African Trophy Skinning
Top quality African trophy skinning is the vital to successful taxidermy of your African animals. Most taxidermy disasters occur with bad skinning and/or badly preserved skins. There is little that even the best taxidermist can do when faced with a rubbery, hard or disintegrating skin or one with rampant 'hair slip'.
Most hunters are on their first sundowner when work starts in earnest in the skinning shed. However, you will be more than welcome to watch if you are interested - most skinners will be very pleased to see you in the skinning shed.
Before The Skinning Shed...
From the moment your animal dies, decay begins to set in and in the heat of Africa, this process is accelerated, so there are important steps to take before the animal reaches the skinner. As a hunter who has spent a lot of money and effort to hunt in Africa, it is not a bad idea to know a bit about trophy field preparation. If you see corners being cut, you can speak up...nothing can be more disappointing than opening your crate and finding partially bald or heavily repaired trophies.
- It is of utmost importance that skinning starts without delay. If the trophies are left hanging around for too long in the heat and humidity, bacteria will quickly multiply, attack the hair roots and 'hair slip' occurs. (This is when the hair of the animal falls or rubs off the skin, leaving very unslightly bald patches).
- If you are out hunting and far from the skinning shed, your PH will ask the trackers to skin the animal in the field. Depending on the mount you want, this usually entails gralloching, skinning out the body, leaving the head skin intact on the skull. It is important to ensure that all flesh, fat, dirt and blood is removed from the skin.
- If the carcass needs to be moved it from the place it was shot to the hunting truck, it must not be dragged along the ground. Some trackers use the ingenious method of carrying more lightweight carcasses (after gralloching) like a backpack by cutting between the leg tendons and twisting the front and rear legs together like straps. If the hunting truck really can't get very close to load a heavy carcass, such as buffalo or eland, it will need skinning out in situ as per the specified mount and carried out along with the required meat. The super-heavyweights like elephant, giraffe and hippo will have to be dealt with in situ and the required parts removed. Depending on the location, the local people are invited to take the meat.
- Care must be taken when loading the carcass into the truck. To protect the skin (especially thin-skinned animals) from the heat of the metal bed of the hunting truck, the trophy should be placed on and covered with a thick layer of cut grass or leaves. Heavyweight animals will require winching aboard the truck and judicious use of a tarpaulin should help prevent damaging the skin required for the mount. For example, care is taken loading the front end of a buffalo or eland for a cape mount and then squishing in the back end. Fortunately not many hunters want full mounts of these large animals.
- So even before the animal is in the skinning shed, you may need to commit to a specific trophy mount in the field so the skin is cut correctly. As you will see from the diagrams below, once the main incisions are made, you cannot change your mind - for example, a shoulder mount cut cannot be converted to a full or rug mount.
About Hair Slip...
As mentioned above, 'hair slip' is the term used when the hair of the dead animal falls or rubs off the skin, leaving your taxidermy mount with very unslightly bald patches. It is caused by the action of bacteria around the hair roots which loosens the hair from the skin which then falls out, commonly it is discovered during the tanning process. Insect infestation can also cause the hair to fall out.
- Even with scrupulous field prep and taxidermy (as it should always be), some African antelope are more prone to hair slip than others. These include waterbuck, gemsbok and klipspringer which have coarse, hollow and brittle hair.
- All the African cats and hyenas are prone to hair slip if there has been inadequate removal of the fat layer under the skin. Any fat left can be absorbed into the skin, resulting in a 'greasy' skin which prevents the hair follicles anchoring the hair in the skin. The delicate skins of cats need very meticulous field preparation.
- Some African animals have naturally hairless areas in the 'armpits', groins etc. Others may have areas of sparse hair due to natural bush 'wear & tear', old age or poor condition. However, these areas look different from hair slip because there are usually still some broken or short hairs present. It some animals, hair slip is not such a disaster - an old, already bald buffalo bull is a trophy to be prized.
- It is recommended you take good close-up photographs of your animal's face, back of ears or any other skin idiosyncrasies in the field. If your trophy is unpacked looking badly 'moth-eaten' and when you last saw it had all it's hair, you can bet your bottom dollar hair slip has occurred. Also as it is not unknown for capes to be substituted without your knowledge if rampant hair slip has occurred, with a photograph you should be able to spot this.
