How the amateur Attenboroughs' hobby became a national treasure

Museum to preserve collection of a couple obsessed with world wildlife
  • @robbiesharp

From the rattlesnakes of North America's Mojave Desert to the spiny-tailed lizards that live in Bahrain, husband- and-wife wildlife enthusiasts Christopher and Marion Cornes spent nearly six decades documenting exotic species around the world. Now Mrs Cornes's dying wish to donate the couple's work to the nation has come true.

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London's Natural History Museum and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh have formally accepted into their archives nearly 12,000 slides of flora and fauna collected by the couple during their 53-year marriage. Mrs Cornes requested that their work be donated while she was dying of cancer last year. After confirming their value, the institutions have undertaken to safeguard them in perpetuity.

"With just a few weeks to live, she made it clear this is what she wanted to do, so I focused on trying to make it happen," said Mr Cornes, 76, a retired construction project manager from Colchester, Essex.

Mr Cornes said he met his wife at a dance in 1956. They bonded "over a shared desire to travel the world and enjoy the great outdoors" and were married the following year.

He soon rose up the ranks, professionally, and the couple were able to travel to places such as Kenya, Indonesia, Istanbul, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and California, where they settled down for periods ranging from several months to a few years. He focused on studying animals, while his wife's speciality was plants.

During his varied career, Mr Cornes worked as a volunteer police constable in Jamaica in 1973 and helped build a palace for Abu Dhabi ruler Sheikh Zayed in 1970. While in a posting in Bahrain in the early 1980s, the couple won a publishing deal to document the entirety of the nation's flora in the 1989 book Wild Flowering Plants of Bahrain.

"It was something of a clash with my profession, on the one hand covering the ground with concrete, on the other hand trying to protect the environment," said Mr Cornes. "But wherever we were, we tried to promote awareness. We taught children, and made sure we took them to see what we were looking at."

He said it was hard to pick a favourite plant or animal. "But if you had asked my wife and I whether there was something we really liked then I'd have to say the spotted hyena," he said. "We spent a lot of time watching them in Africa. There was something about their demeanour. A lot of people derided them because they thought they were scavengers. But they were so much more than than. They had a great social structure."

Judith Magee, the Natural History Museum's curator of library special collections, and Graham Hardy, serials librarian at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh confirmed the couple's collection – taken in Bahrain and North America – is of significant scientific value. "Some photographs have not been seen before as people haven't had enough access," said Ms Magee. "They are valuable to science".

Other donations to the Natural History Museum over the past six months include moss from Equatorial Guinea, African grey parrot specimens, and woodlice from Mozambique.

Mr Cornes said at his wife's funeral last July: "Marion was talking about going back to the deserts again just before she fell ill with cancer. She said 'I have had a fantastic life and I am ready.' When Marion knew the end was near, she said to me: 'Wouldn't it be nice to do just one more truck trip.'"