Taxidermy means ‘skin arrangement’, from Greek. The art of taxidermy has existed for a fair amount of time, and was raised to special heights during the 19th century when hunters and poachers brought the animal skins to upholstery shops to be stuffed and sewn up with rags and cotton. More sophisticated cotton wrapped wire bodies supporting sewn-on cured skins soon followed. The terms ‘stuffing’ and ‘stuffed animal’ evolved from the early form of taxidermy, though modern taxidermists prefer ‘mounting’ to describe what they do. Louis Dufrese, a French taxidermist at the French Museum of Natural History popularized using arsenical soap, which enabled the museum to build the greatest collection of birds in the world.
In England, meanwhile, after the royals went on hunting trips, a popular pastime, they brought back the booty of dead carcasses, sometimes including the rare and exotic, including tigers, lions, wild boar, antelope and deer. Of course, they wanted to show off their hunting prowess. Thus, their egos and excesses fueled the taxidermy business, as the spoils of their hunts were disemboweled, cleaned, stuffed with preservatives and sewn up to look lifelike. Their trophies can still be seen mounted on walls in the estates houses and palaces of the British elite as major attractions to the proud hunters and visitors, alike.
A ‘kind’ of primitive taxidermy has been around for a long time, and can be seen today in Nepalese villages. After cattle die you may see a skinned dry hide laying around. Some of them are there for more than sitting on like a piece of carpet. When a calf dies prematurely, for example, the farmer may skin the animal and stuff the hide and sew it up to ‘look like’ the calf. The stuffed calf retains its scent and when presented to the lactating mother, the cow licks it and is fooled into continuing to produce more milk for the farmer’s family to consume.
Sometimes when destructive animals like monkeys and crows are killed, they too are stuffed and set up in full view in the fields so that others of their ilk get a gruesome warning to stay away. It provides a kind of real animal ‘scarecrow’ effect.
Professional taxidermy in Nepal got a huge boost during the time of the Ranas, who wanted their hunting trophies for display in their palaces. They were allured by the British and the Indian scene at the time. During the Rana era, trophies were handed out and ‘full-mounting’ was done. The Ranas were especially influenced by the British royals with whom they established close ties and whose life styles they often mimicked. The cost of having a trophy stuffed, however, was expensive. A full mounted leopard, for example, cost as much as five lakh rupees (Rs 500,000) in Rana times. Since there were few well qualified taxidermists in Nepal during the Rana century (mid-19th to mid-20th century), professional Indian taxidermists were invited to Nepal to do the work.
One of the pioneers of taxidermy in Nepal in those days was Govinda Gurung, some of whose work is displayed at the Natural History Museum at the Chauni in Kathmandu. Gurung did the best he could but his specimens were not properly sterilized due to the lack of proper materials. Nepal lacked the experience and facilities for good taxidermy. The only properly stuffed beasts on display in Nepal came from Britain and other European countries, as well as from British India. Some of them can be seen at Keshar Mahal, next to the Garden of Dreams in Jamal (near the entrance to Thamel).
According to Professor Karan Bahadur Shah, a herpetologist at the Natural History Museum, time is a very crucial factor in taxidermy. Professor Shah, the following steps are extremely important to produce a good stuffed specimen:
Taxidermy in Nepal is held back by several issues, including the expense, lack of professional courses, legal constraints, and lack of demand in the modern context. According to taxidermist Dev Chandra Shrestha, a good specimen should be treated with plastic resin and hardener to create light, airy, unbreakable pieces. But this is hardly feasible in Nepal because of the expense. There are no taxidermy courses in Nepal and not many people are keen on making a career out of it, especially because of the lack of financial scope and because it is difficult work. While taxidermy is not yet set up with an accredited program for academic credit in Nepal, the National Institute of Natural Sciences, where some taxidermy is practiced, hopes soon to establish a professional course for Nepali students. A course that costs around US$8,000 in the United States can be done in Nepal for as little as $500. Tribhuwan University used to hold ‘mobile exhibitions’, but even this has stopped. There are also legal issues. It is illegal to own stuffed animals without a rational explanation. With all the poaching that goes on, and the endangerment of so many rare animal and bird species of Nepal, the government has imposed strict rules and regulations. And, ultimately, there is virtually no demand for stuffed animals in Nepal these days. With the general population living under impoverished conditions, showcasing stuffed animals in one’s home comes over an extremely lavish and expense display.
Birendra Malla, Vice-President of the National Institute of Natural Sciences (NINS) and a taxidermist, praises the late Govinda Bahadur Gurung as Nepal’s pioneer taxidermist. Gurung introduced professional taxidermy in Nepal in 1953. Currently, the president of NINS is Madan Gurung, the son of Govinda Gurung. Madan is also a taxidermist, and the only one of four brothers to follow their father’s profession. Birendra Malla and Madan Gurung hope to build a museum in four or five years with the help of foreign institutions such as the Hutton Valley School of Taxidermy in Iowa, the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology in Japan, and the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. Govinda Gurung believed that taxidermy was a way of “giving back life to a dead animal in a different but beautiful manner”. In his working days he never got much support from others, but worked very hard to produce excellent products.
Currently, there are 400-500 specimens lying around in various rooms at the NINS. Madan Gurung wants to use new technology to create stuffed animals, and further develop the Institute’s capacity. Although help has never come from the Nepal government in this regard, several well known Nepalese environmentalists helped Madan Gurung in the past, especially encouraging him to develop a first class taxidermy museum. (They included Gopal Rai, former Forest Minister, Harka Gurung, prominent geographer and conservationis, and Tirtha Man Maskey formerly of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, all three of whom died in the tragic helicopter crash of 2004.)
The full-time taxidermist Dev Chandra Shrestha of the Natural History Museum describes two kinds of taxidermy: regular stuffing and the ‘weight preservation’ method. Totally beguiled by seeing stuffed animals on display at the Mahankal Mandir decades ago when he was adolescent youth, Shrestha was instantly drawn to taxidermy. He began by killing or buying specimens to work on at home, initially with chickens, mice and pigeons. Over time he researched the field and eventually attended Baroda University in India, where he learned more about this relatively new art. His initial method for preservation and stuffing consisted of using salt, boric acid and cotton; but he soon realized that animals treated made out of these didn’t last for much more than a year or two. He even stuffed his own dead cat(!), using a more scientific approach with wires to retain the bones and making the result more flexible. Shrestha later went to Germany to train and specialize in the field.
Dev Shrestha reminisces about the past when he did taxidermy jobs for King Birendra. One of the first specimens sent to him by the palace for stuffing was a seagull, after which more specimens for mounting arrived. Using World Wildlife Fund financing, Shrestha has trained the wildlife staff at Sauraha in Chitwan and at Koshi Tappu in the eastern Terai, and has helped establish a museum at Bardia in the west, along with an information center at Koshi Tappu and an incomplete museum in Sauraha. He says he is doing all this so that visitors and enthusiasts in these places do not have to travel all the way to Kathmandu to see exhibits. He has in mind setting up 14 museums, one in each of the 14 zones of the country, but he is unsure about the government’s decisions regarding this plan. The government, however, hasn’t given much priority to taxidermy as a science or an art, and funding is scarce.
Hopefully, there will be improvisations and more enthusiasm amongst the Nepalese towards taxidermy, with the support and encouragement from the government in future. Taxidermy—or ‘skin arrangement’ as it started out being called—is a highly skilled craft and a beautiful art, one that helps the beholder more fully appreciate the form and wonder of Nature’s wildlife.