Private Bone/Taxidermy Collection: The Good, The Bad and The Illegal

This article is re-posted from the Adventures in Natural History Illustration blog by natural history illustrator Beth Windle.

This blog has taken a while to write. It’s a complicated subject that can be hard to condense into a simple blog post. However, I feel that it is now necessary to write about it due to growing, worrying, illegal, and unethical trends that are resurfacing due to a private natural history collection resurgence in recent years. Aside from this, I am aware of the positive aspects of private collections and therefore I do not want to come across as too preachy or completely ridicule those with private collections who work extremely hard to promote conservation and education. But I feel that some things now need to be said, as well as how these new problems need to be fixed with realistic solutions.

I am writing this from both sides of the coin, I have been collecting skulls/skeletons since childhood, and I work for the museum industry/science communication as a formal job. Back then I never purchased anything, everything was naturally found in the countryside. Needless to say, it was one of the elements that planted the seed that inspired my curiosity for the natural world and biology. I’m sure that the same can be said for many other scientists and artists. Many of which, have used their personal collections to directly educate others and actively promote the conservation of the natural world such as; Ric Morris, Jakes Bones, Paolo Viscardi, Ben Garrod to name a mere few.

Firstly, we need to understand why people collect taxidermy, bones, skulls, and skeletons in the first place. Humans have been collecting things since the beginning of time. We are a curious species and this is a way to directly connect and to understand the world around us. I feel that this is still the main element for those merely collecting for personal reasons, it’s a way for someone to connect directly to a particular animal. It’s also a safe way to connect to an animal who would in life…probably kill you. There are other elements, such as exploiting wealth, showing off and simply having something that is out of reach to someone else.

As much as collecting modern animal specimens privately can be positive, it can also be problematic and negatively impact the natural fauna/flora indirectly. This, unfortunately, prompted me to write this post.

In recent years a new trend/sub-culture called “Vulture Culture” took off in younger generations. No more was taxidermy/natural history collection exclusive to the gloating rooms of old men and rich aristocrats. Teenagers and young adults now had a hold over the market, taking to social media spaces such as Tumblr, Instagram, and Facebook to show off their collections and processing methods. In a way we can rejoice, the natural world and biology suddenly became trendy and with that will come people willing to conserve the natural environment and will have the burning passion for pursuing research to better our understanding. But…

With the positives must come negatives. Bones, skulls, and skeletons have to come from somewhere and that is from what was once a living being. For some members of the Vulture Culture craze, they took to processing roadkill and other bodies naturally found in the wild. Luckily local wildlife law is fairly easy to access for the average member of the public, and soon understanding of dead animal body collection took off. What I’ve found is that these people who find their own animals to process from corpse to collection rarely have an issue with the local law department. Most disputes are often easily solved, and wildlife law officers seem to keep tabs.

But what if you want something more exotic? What if a dead deer just won’t do it for you. The answer to this problem would be online auction sites such as Ebay, and soon people started to pay large sums of money for rarer items that you probably wouldn’t find bumbling around the British countryside. Lion skulls, wolf skulls, pickled lemur and lion claws ripped off from a vintage 19th-century taxidermy skin, the possibilities I’ve seen really have been endless. But unfortunately, money is problematic, once you pay for something you give it a monetary value, therefore you open up a potential market/trade. What was once just a Lion skull, for example, is now an item worth up to £500. You may not see the £500 as its main value, but anyone who wants quick and easy cash will.

The illegal wildlife trade and the unethical wildlife trade is still a growing problem and the negative side of vulture culture and other similar trends are that consumers, directly and indirectly, cause these problems…you don’t even have to break the law to cause them. Because of recent trends, I have seen more online and physical shops open up across Britain promising people the dead wildlife item of their dreams. Want a cheetah skin, we got it! Want a snarling tiger head we got that too! A lot of these sellers boast ethical collection and law abiding care, however, how can the general public tell when a seller is lying or telling the truth? The truth is they can’t. Wildlife law on exotic species can be complicated and a lot of the laws are not written in lay language. In fact, there are many debates among vulture culture members/collectors on what the law actually is, and even someone who truly tries to find an answer cannot as it’s stuck in a legal quagmire. I want to avoid going into individual laws and loopholes (that’s a blog post for another day), this blog post is here to raise awareness for what I see to be growing problems.

What I think may be one of the solutions to the problem, is if a rough lay-guide is published every year by a dedicated wildlife law rep. Stating what paperwork may be required for what, what species are a total no-no for private ownership, what are antique wildlife item laws, what questions you should be asking and how to spot an illegal wildlife trader on online auction sites. I feel that internationally this will be a great benefit, I do strongly feel that most members of vulture culture and private collectors do try to abide by the law where possible. There are few who willingly go against it. However, all consumers good or bad drive this market. Once an illegal/unethical item is purchased that money has been exchanged intentionally or not and therefore fuelling the market and trade.

Case in point:

What made me finally publish this blog is a previously convicted seller recently targeted vulture culture members (mostly young people) selling brown hyena skulls. He has promised more hyena skulls and has taken reservations expecting more in the next few weeks. This is NOT normal and certainly not legal. The skulls are not antique and have been recently exported out of Africa. Even though hyenas are not protected by the Annex A category in CITES, they are protected via other laws and any wildlife item exported out of Africa must have a paper trail/documentation specifying its legal release and origin. You are supposed to keep the documents with you as proof of its origin and those may be important in the future if the law changes as skulls cannot necessarily be aged like “worked” items such as taxidermy. (Even items traveling within the EU must have some documents to prove its origin, including captive-bred animals.)

This is deeply worrying. Hyena remains are now desired/wanted by private collectors and vulture culture members alike. This is probably due to their new western popularity, and other large carnivores such as lions and tigers recently becoming protected and therefore their remains rare to obtain and trade on.

Being someone who has worked for hyena conservation and has studied them I understand why people want to get close, I understand why people want to hold their hugely powerful skulls in their hands and to have one on their shelf. But this growing trade and market will only lead them to the same declines that big cats are facing, be extremely careful with who you buy from. Only buy from accredited sellers and sellers with the correct origins and paperwork. Where possible only purchase from captive bred animals who have no impact on wild populations. Thank you.

Written by Beth Windle, Natural History Illustrator

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