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Lions, tigers and bears - Oh my!

By Wang Kaihao (China Daily)

09:49, April 17, 2012

Stuffed lion and mink (inset) attract visitors at the National Zoological Museum of China. (Photos by Cui Meng / China Daily)

An animal specimen competition brings a bounty of beasts to Beijing. Wang Kaihao reports in Beijing.

This is a show that has spectators saying, "Lions and tigers and bears - Oh my!" Mounted specimens of these large predators are on display alongside their prey. About 300 stuffed animals from across the country, they are contestants of the first Chinese Animal Specimens Competition at the National Zoological Museum of China, in March, Beijing. The show will run until May 27. Organizers plan to stage the contest every other year.

"This is the country's highest-level animal specimen competition," Beijing Zoo manager Xiao Fang says.

Xiao is also head of the seven-judge panel and has worked as a taxidermist at the zoo since 1981.

"We judge the specimens' anatomical structures, scientific values, preparation processes and aesthetics," he explains.

Ten specimens took the first prize and dozens of others won second and third.

Xiao says the awards are meant to encourage taxidermists, as the trade's level of sophistication in China lags behind some countries.

While the basic principle is simple - covering a sculpture with tanned animal hide - doing it well requires mastery, Xiao explains.

The country doesn't have taxidermy schools. So Chinese taxidermists must apprentice in workshops to learn their trade, Xiao says.

There are only about 100 full-time taxidermists nationwide, Xiao estimates. There are about 300 in total, if part-time practitioners are included. And there are less than 10 companies that can mass-produce.

"Many Western countries have specific sub-fields of taxidermy," Xiao says.

"They produce different types of glass eyes for different species, ages and sexes - and even to convey particular emotions. And they use various tanning formulas. But this is all underdeveloped in China. Still, Chinese taxidermists are learning fast as overseas communication advances."

Xiao took third prize in the amateur division of the 2007 World Taxidermy Championship in the United States. It was the first time a Chinese person had joined such a contest, he says.

One of the first prize winners is Beijinger Lin Jun, whose horse didn't receive a single "nay" vote.

"Because people are so familiar with horses, any tiny flaw would be conspicuous," Lin says.

"I had to be sure everything was perfectly accurate."

Lin stayed at a ranch for a month to observe horses before starting the project. He also pored over articles on horse anatomy.

But very few people do so much fieldwork in China, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) zoologist Wang Song says.

"Animal studies in the country's colleges emphasize molecular biology, and researchers rarely leave their labs," Wang says.

Many colleges had taxidermy classes in the 1990s but later dropped them.

"How can we expect good taxidermy without field observation?" Wang says. "The lack of it is why so many specimens in top universities' museums aren't very good. They fall behind the standards of the schools' academic reputations."

That might be why none of the competition's entries came from colleges. And the lack of high-quality taxidermy might contribute to the absence of a national science museum in China.

"Of course, we want a Chinese counterpart to the Smithsonian Museums," Wang says. "But can we just present pictures in a fancy building?"

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