Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Tigers and trophies in the African bush – by Joan Haig

One of my pet hates is when tigers in picture books are plonked with zebras or African elephants in a scene vaguely described as ‘jungle’. I know they are stories and therefore it shouldn’t matter – but my annoyance isn’t only to do with factual inaccuracy. It’s more than that. The decision feels like an extension of careless, nineteenth-century attitudes where the ‘exotic’ was constructed and curated for the entertainment of the world’s white elite. Without critical comment, we have extended our blanket ‘othering’ beyond human culture into the zoological realm, ignoring the impact this might have on our toddlers’ developing world views.

The word jungle is gorgeous. It comes from Hindi jangal and first appeared in the English language in the late 1770s in reference to the uncultivated forests at the foot of the Himalaya mountains. But along the way, jungle has become synonymous with 'rainforest' and it's also become a place where some European writers and illustrators stick a whole range of wild animals that don't belong there. Although I grew up close to tropical forest, it was in central Africa and we didn’t use the word jungle at all. Our word for the wilds around us – thorny scrubland, thick miombo woodlands, rainforest – was ‘the bush’. With Dutch roots, the term die bos settled into Afrikaans as a way of referring to land more forested than the veldts (or plains), and at some point it shape-shifted into English.

About ten years ago I interviewed an American taxidermist living out in the bush in Zambia’s Southern Province. It was for academic research on white minority identity, but most of my questions ended up being about how to transform dead animals (or parts of them) into trophies. The interview took place in his workshop, crammed with stuffed antelope busts, elephant-feet stools and zebra hides. A storeroom to the back housed plastic containers marked flammable, clay pastes, and giant plaques onto which heads of the Big Five would be mounted. Most of the finished work was destined for American and European walls. (I recall an archaologist friend once commenting how difficult it would be in the future to trace the origins of things.)

The taxidermist was working on a buffalo head when I arrived, which took up a vast space in the centre of the room. It was for a Californian client who paid in cash; my interviewee was keen to impress for future referrals. After stubbing out his cigarette, he showed me how to match new glass eyes to the buffalo’s dead ones. He paid a premium for quality eyes, he told me, importing them from Germany (“best in the world” at fake eye production). He saw his work very much as an art form. “You must always start with the living animal,” he said. “Imagine it in its natural environment, alive. Its movements, the sheen on it, the colour of its tongue. The whole time you’re working, it can’t be dead in your mind – you have to keep it alive.”

About five years later, at a worktable shared with fellow writers in the Scottish Highlands, I started my first novel for children and my own taxidermy of a sort. Tiger Skin Rug features a tiger in both rug and living form. The story is not about taxidermy so there was no need to include any gory, technical detail, but my morning in the taxidermist’s workshop proved to be instrumental. My fieldnotes – though off-piste for my research at the time – were rich in detail about how to magic a carcass into a beautiful object.

© Marian Brown, from Tiger Skin Rug (Cranachan Publishing, 2020)

There’s ongoing and intense debate on the morality of trophy hunting in central Africa, which I’ll save for another time. I have attendant (and strong) opinions about how hunting wild animals for sport in general should be examined through the same lens we use to critique any other outdated and nasty human habit. Suffice to say, the taxidermist and I flew different flags. I did, however, agree with him on one count.

I’d asked him what the most memorable animals he’d worked on were. A chameleon was one, for the simple impossibility of catching in chemicals its changing colours. Another was a tiger. When I probed him on where he’d worked on a tiger, he pointed down at his feet. “Right here.” It had been before legislation in the late 1980s banned the trade of tiger parts. He lamented, apparently without irony, “The whole time I was working on it, it didn’t make sense, you know. You have to imagine the animal in its habitat. In mangroves, right? Or mountains, or jungle. But here I am working away at this tiger in the middle of the African bush. A tiger in Africa! It was out of place.”


Tiger Skin Rug has been nominated for the Carnegie Medal 2021 and is a Finalist in The People's Book Prize Winter 2020/21 competition, open to public votes. Please cast yours here. Thank you!


Mystica said...

Interesting commentary.
I've voted

Joan Haig said...

Thank you :)

Sareen McLay said...

Thanks, so interesting to hear how experiences end up in stories. I would be flying the same flag as you on this.