‘For a price I can get you any animal’
Daniel Foggo and Hala Jaber
JEAN-PIERRE GERARD walked between the ranks of elk antlers stacked neatly against the walls of his taxidermy warehouse, past the folded skin of an elephant and the remains of a crocodile before stopping next to the mounted body of a gigantic roaring lion.
In front of him, spread out upon the floor under the baleful gaze of a stuffed vulture on a nearby pedestal, was an array of beautiful animal skins.
Three tigers, a cheetah and two lynx had recently died to provide the colourful spectacle that Gerard now proudly unveiled to his British guests.
The 49-year-old taxidermist believed them to be potential customers looking for tiger and cheetah pelts to turn into stuffed curiosities for a house in Scotland.
The “clients”, who were actually undercover reporters for The Sunday Times, had been referred to him through his British partner, Andre Brandwood, who worked closely with Gerard to provide a list of elite customers with stuffed examples of every species imaginable.
Nothing was off-limits, the “clients” were informed. For if, as is the case with tigers, international law said that wild specimens could not be killed, there was another solution.
Gerard had a network of contacts with zoos throughout Europe that provided him with animals, it was disclosed.
“Jean-Pierre has a strangle-hold on the market for tigers because so many zoos deal with him,” said Brandwood to an undercover reporter. “He has fixed the price at £3,000 just for the skin, of which the zoo might get half.
“He doesn’t want the price lower because then everyone would want one. This way it is like having an Aston Martin car – the price is high for a reason and it keeps it exclusive.”
It is a highly profitable business for Gerard, who employs a staff of 12 at his expansive workshop in the outskirts of the Belgian town of Liège and drives an S-class Mercedes.
In order to keep him in work he is provided with a steady stream of dead animals, courtesy of the zoos.
Many animals are killed, well before the natural end of their lifespans, simply because the zoos no longer have room for them. Then the bodies are sold, or given, to Gerard who, together with Brandwood and other taxidermists to whom he subcontracts, charges customers thousands of pounds for the privilege of “bringing them back to life”.
In halting English Gerard explained to the “clients” how his relationship with the zoos worked: “When animals die the veterinarian call me – ‘Jean Pierre come because we have an accident or a death’ or ‘it is necessary to shoot this animal because we have too much’.
“First they try always to give for another zoo, this is the first thing. If it is not possible, sometimes you need to kill.”
The financial relationship between zoos and taxidermists has been uncovered for the first time following a two-week inquiry by The Sunday Times.
The investigation has revealed that tiger skins, which the British government has made strenuous efforts to stop being traded, can be freely acquired here through the exploitation of a loophole in the law.
Like every country in the European Union, Britain is bound by a law based upon the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) in which animals are graded according to how near to extinction they are.
Tigers, which now number only about 5,000 in the wild, are at the top of the Cites list on its appendix I. Trade in any part of a wild tiger is banned, but few realise that commerce with captive-bred tigers, which number at least twice those of their wild brethren, can be permitted upon the issuance of a certificate known as an article 10.
EU member states have discretionary power as to whether to issue such certificates.
Britain regards itself as having one of the strictest interpretations of the EU law and since the legislation came into effect 10 years ago the Department for Environment, Food and Rual Affairs has issued just four certificates for stuffed tigers. Even those were only to institutions such as museums for educational purposes, or for display rather than sale.
But Belgium, for example, takes a different stance. Its authorities issue certificates more freely, and they are just as valid in Britain.
When informed of the loophole last week, animal welfare campaigners said it “made a mockery” of the British government’s position.
Craig Redmond of the Captive Animals’ Protection Society said: “Despite the British government saying they have the strictest laws, once the skins are in the EU there’s very little they can do about it.”
Stephanie Pendry, UK enforcement officer for Traffic International, the wildlife trade monitoring group, said that differing attitudes across Europe to tiger trade could cause problems.
“If it creates sufficient demand for animal parts, it could lead to an illegal trade – with animals smuggled into the EU and laundered into the legal system,” she said.
The Sunday Times began its investigation by contacting Brandwood, a 30-year-old taxidermist who operates out of a terraced house in a Hertfordshire town. An undercover reporter posed as a representative for a wealthy Middle Eastern man who wanted to acquire stuffed animals including two tigers and a cheetah.
“For a price I can pretty much get any specimen you want,” said Brandwood. “But of course everything has a price and I’m down the line. I don’t muck around with wild things or anything like that. Everything I acquire either comes from zoos [or] wildlife parks.”
He warned that it might take months to source the tigers. But at a subsequent meeting a few days later Brandwood told the reporter he had good news.
“I can get tigers tomorrow,” he said. “I have got four available.”
He explained that they had been procured by his colleague, Gerard, one of the foremost taxidermists in Europe.
“He gets them from zoos and he is the only person in the whole of the European Union who actually has authority to take zoo animals,” he said.
Gerard would provide the skins for two tigers for £6,000, and for the same amount again Brandwood said he would mount the animals in whichever position the reporter’s “client” wished.
A cheetah skin could be supplied, too, for the slightly higher price of £3,400 and stuffed for a further £2,200.
Brandwood said zoos now give tigers a “shelf life” of up to 15 years after which they are more likely to kill them.
“They sort of cap it at 15 years because when it goes over the 15 years you get cancers, kidney failure. It costs them money.
