Stuff of Life
Taxidermy pieces have become the latest fad to catch the attention of China’s self-styled art collectors. However, the country’s taxidermists are often reluctant to reveal their raw material sources
At an exhibition room in Songzhuang, a village on the outskirts of Beijing, Liu Jianping and his cousin Zhong Chunwei offer our reporter a look at their showroom-quality works. The list includes a blank-looking moose’s head, a pair of ring-necked pheasants, a crafty fox mauling a tree squirrel, a howling wolf, an airborne owl and a whole flock of wild ducks in flight. Welcome to the world of Chinese taxidermy.
Since jointly establishing their enterprise Beijing Northern Wildlife Taxidermy in late 2006, Liu and Zhong’s company has sold hundreds of stuffed animals to domestic enthusiasts. “The market is booming and more and more people are buying taxidermy pieces to enrich their luxury art collections. Sometimes, works can sell for hundreds of thousands of yuan apiece,” Zhong, general manager of the company, told NewsChina.
“Now, even some high-end luxury stores want to cooperate with us,” she added.
In most Western countries, traditional hunting culture accelerated the development of taxidermy as a way to preserve or display trophies, with animal skulls and skins decorating the homes of the well-to-do since the Middle Ages. In China, taxidermy arrived alongside other imported fashions in the late 19th century, augmenting existing passions for animal products such as ivory and turtle shells. Tang Qiwang in Fujian and Liu Shufang in Beijing were two leading taxidermists in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), still held up by their modern counterparts as masters of a valuable art form.
It is estimated that a total of 20 million taxidermy specimens are currently stored in various scientific research institutions, universities, public schools and museums across China. In Beijing’s National Museum of Zoology alone, there are six million animal specimens, the largest such collection in Asia.
In the past decade, with increasing government financial support, museums and wildlife parks have been allocated funds to enrich their collections. For example, in early 2011, Changzhou Yancheng Safari Park in the eastern province of Jiangsu spent over 2 million yuan (US$317,350) to acquire a polar bear specimen, also is also planning to purchase other specimens including a penguin, a whale, a walrus, a fur seal and an Arctic fox.
“Rare animal specimens have now become luxury commodities,” said Yancheng Safari Park taxidermist Xu Weiyong. Despite an official international ban on hunting the critically endangered polar bear, which became law in 1973, Xu said he was aware of at least 10 polar bear specimens in the collections of different natural museums and private collectors in China.
Private collectors of taxidermy are fueling the recent explosion in demand, according to Wang Weisheng, director of the Department of Wildlife Conservation and Nature Preserve Management with China’s State Forestry Administration, the government body which licenses taxidermists.
Driven by business opportunities, the number of registered companies engaged in taxidermy rose from less than 400 in 2003 to approximately 600 by 2009. Over 280,000 people are currently employed in this field nationwide.
From a scientific perspective, holotype specimens are invaluable when cataloging new species, requiring high precision when preserving an animal’s physical features. From an artistic perspective, supporters claim, a worthy specimen should be preserved in a lifelike posture against a naturalistic and species-appropriate diorama.
19th century practices such as stuffing animal carcasses with rags and cotton and preserving them with formaldehyde have fallen by the wayside in Europe and America. Nowadays, mannequins expertly crafted from wood, wool and wire, or more commonly molded polyurethane, are covered with professionally tanned, non-toxic animal hides.
However, it is only in the last five years that such sophisticated techniques have been adopted in China. Taxidemist Tian Ma, manager of the Xinjiang Tianma Wildlife Biological Technology Development Company, told NewsChina that most domestic taxidermists are still stuffing animals in the same way as was done in the 1950s, resulting in specimens quickly deteriorating, even under carefully controlled museum conditions.
“Poor taxidermists make live animals into dead statues, while good ones bring dead animals back to life,” said Tian. “Most specimens made by Chinese taxidermists are simply a waste of animals. And the sub-standard works are no more than garbage.”
Taxidermist Liu Jianping said: “In the US, highly realistic glass eyes, artificial teeth, jaws and tongues for different species are readily available on the market. Here, the purchasing network is far from complete.”
Another problem plaguing China’s taxidermists is the availability of the neccessary chemicals. While odor-free and non-toxic biological materials have been widely adopted by Western taxidermists, their Chinese counterparts still cling to dangerous substances like arsenic and formaldehyde, which pose health risks to both taxidermists and collectors.
