Muhammad Chaman was accustomed to his father bringing dead animals home. As a 10-year-old, he would silently observe as the animals were gutted and then resurrected — as if by magic. At times, an animal brought in would have been dead long enough for maggots to have infested it. Chaman would wear a face mask to help his father take its guts out. The smell of rotting flesh would still assail his senses, making him throw up.
Such was his early life as the son of a taxidermist.
Now, 50 years later, Chaman runs a shop in Karachi’s Saddar area where he sells bodies of animals preserved through taxidermy. His 28-year-old son does for him what he used to do for his father — gutting dead animals.
After the guts are removed, empty hides are salted and kept in a freezer to stop their decay, says Chaman. Then a mannequin is created either with dried and chopped wheat stalks, plaster of Paris, fibre or wood and the animal hide is then pasted on it. “The eyes are recreated using marble or glass,” he says.
His shop – no more than six feet wide and six feet long – is located at the end of an old shopping arcade in Karachi and is crammed with a variety of animals and birds. Not a single shelf is empty inside it. Chaman has even placed a few deer and goats on the foothpath outside.
Three blue and gold macaws hanging upside down are the first to catch a visitor’s attention. “These macaws are from [the owner of Bahria Town] Malik Riaz‘s zoo that caught fire [nearly a month ago],” says Chaman. “The birds (still in a retrievable condition) were sent [to us] for restoration.” Riaz, he says, will display them in a museum of taxidermy that he is building.
Birds, according to Chaman, are tough to recreate since their feathers get destroyed easily and their skin is as thin as paper. He picks up a scarlet macaw and holds it upright. “I have fixed its feathers but I am yet to put life into it. He is going to sit on a branch, holding a guava in its claws,” he says. “I will make it look alive.”
Next to the macaws hangs a crocodile. Glass shelves display other animals — monkeys, a wild cat, water snakes and deer. Parrots of different types have a pride of place in the shop that reeks of chemicals. “The bodies of animals are sent to us from zoos and by people who have either hunted them or kept them as pets,” says Chaman.
His clientele also includes science colleges and museums but his earnings depend mostly on consignments from trophy hunters. “Our income is never stable,” he says. “Sometimes we earn 20,000 rupees [in a month] and sometimes 50,000 rupees. It is all a matter of luck.”
Chaman has obtained an official permit – required for all taxidermists to operate legally – and denies using illegal means to obtain dead animals. According to a 2009 news report, however, he was arrested after 31 hides of different protected animals – including those of a zebra, a lion, dozens of otters, squirrels, falcons and pelicans – were recovered from his shop.
“I recovered a truckload of animals from Chaman’s store but he still managed to avoid jail owing to his political connections,” says Bashir Ahmed Sheikh, an inspector working with the Sindh Wildlife Department. “It is a crime to stuff animals that have been hunted illegally,” he says. Unfortunately, he adds, taxidermists often violate this provision.
As a preservation technique, taxidermy has existed since ancient times. In Egypt many centuries ago, these techniques were used for the mummification of dead pharaohs. Today, it is mostly used for preserving and displaying dead animals.
In Pakistan, taxidermy itself requires preservation. Those engaged in it complain of a lack of demand and a drastic decline in earnings. Chaman and his family are among the few who are still left in the business.
As are Muhammad Asif Raza Awan and his family. He has been pursuing alternative medicine and taxidermy simultaneously since the age of 13, after having learnt them from his father. Taxidermy, he says, is not a means to earn a livelihood for him, but an art form passed down to him through generations. “Most of my high-profile taxidermy work with deer, tigers and elephants can be found at the Sind Club museum,” he says proudly.
A life-size tiger dummy welcomes visitors outside Awan’s shop-cum-clinic situated opposite St Patrick’s Cathedral in Saddar, Karachi. Awan’s practice of alternative medicine is his main source of income but, according to him, animals too have a close association with it. “We use falcon fat to create ointments,” he says pointing to a taxidermied figurine of a falcon in a glass case next to him. “We use their wings, claws and other body parts too [in alternative medicine].”
Awan sometimes receives bodies of animals killed by natural disasters from the forest department. He has a contract with the Karachi Zoo as well for receiving dead animals.
Sometimes customers also approach Awan to purchase animal skins, wings and nails to use in sorcery and black magic. “They come to me and ask for odd objects like the tongue of some animal,” he says. “None of them openly declare that they want to use animal parts for black magic but what else will they do with them?”
A government officer, his sons and friends hunt black partridges every Sunday from November till January. Equipped with a government permit for hunting and carrying guns, they drive in four-wheelers from Karachi to a desert near Tando Adam, located more than 200 kilometres towards the north-east.
Shots are fired as soon as the partridges take flight. As a bullet hits a bird, it leaves a burst of feathers in the sky. The hunters enjoy a meal prepared with the hunted birds. Their skin and feathers are later handed over to a taxidermist for the restoration of their bodies.
The officer is fastidious about how his hunt undergoes taxidermy. “Perfection in taxidermy depends upon your taxidermist,” he says. “The taxidermist I go to has learnt the art from Canada and charges a lot for his services.”
The officer also explains how the body of dead animals used to be recreated with plaster of Paris but, of late, new and better techniques have emerged. He taps on the body of a blackbuck — illegal to hunt without a licence. It is hollow inside, making it easy to lift and transport.
Performed with new techniques and materials, taxidermied animals can last many years but they still require regular maintenance. Phenyl tablets, for instance, have to be placed in their ears to kill insects that may eat into their bodies.
A pair of black partridges – placed inside a glass box – decorate the lounge of the officer’s residence in Karachi’s Defence area. The walls of the lounge are mounted with many animals or their parts, including the heads of a hog deer, an ibex and a markhor. A glass casing contains a houbara bustard with its neck slightly tilted and eyes wide open.
Only some of these animals were hunted legally. Others, particularly the houbara and the hog deer, were hunted without official permission.
The writer is a staffer at the Herald.
This article was originally published in the Herald's February 2019 issue under the headline 'Still life'. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.