- Causes of hair slip from poor trophy field prep include delayed skinning, no heat protection, inadequate removal of flesh, fat, blood, dirt, inadequate washing & bactericide, careless & incomplete application & re-application of salt, using old dirty salt, not using enough salt, using wrong quality salt, inadequate skin drying, neglecting insect & rot protection, poor storage facilty. No wonder a lot of taxidermists blame the trophy field prep for any bad results.
- Even if a trophy is field prepped properly and leaves the hunt area in good shape, hair slip can result from the tanning process. Some skins are processed at a separate tannery or a taxidermist may operate his own tannery. Hair slip may occur from inadequate skin penetration of pickling agent, wrongly using the tanning chemicals and wrong pH levels.
- Further trophy damage may occur at the tannery and/or taxidermist if there is slack insect or rodent control where the skins are stacked in the storage area before treatment.
- Hair slip and any other problems are usually discovered after tanning when a good taxidermist closely examines the skin before the mounting process. If there is a serious hair slip or another problem such as an unworkable rubbery skin, the taxidermist should contact you promptly and send you photos of the skins. He will tell you exactly what he can do to 'repair' or disguise the flaw if it's possible. If it's really bad and would be very noticeable on the mount, you should be given the option to downgrade your cape to a skull mount or give him your permission to use another cape.
Good African Skinning Procedure...
- Use a clean, sharp knife to skin out the animal according to the mount required, making straight, clean incisions. Depending on the mount, leave excess skin rather than cut it too tight.
- The skin must be free of all flesh and fat, washed and cleaned to remove all blood and dirt.
- Special care must be taken not to damage the ears, eyes, nose and lips. .
- All feet/hooves must be skinned to the very last point, with all excess tissue & bones removed.
- Wash the skin with anti-bacterial product mixed into cold water and allow to drip-dry.
- Use clean, fine-grained, uniodised salt. Do not use rock salt or old, dirty salt.
- On a preferably wooden, ventilated platform, place a layer of salt 10mm thick.
- Place the skin onto this layer of salt HAIRSIDE down.
- Cover the skin with another layer of salt, making sure that this is completely covered and there are no folds where salt has not penetrated.
- Thick-skinned animal skins (skin areas thicker than about 1/4") will need to be scored to get full salt penetration. This will need to be done on giraffe, hippo and rhino, shoulders of gemsbok, eland and the mane area of zebra.
- Keep it in the shade for 24 hours then shake the excess salt off, not forgetting the ears.
- Hang up to wind-dry in the shade. NEVER leave in direct sunlight.
- When the skin is almost dry but still pliable, fold it into a fairly small, neat parcel with the hair and ears on the inside to prevent damage.
- When a skin has to be stored for a long length of time, it is very important to dust it with a powdered insecticide.
- Birds, porcupine and fish can be frozen as they are and MUST NOT be gutted.
- All the separate trophy parts will be tagged with a laminated or other 'indestructible' label as soon as possible to prevent them being mixed up with any other similar trophies. The tag should be attached at the edge of a skin, so the hole will not be visible when it is mounted - especially not through the ear. Your PH should keep a taxidermy register up to date throughout the hunt with all your species and the taxidermy instructions.
- At the end of the hunt you can review the taxidermy instructions and sign the register, keeping a copy for yourself.
- A copy of the taxidermy register will also go to the taxidermist who will review and finalise everything with you before work starts on the trophies.
Diagram 1: Cape Mount
Cape or Shoulder Mount
Diagram 2: Full Mount
Diagram 3: Flat Skin
Flat Skin or Rug Mount
Other Problems With African Trophy Skins
There are recurrent problems with trophy skins coming out of several African countries which make it very hard for the taxidermist to work with the trophy and get a good result. It might be worth checking with your outfitter if he is aware and needs to take action.
- Some skins from Zimbabwe are difficult to process, being stiff and discoloured. This is because poor quality salt with a high lime content is used to preserve them. Make sure your outfitter uses fresh, top-grade salt.
- Skins from central/western African countries have problems due to difficulties with drying in the high humidity. The skins of antelopes particularly, lose their flexibility but with special tanning processes this can usually be rectified
- Skins from Tanzania, Zambia and Botswana suffer from overdoses of insecticide as well as poor salt on occasion, causing hardness and disintegration.
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African Trophy Taxidermy
African Trophy Skinning
Page Updated: Feb 2020