The loneliest taxidermist How Dr santosh gaikwad is fighting to save the legacy of india's wildlife

by John Ballot

When India’s last Siberian tiger died in the Himalayan hill station of Nianital, park rangers knew there was only one person in India who could preserve the legacy of the beast.

Dr Santosh Gaikwad, India’s only taxidermist, is an incredibly busy man. In a country with countless museums, zoos, national parks, agricultural and veterinary colleges, and a growing middle class who struggle to depart with their dearly beloved pets Dr Gaikwad barely “finds the time to even eat or sleep.”

But when the call came in 2011 from Nianital that Kunal, an giant 18-year-old male Siberian tiger and the last of these big cats in India, had died Dr Gaikwad jumped on the first flight he could find to the mountainous Uttarakhand state.

“I knew that if the local government decided to just burn or bury Kunal it would be a missed opportunity to educate future generations about this wonderful and extremely rare animal,” said the 43-year-old Dr Gaikwad, who is based out of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai.

"Once the animal dies, decomposition starts in a matter of days. I had to start preserving his skin before it started decaying, or else it would be all lost. I was also worried that the government may just decide to burn Kunal. I had to leave everything that I was doing and rush to Nianital as quickly as possible,” he said.

“I was nervous, and just before I went to Nianital I doubted if I could accurately preserve Kunal, but I knew that I was the only one who could do it. There is no one else in India who knows how to do taxidermy like this, so I just packed my bag and concentrated on all that I had learnt. Preserving Kunal the Siberian tiger is still my favourite assignment I’ve had,”

Despite being the only taxidermist in a country of over 1.2 billion people, Dr Gaikwad never had any formal training in taxidermy. Over the span of a decade Dr Gaikwad taught himself how to prepare, stuff and mount various forms of animals.

Dr Gaikwad’s first became interested in taxidermy in 2001, when as a young Assistant Professor in the Department of Anatomy at the Bombay Veterinary College he would regularly visit the natural history section of Mumbai’s former Prince of Wales Museum (now called Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya).

“I’ve always loved animals and as an anatomist I’m very interested in the way the skin, muscle and body parts of an animal work. So I would go to the museum and just observe the preserved animals and the different parts of their body and skin,” said Dr Gaikwad, who continues to lecture in anatomy at the Bombay Veterinary College.

“Seeing these animals and talking with the curators made me realise the importance of preserving the anatomy of animals in a lifelike and realistic way in order to continue the value that animal has for humans,” he said.

“I started spending hours and hours at the museum, studying the cuts and sections and all the anatomical details of the specimens. I would lie down underneath a tiger or rhinoceros and just observe and study where the cuts are made and what type of stitching is used. Sometimes I spent so long lying there that I would fall asleep underneath the animal,”

Dr Gaikwad sees these nights spent at the museum as an "awakening" for him, and that a life in taxidermy was to be his destiny.

“When your subconscious mind decides to follow a path, you cannot stop it. You slowly start forming the thoughts and ideas in that subconscious part of the mind, and soon enough it will become conscious. Once you realise the path that you have been subconsciously going down, then you must continue for that is the life you will love,” Dr Gaikwad said.

The majority of the animals on display at the Prince of Wales Museum were still leftovers from the time of British colonialism in India and none of the staff had any taxidermy skills, so Dr Gaikwad set about finding a mentor who could teach him about taxidermy.

Despite inquiring with hundreds of veterinary colleges, zoological institutions and museums Dr Gaikwad said he was unable to find anyone who could teach him.

“I travelled to Delhi and to Kolkata hoping to find a teacher. Taxidermy was popular with the British, but when they left the taxidermists left too. I could only find a small handful of taxidermists still in India, but none were practising and they only knew how to do birds,” said Dr Gaikwad who spent the next year contacting taxidermists from across the globe to ask for advice, as well as befriending local art students and Dharavi pelt tanners who could teach him the technical skills of creating a lifelike museum piece.

After months of practising his new skills on chickens he bought from the local market, Dr Gaikwad came across hist first big problem: making the animals look realistic.

“The process of mounting the animal and making the animal strike a pose that looks natural is extremely difficult, and I still find that the most challenging part of the process. It takes a strong understanding of the way muscles work, but you also need an artistic understanding of what makes animals exciting to people,” said Dr Gaikwad, who in the decade since he started stuffing chickens in his kitchen has successfully preserved the head of an elephant, a bear, 13 big cats, two mules, two turtles, over 100 fish and nearly 700 birds and small mammals.

As the demand for Dr Gaikwad’s services grew, and after successfully preserving a leopard from Mumbai’s city zoo, he was approached by Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) and the Maharashtra Forest Department who invited him to open the Wildlife Taxidermy Centre in 2009, with a new state of the art centre to be opened later this year.

Despite the establishment of the Centre and Dr Gaikwad’s flourishing reputation as a skilled taxidermist, he says there has been a lack of interest amongst young people in taking up animal anatomy and taxidermy.

“I have an incredible amount of demand from across India, but there is just too much. I need a helping hand. In 2014 I tried giving training to some Forest Department employees. We held a two day seminar, and we had 15 staff come to the Centre,” said Dr Gaikwad.

Even though all the students performed well on their practice specimens, Dr Gaikwad said none of them ever continued any taxidermy work. He blames a culture of impatience in India, as well as a lack of understanding the value that preserved animals have.

“Taxidermy is a job that requires a lot of patience. It takes months to build the frames, prepare the skin, paint the eyes. You need time, and most of that time has to be your spare time because you also have a regular job,” he said.

“However, in modern India mankind has no patience. People just want everything fast. Fast food, fast cars, fast money. Taxidermy is slow and frustrating, but when you are finished with an animal it is an amazing feeling. Young people just do not understand that you must first struggle and work before you can have that completed sense of achievement,”

There is an even bigger issue that Dr Gaikwad faces: India’s wildlife crisis. Despite continued efforts by state governments to set up national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, India is experiencing a rapidly declining level of biodiversity.

Pollution, deforestation, poaching, and the effects of climate change are all having a dire impact on India’s wildlife. Several years of drought have left many ecosystems near-decimated, and wildlife are increasingly being caught in deadly conflicts with encroaching human settlements.

“When people think of big animals, they usually think of Africa. However, India has just as many large and wondrous beasts such as elephants, rhinos, lions, tigers and the list continues,” said Dr Gaikwad, whose Taxidermy Centre is located in an area infamous for incidents between leopards and local residents.

“However, we are losing many of these animals are a rapid rate from poaching and the destruction of the forests. I try to preserve the tigers and bears and lions so that people can see that these animals are beautiful and have worth in their life, but sometimes I worry that that is not enough,” he said.

“I will stay here and continue my work, but if I have no apprentice and there are no wild beasts left in India, then that will be a very disturbing world. I would just be alone with all these dead animals.”

Created By
John Ballot


All photos taken by John Ballot

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