him. The exhibit at Konopischt, “United in Life and Death,” reflected on the fact that she was assassinated alongside him, in the back seat of a convertible, in Sarajevo. It all seemed to point to a softer side of the crown prince.
So when I first saw the PBS documentary two weeks ago, I sought supplemental history, and so stumbled upon a site I hadn’t yet discovered in all my background reading on the subject. Called franzferdinandsworld.com, it chronicles the round-the-world journey with his own diary entries. The one for September 22, 1893 first complements “the richness in game of the park is quite respectable thanks to the severe hunting prohibition. The last specimen of the once innumerable wild buffalo herds spared the senseless destructive urges of the rude farmers and cowboys are living here.” He also comments that “elsewhere close to extinction if their hunt is not stopped [are] otters, martens, muskrats, ermines, hares, rabbits, badgers, iltisses and even some species of porcupine.”
I’d never realized that, despite his seemingly insatiable appetite for shooting such creatures, he got the concept of sustainability. And then he goes on: “Despite the tables affixed everywhere displaying “No Shooting” and even thought the army battalion [stationed here] is also tasked with prohibiting any hunting, there is much poaching going on. Thus I have heard that a gang has killed 500 wapitis and transported them across the border.”
One might also wonder whether he believed that such game ought to be reserved for people more like himself. But there at least you have, in addition to a nice Austrian-American historical connection, a bit of enlightened opinion from an archduke much better known for six-figure hunting.