In late March, China’s first ever Taxidermy Championships were held in Beijing, with over 40 taxidermy studios and companies participating. At the event, Xu Chongren, a professor from the Life Sciences Institute of Peking University emphasized that “a professional taxidermist should be well versed in anatomy, sculpture and painting as well as skeletal morphology.”
“Despite significant progress made in the domestic taxidermy industry in recent years,” said Xiao Fang, an expert from the Beijing Zoological Garden and the competition’s head judge. “The main technical obstacle [for Chinese taxidermists] is the lack of professional knowledge of, say, muscle structure.”
In China’s often contradictory bureaucracy, taxidermy specimen production somehow falls under the category of wildlife protection and is thus under the jurisdiction of the country’s forestry bureau.
Director Wang Weisheng told our reporter that government licensing is required for commercial activities involving the sale, purchase, usage, transportation, and import and export of wildlife specimens.
“Regulation is excessively strict, and taxidermists have to obtain a permit for each stage of the process,” Wang said.
After obtaining the initial government license to use wild animal skins in taxidermy, a company has to obtain an “identity mark” for all activities relating to its specimens, with these marks issued by the China Wildlife Mark Center.
Strict regulation on hunting and the use of animal parts was introduced in China in the late 20th century to curb the rising tide of poaching which was pushing indigenous species to the brink of extinction. With the sale, transportation or usage of animals on the national “red list” punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment, poaching has declined markedly, with people often unwilling even to approach the carcass of an animal that has died of natural causes.
“This has led to a waste of natural resources as far as I see it,” said Tian Ma, adding that in Xinjiang, rare species such as argali sheep, and ibex are frequently killed by extreme weather or predators.
“From time to time, herdsmen pick up remains, particularly heads, and send them to us. But because of government regulations, we cannot accept them. As a result, these precious materials are simply left to rot,” Tian told NewsChina.
Tian further explained that legal channels for the acquisition of carcasses are constantly being shut off by new laws. With hunting existing in a legal gray area in China, taxidermists typically resort to obtaining captive-bred animal carcasses, often collecting the bodies of dead zoo animals, a very limited source of materials.
“If we are not allowed to make use of wild animals that have died of natural causes, where will we get our materials?” said Tian.
Imported animal skins, like those used by Liu Jianping and Chong Chunwei, are one option. The other is China’s thriving black market.
Last year, Liu Jianping and Zhong Chunwei spent a whole month driving through 13 national parks in the western United States to observe animals and birds in the wild. One quality which often surprises laypeople is the commitment of professional taxidermists to wildlife conservation, and their respect for the natural, living character of all animals. However, such professionalism is rare among the vast majority of for-profit taxidermy companies, many of which are less than scrupulous about sourcing animal carcasses.
Wang Song, a researcher from the Institute of Zoology (IOZ), part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), told our reporter during a telephone interview that the lack of legal sources has fueled a boom in poaching and the illegal trafficking of animal parts.
“Strict regulations restrict taxidermy, but a sustainable, legal hunting culture does not exist either. This has created a complete mess,” said Wang.
Conservation official Wang Weisheng also admits that the sourcing of animal specimens, especially those acquired by museums and scientific institutions, needs to be standardized and properly regulated in order to squeeze China’s black market for animal parts.
Researcher Wang Song, together with other activists, is urging the China Zoological Society to set up a taxidermy collection and production committee for the purpose of regulating the industry and promoting modern techniques.
“In view of the largely unregulated preservation and protection of important taxidermy specimens in museums, we also urge the establishment of a China Museum of Natural History, which could acquire and conserve the country’s most important animal specimens.”
According to Wang Weisheng of the State Forestry Administration, the Tibet Museum in Lhasa had planned to open a zoology exhibition, before discovering most of its animal specimens were either badly damaged or anatomically inaccurate. The museum subsequently applied to the State Forestry Administration for permission to hunt new specimens of certain species, and their application was promptly rejected. Tibet is home to some of China’s rarest and most at-risk species.
In his inaugural address to delegates of China’s national taxidermy championships, Wang Weisheng spoke out against poaching, and urged competitors to reject any specimen of suspect origin. “Wildlife is not sufficiently abundant to allow hunting in China, and unscientific hunting disturbs the stability of animal species,” he said. “We must instead enhance the skill and craftsmanship of taxidermy.”
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Sep 2011 | Submitted by Brian Snelson
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