x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

An instinct for preservation: meet the only Emirati taxidermist

The work of Abdullah Al Ali has been seen by everyone from curious tourists to visiting student parties and his work is being used in the UAE's museums, documenting local species and those from other lands.

Abdullah Mohammed Al Ali, owner of Al Maha Taxidermy, is the UAE's only Emirati taxidermist Mariam Al Nuaimi / The National
Abdullah Mohammed Al Ali, owner of Al Maha Taxidermy, is the UAE's only Emirati taxidermist Mariam Al Nuaimi / The National

It was not quite the scene from the film The Hangover Part III, when the life of a giraffe is literally cut short as the animal is driven under a low bridge. In this case, the cause of the beast's demise was a heart attack brought on by dodging cars on the streets of Abu Dhabi.

There is one other crucial difference. In the latter case, the giraffe may be dead, but it is certainly not buried.

Faced with the problem of larger-than-usual roadkill, the team from the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, who captured the animal after it escaped from a private zoo only to see it succumb to stress, sent word to Abdullah Al Ali.

"The agency knew I would be interested," says Mr Al Ali, the eminent Emirati taxidermist and the only one in the country. "So they called me when she died, and I came and took it."

Working on the giraffe required special techniques, because of the creature's long legs and even longer neck.

But Mr Al Ali was equal to the task. He has preserved giraffes before. And elephants and camels.

The licence granted to Mr Al Ali, and his company, Al Maha Taxidermy, was the first of its kind in the UAE, and it remains unique 15 years later. By working with the agency, he ensures his work complies with the Convention on International Trade In Endangered Species, the Cites treaty, which requires a serial number for any creature from an endangered species after its death before it can be preserved.

The work of Al Maha Taxidermy has been seen by everyone from curious tourists to visiting student parties. It fills many of the country's museums, documenting local species and those from other lands. As tourism grows in Abu Dhabi, Mr Al Ali says, preserving animals through taxidermy is one way to show visitors some of the local animal and bird life.

"One of the main and first entities we worked with was the Natural History Museum, and I think they have a great collection of living and dead animals," he says. "A lot of schools and tourists come to visit and that gives our work its purpose and dimension."

Working with zoos and nature reserves is easier, he says, because the paperwork is sorted out. "They call us when an animal is dead, especially if it is a rare one."

Smaller animals are sent directly to the workshop in Mussaffah. Bigger animals require special handling, depending on the time of year. In winter there is more time before decay sets in; in summer it is critical to move the remains to cool storage.

Customers include locals and expatriates. After a hunting trip to South Africa, for example, trophies can be sent directly to Abu Dhabi for taxidermy rather than having them preserved locally, which can take from six months to a year. Mr Al Ali promises a speedy service and delivery by airmail if necessary.

Before he started work, sheikhs and others who made hunting trips would sent specimens to Europe. The Netherlands, in particular, developed an expertise in falcons.

"People were happy and supportive when we started, whether for the taxidermy itself or the maintenance process after. Instead of them sending it abroad, we save them time and money," he says.

Specimens need annual attention because while the "body" of the animal is a model, the skin is real. Insects are a particular problem, especially in the ears, while skins need treating to maintain their sheen,

"The ghazal has a thick skin, so that in particular needs more maintainance," Mr Al Ali says.

Different parts of the word have diffent tastes in trophies, he says. "In most big palaces and houses that I have seen in the US, you would find the head of a buffalo. Here in the emirates, it is the Arabian maha [deer] that is liked."

A single specimen might take a day to finish, says Mr Al Ali. More complex pieces, such as a falcon hunting a houbara, can take three days.

For those who enjoy hunting, the trophy is not only a piece of decoration but a memory of a certain day, says Mr Al Ali. Hunters know the story behind every trophy. "For sheikhs it is not just for show. He would never want an animal to be preserved unless he hunted it. Or, it was very rare and died."

Sheikhs, he says like to give each other mounted animals as gifts. Only another hunter can understand the magnificence of a specimen and the story behind it.

As for the final appearance of a preserved animal, Mr Al Ali says most people lack the anatomical knowledge to judge his work. "Even a person who loves animals would not have the eye to judge a trophy and how accurate the anatomy is spread well, and proportional," he says. "Only a breeder can judge the trophy well."

Almost the only thing that can't be preserved, Mr Al Ali explains, is the eye: "It is the one part of the body that is all liquid." The eyes on his specimens are made from a special crystal glass imported from Germany or the United States.

Before the animal can be delivered, it must be fixed in a realistic pose. That means a lot of research on living creatures in their natural habitat to see how they stand and move.

"We study the animal," says Mr Al Ali. "We never take an animal into the process without doing the research, and check its appearance, the way it moves and pauses."

After many years in his profession Mr Al Ali has observed two things. "I have noticed that the mood of the person who is working on the trophy affects the still mood of the finished piece. As funny as it sounds, but true, you see a trophy a little bit sad or a little bit grinning and that mainly expresses who worked on it and gave it that feeling."

His other discovery is that the best workers come from South Africa. "In South Africa, it is what they do, and we brought them here. When you want to find the best people who are skilled in a certain way, look for those who have inherited it from their ancestors generation by generation."