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Meet the Man Who May Be India's Last Taxidermist

The self-taught craftsman preserves wild animals from all over the country for future generations to enjoy—but worries his art will die with him.

Meet Santosh Gaikwad, Wildlife Taxidermist

In a country of 1.3 billion people, it’s hard to imagine there’s only one of anything. But Santosh Anant Gaikwad may well be India’s last wildlife taxidermist.

A veterinarian and professor of anatomy at Bombay Veterinary College, the 44-year-old Mumbai native became interested in the obscure art after a 2003 visit to the city’s main museum (formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum).

Inspired by the lifelike quality of the natural history collection’s mammal and bird specimens, Gaikwad felt compelled to learn the technique himself—although he’d never previously even heard the word taxidermy. (See the pictures: How do you move hundreds of taxidermy animals?)

Gaikwad resolved to teach himself, as the only other taxidermists he could find were long retired or worked only to maintain existing specimens. Already familiar with anatomy, he read books and befriended artists to learn the tanning, painting, and sculpting techniques necessary to make an accurate model to be covered by the animal’s treated skin.

Beginning with chickens and pigeons carted home from the veterinary hospital where he worked, he eventually graduated to fish, then cats and dogs. In 2008, as he wrote in India’s Open magazine, he began working on wild animals: leopard, peacocks, even an elephant, among others.

Having quit the veterinary hospital to dedicate himself to taxidermy full time, Gaikwad now works at the Wildlife Taxidermy Center established for him at Sanjay Gandhi National Park. He’s preserved hundreds of wild animals from specimens sent to him by forestry department, zoo, and museum officials from all over the country.

But unlike in the U.S.—where dedicated retailers provide items like glass eyes, and industry conferences draw crowds of thousands—there are hardly any taxidermy resources in India, says Karen Dias, the photographer whose work with Gaikwad resulted in the video above.

“He wants to learn more and get better at it,” Dias says, but the self-taught craftsman is hobbled by the lack of opportunity to work with peers or attend international symposiums. (Meet the taxidermist making ethical "roadkill art.")

A DYING ART

Arising in the 1700s and 1800s, taxidermy originated partly to further Enlightenment ideals of scientific study, partly to create centerpieces to deck the mantels of a growing middle class, and partly to preserve the exotic animal specimens sent back to imperial Europe from colonies around the world.

Now, in a world where species extinctions crowd closer than ever, Gaikwad uses taxidermy to preserve animals for the education—and wonderment—of generations to come. (India’s “sky islands” showcase evolution in action.)

“That dead body—we burn it, or bury it,” Gaikwad says. “And that natural beauty disappears permanently. This is our heritage.” Taxidermy, he says, “is God’s gift for me.”

Taxidermy isn’t part of any educational syllabus in India. Though Santosh now mentors a few assistants at the Wildlife Taxidermy Center, he worries his craft will die with him.