Taxidermy, the art of preserving animals, birds, fish and even reptiles for mounting or study, could be centuries old yet still a rare one in East Africa.
Alex Mutati, 33, a Kenyan taxidermist, has been working for the Ornithology (the study of birds) department of the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi since 2011. Mutati combines both science and creativity to prepare the specimen.
His interest and skill in the art came from watching his father, Livingstone Syingi Kathele, a retired taxidermist, who also worked with the National Museums of Kenya since 1962.
“I grew up watching my father training visitors on taxidermy at our Mutito wa Ndoa village, Kitui County. The visitors were mostly from Europe where the profession is vibrant because pets are valued so much so that, when the pets die, they are preserved and mounted for remembrance,” Mutati says.
Mutati specialises in birds because growing up in Kitui, he knew most of the local birds’ species by their common and scientific names, having learned them fist in mother tongue.
“My father would ask me to set traps to catch birds for his trainees and later allow me to sit in his 'class' as he instructed them. He could see that I wanted to learn and follow in his footsteps. Today when I see a specimen that he mounted in the same museum where I now work, I feel very proud,” Mutati adds.
His job entails preparing a bird’s skin in three main ways depending on the purpose:
The ''study skin'' is prepared for references purpose, ''flat skin'' for scientific purpose, while ''mounting skin'' is for display in the gallery.
To prepare the flat skin, he removes the skin and flesh of a freshly dead specimen and cures it with preservatives.
For the study skin, he cuts the specimen to remove the flesh, and then he stuffs the skin using cotton wool to help maintain the shape of the specimen.
The mounting skin is harder to prepare since one needs to maintain the original shape of the bird and to anchor it to look as natural as it would in its habitat.
After removing the flesh, supportive material is stuffed into the skin, then a wire is used to anchor and support the skin being shaped to appear like the living specimen. After that, the specimen is stitched to shape and ready for display.
But before display, the specimen is kept in a fumigation cabinet for about a week to kill parasites. If this is not done, bacteria can gradually destroy it.
Whereas Mutati specialises in birds, he says that his father was gifted and he could mount both mammals and birds for display. Although he retired in 1998, his father still gets invited to train the few professionals at the museums.
There is no college in Kenya that trains taxidermists, but aspiring professionals can train at the National Museums of Kenya, the Harare Museum and the Wild Africa Taxidermy in Port Alfred, South Africa. Europe and Asia have private taxidermy training schools.
Mutati first trained in ornithology at the National Museums of Kenya before going into taxidermy.
In 2015, Mutati visited Buea, Cameroon, for a taxidermy training course on mounting specimens organised by Prof Town Peterson from Kansas University, US. Trainees were drawn from Kenya, Ethiopia, Malawi, Uganda, Ghana and Cameroon.
“During the training, I realised how much Africa is in need of professionals taxidermists. I was the only trainee who had on-the-job skill. When we were given assignments, the trainer would ask me to show the rest of the class how to process the specimen,” Mutati says.
In 2016 on another course at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Ueno, Tokyo Japan, he learned that unlike in Kenya where taxidermy was mainly for scientific study, the Japanese had embraced taxidermy as a commercialised undertaking.
Japanese taxidermists are self-employed and are hired to preserve pets that have died.
“One of the trainers, Mizuki Kojima, said that she earns a living as a private taxidermist. In Kenya however, practicing as a private taxidermist has been restricted because of poaching. If I am to engage in private practice, I would need to be licensed by the government,” Mutati adds.
As a taxidermist, Mutati says that his skills contribute to the socio-economic welfare of society, and also to the scientific world.
“Our collections are used for reference by researchers from all over the world for taxonomic analysis, molecular and genetic studies, for medical and forensic studies, and as reference by researchers.
“In addition, scholars and students, tourists and even artists come to the museums to see some of the unique species that no longer exist,” Mutati says.
Having trained in ornithology first, he sees taxidermy as an added advantage to his career. He accompanies scientists and environmentalists on field studies to track and study bird species. This provides him with field knowledge on various types of birds, their habitats and behaviour.
“It is from such experience that I can easily prepare the various bird’s skin dummies with precision, especially those being mounted, getting not only their physical features right but also their habitats’ characteristics, thus giving them a real look,” he says.
On the downside, Mutati says that on their various field trips, they have noticed that birds are increasingly facing pressure from human activity which is increasingly encroaching on their habitat.
Dr Peter Njoroge, the head of ornithology at the National Museums of Kenya, says that taxidermy was linked to commercial game hunting in the colonial period.
Commercial hunters in Kenya such as Tim Zimmerman, was among the first taxidermists in the country since he hunted game for trophies for export.
It was this hunting that led to the growing demand for taxidermy services. Game trophy export was a booming business in the country until the ban on hunting in 1977.
Dr Njoroge says that taxidermy could be a dying practice, owing to the emerging trends in wildlife management throughout the world.
“Banning hunting of wildlife trophies is gradually going to render the profession extinct, except in places where people treasure their pets enough to preserve them,” he says.
Later, Kenya passed the Kenya Wildlife Act 2013 banning not just hunting but prohibiting wildlife carcass preservation through taxidermy as an item of treasure.
However, one can prepare a pet. The National Museums of Kenya provides consultancy services for wildlife and domestic pet carcass preparation.
It costs between Ksh150,000 ($150) and Ksh200,000 ($200) for labour and cost of accessories to preserve a peacock but it can accumulate to Ksh50,000 ($50).