Taxidermy is the art and science of preserving a dead animal using stuffing and mounting techniques. The Wildlife Protection Act (1972) defines taxidermy as the means of curing, preparing and preserving or mounting of trophies. Under the Act, hunting and taxidermy of scheduled species is banned. Possession of wildlife trophies and derivatives has to be declared by the owner, and tagged by the Forest Department to receive an ownership certificate.
Currently there is only one licensed wildlife taxidermist in India. Both wild and domesticated animals are curated by taxidermists. Taxidermy has been helpful in preserving extinct species in museums. In parts of western Arunachal Pradesh, indigenous communities practice taxidermy as a skill to display showpieces and trophies as status symbols. These communities are dependent on their forests for food and livelihoods. However, they are not aware of the legalities associated with it. For them, taxidermy is an art form requiring great skill and resolve, traits necessary to work with dead animals.
But in these communities, it is practiced only on specific iconic species. Mentioned below are two taxidermic works (red panda and leopard cat) done by the community under very different circumstances.
The red panda used for stuffing was found dead; killed by wild dogs. It was brought to the village by the yak herder family who found it, and then an ex-hunter performed taxidermy on it. Red pandas are shy animals; spotting them in the wild is extremely difficult. The exhunter, wanting to preserve something rare and extraordinary, stuffed the dead animal to be kept as a showpiece in his house. Thanks to taxidermy, the community is now more aware of the presence of such a majestic species in their forests, and is working on protecting the animal’s habitat.
It was a very different situation for the leopard cat. The leopard cat killed a farmer’s poultry, and in retaliation, the farmer killed the leopard cat. The leopard cat was then stuffed and hung outside in the balcony of the house, as a trophy and a reminder to the villagers what a menace the leopard cat was.
The study of taxidermy in the region has highlighted the issue of hunting, and the need for community-based conservation. The red panda found by the community was killed by wild dogs, and they are now aware of the dangers faced by wildlife in their forests. Similar taxidermic evidence from other parts of the state has helped in identifying threats to wildlife. In another incident, a Himalayan griffon was found preserved by the community, having died due to an electric shock from sitting on a utility pole.
On the other hand, hunting of wildlife has indicated unavailability of income opportunities and loss in livelihoods. The two major livelihoods in western Arunachal Pradesh are agriculture and livestock farming. Economic loss in these livelihoods from human-wildlife interaction has fuelled retaliatory killing in the region. The demand for bush meat, cash income from wildlife trade and human-wildlife conflict in agriculture and livestock farming are the main causes of wild animal hunting. Barking deer and serow are mostly hunted for their bush meat; Chinese pangolins, black bears are taken for the cash income in wildlife trade; wild pigs, porcupines and macaques for their role in crop depredation, and wild dogs and smaller cats responsible for livestock loss under retaliatory killing.
These taxidermic examples show us the need for working with the community to conserve local wildlife, and the necessity of addressing human-wildlife interaction. Some communities in this region try to reduce human-wildlife interaction with the use of effective tools like mesh and electric fencing. Solar fencing is a worthwhile option to reduce economic losses in agriculture. Other measures like the construction of strong and robust sheds for livestock can help in reducing retaliatory killing of wildlife.
The community’s relationship with wildlife is directed by the socio- cultural significance of the animals, and the economic dependency of the community on the forests. The practice of taxidermy portrays different facets of the human-wildlife relationship. Some fuelled by anger, others fuelled by dismay. Learning about this artform through the community’s lens has helped unravel the different perspectives on wildlife and conservation issues in the region.
Photographs: Manisha Kumari