“I know someone in the UK [who can supply tiger skins] but he is irregular,” he said. “The place in Britain is helpful but they seem to be letting their animals go on and on and on.”
Brandwood emphasised that he was a stickler for legality and said he could not afford to be caught in possession of an illegally derived tiger. Getting the proper licence in the UK would be a problem because of all the “bunnyhuggers”, but the requisite certificate could be obtained from another EU country instead.
Four days later the reporter and a colleague travelled to Liège to meet Gerard and view the skins.
Gerard took the undercover reporters to his workshop in a converted mining facility on the outskirts of the town. Chamber after chamber was filled with the remains of dead animals in various states of reconstruction. In one corner a giraffe towered over two stuffed giant elands, the world’s largest kind of antelope. Gerard also took delight in displaying the frozen bodies of two newborn lion cubs.
The taxidermist was at pains to emphasise the quality of the female tigers’ coats, showing that they did not have any cuts or abrasions on them. He said it was pure chance he had so many available at one time.
“Sometimes I have two or three tigers in two months and sometimes I am waiting one year to get one,” Gerard said, adding that he also sourced them from circuses.
“Sometime in the circus [the owner] has an old animal, which he tries to get older because it is like his children, he likes it so much because he works with the animals but in the zoo, no. It is different because he doesn’t sleep with the tiger. The zoo is different.”
Attitudes in European zoos are indeed very different from those in Britain, it would seem.
Sarah Christie, manager of the Zoological Society of London’s conservation programmes and a leading expert on tiger breeding, said that in Britain skins were always incinerated if not needed for scientific research.
However, Harry Schram, the executive director of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (Eaza), said he was unconcerned about zoos killing healthy animals and selling them for stuffing.
He admitted Eaza zoos were being actively encouraged to kill unwanted animals, including tigers, that could not be rehomed elsewhere and especially if their bloodlines were not pure. So-called “hybrid” tigers, which result from crossing two or more of the subspecies, make up the majority of the 10,000 captive tigers worldwide.
“For hybrid tigers it is almost impossible, they take up the space, they tie up keeper time and food that could be invested in endangered species, so we are certainly not encouraging our members to keep these animals when there is an alternative of euthanasia,” said Schram.
“I am probably more concerned about the species issue than about the individual animal but I know in the UK things are a little bit different in that there are lots of feelings about animals as individuals.”
Gerard insisted that he had all the relevant paperwork to enable him to sell the tiger and cheetah skins. An undercover reporter later requested, and was eventually e-mailed, scanned copies of the animals’ certificates.
They showed that both tigers had died at a relatively young age – one aged five and the other at just 18 months – in May and February of this year. Tigers can live to past 20 in captivity.
Gerard’s name was emblazoned on the top but when the certificate numbers were cross-checked with the Belgian Cites authority, it became clear they were not in fact issued in his name and had been tampered with.
The certificates relating to the tigers and cheetah were actually in the name of the zoos that sold them to Gerard, although in all three cases their names had been obscured by the taxidermist who had masked their names with his own.
The Belgian Cites authorities said the certificates were invalid as presented and asked for more details to enable them to investigate.
The safari park that had sold the tigers to Gerard, the Monde Sauvage near the town of Aywaille, is one of the largest in Belgium, Eaza-registered and with a good reputation. Joseph Renson, the zoo’s director, initially told The Sunday Times that both tigers, whose names he could not recall, had died of “old age”. When it was suggested this was implausible given their ages, he said the older one had died in a fight while the other had expired from natural causes.
On the International Species Information System (ISIS) computer database, however, the younger tiger is listed as having been “euthanased”. The other is not given a cause of death, though its skin was immaculate, suggesting perhaps that if it had been killed in a fight, it had been a bloodless one.
The female cheetah, which was called Gert, was born in 1998 in Germany, and lived initially with a private owner in Holland before being transferred to Olmense zoo in Belgium in 2002. Less than six months later, on New Year’s Day, she died.
Olmense’s chief biologist, Robby Van der Velden, said Gert died after ingesting a chicken bone, although he was not sure whether the animal had choked or starved to death.
Monde Sauvage safari park said it had been paid by Gerard for the tigers but insisted the total was €750 (£500) and that it was “all legal”. Van der Velden said he “wasn’t sure” whether any money had been paid.
When confronted, both Brandwood and Gerard said they had done nothing wrong despite the latter admitting he had tampered with the certificates.
“Recently I have just not had the time to go and change it to my name,” said Gerard. Animals were not killed to order, he insisted. “Nobody kills animals for business.”
Brandwood said: “There are illegal things happening but Jean-Pierre and I are not involved.”
Only 5,000 tigers left in the wild
The decline of the tiger in the wild has been inexorable. From a peak in the last century of 100,000, they have dwindled to a total world population of about 5,000 with three of the eight original subspecies now extinct, writes Daniel Foggo.
By contrast there are believed to be more than double that number kept in captivity. Texas alone is said to be home to about 5,000.
No captive tigers have been successfully reintroduced into the wild where they face the twin threats of poaching and habitat destruction.
In China, tiger body parts are prized for their supposed medicinal qualities and poachers can expect a lucrative return. Human encroachment on the animals’ living space means the remaining populations are contained in increasingly isolated pockets.
International law states that selling wild tigers is illegal, yet this has not stemmed their decline. In India, Nepal and China, which have all signed up to the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, poaching continues.