Parlor lions and zebras: South African taxidermy in turmoil

In this workshop near Pretoria, workers are busy chopping antelope heads, whitening buffalo bones, softening zebra skins. But a British bill banning the import of hunting trophies casts serious doubt over their future.

Trophy hunting, especially practiced in South Africa, involves paying wealthy amateurs, sometimes several thousand dollars, to kill lions or elephants and leave with the animal’s head, skin, claws or horns. , is controversial.

British MPs passed a bill in March to ban the entry of these trophies into the country. A victory for some conservationists who decry cruelty to animals. But a double-edged decision for others, worried about the loss of income generated by this luxury sport that partly financed the conservation of wild species.

At the taxidermy workshop in Ryton (South Africa), May 9, 2023 (AFP – GUILLEM SARTORIO)

Peter Swart, 58, with a blue shirt and a short gray beard, fears his business of tanning and stuffing animals is a collateral victim of the British bill, which has been backed by celebrities such as ex-model Kate Moss or ex-footballer Gary Lineker , and which has yet to be adopted by the Lords before coming into force.

His passion, that other countries follow the example. “The law could create a domino effect,” he told AFP, a zebra skull on his desk.

Similar bills are under consideration in Italy, Belgium and Spain, according to animal protection organization Humane Society International (HSI).

Peter Swart, owner of a taxidermy workshop near Pretoria, May 9, 2023 (AFP - Guillem Sartorio)
Peter Swart, owner of a taxidermy workshop near Pretoria, May 9, 2023 (AFP – Guillem Sartorio)

Britain’s bill, which covers thousands of species including lions, rhinos and elephants, shows ‘the beginning of a change in attitude from European countries’ amid a global decline in wildlife, congratulating HSI wildlife expert Matthew Schurch.

– Skins, skulls, horns and bones –

“Chasing an animal to hang it on a wall is quite suspicious,” said Keshvi Nair, a spokeswoman for the South African Council for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. There are “far more ethical and humane ways” to generate income.

At a taxidermy workshop near Pretoria, May 9, 2023 (AFP - Guillem Sartorio)
At a taxidermy workshop near Pretoria, May 9, 2023 (AFP – Guillem Sartorio)

However, according to a 2018 South African study, trophy hunting contributes more than $340 million per year to the South African economy and is responsible for 17,000 jobs.

The booty brought back by hunters, most of the time foreigners, is packaged by taxidermists, who perpetuate the centuries-old art. The sector employs 6,000 people in South Africa, making it one of the top destinations for trophy hunting, according to Mr Swart, head of the National Taxidermy and Tannery Association.

Thousands of dead bodies are processed every year in its workshops. Piles of hides, skulls, horns and bones are turned into carpets or decorative items.

A stuffed impala and animal skins, May 9, 2023 (AFP - Guillem Sartorio)
A stuffed impala and animal skins, May 9, 2023 (AFP – Guillem Sartorio)

A large part of the material comes from organized harvesting in reserves, specifically to avoid overpopulation. The rest comes from hunting.

“Hunting and killing are part of the animal management process. To waste such a skin (…) and let it deteriorate would be disturbing”, since the animal has already been killed, explains Mr. Swart, a figurehead. Pointing to the zebra nailed to the wall.

A whole stuffed rhino costs as much as $6,800. A cheetah sells for about $1,400.

Douglas Cockcroft, head of Splitting Image Taxidermy, a company with about 100 employees, is also worried, “We’re going to see a big part of our market suddenly disappear.”

A stuffed animal at a taxidermy workshop near Pretoria on May 9, 2023 (AFP - Guillem Sartorio)
A stuffed nyala at a taxidermy workshop near Pretoria on May 9, 2023 (AFP – Guillem Sartorio)

And “if they ban this profession, I won’t be able to support my family anymore”, says 45-year-old Elias Pedzisai, a “wizard” of bleaching animal skulls in Peter Swart’s workshop.

Some South African taxidermists are already exploring the possibility of finding new outlets. “Breakthroughs have been made” with Chinese and Russian hunters who now regularly visit South Africa, says Swart.

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