African skinning

Submitted by Rich on 2/28/00. ( RBURNS@MICRON.NET )

I am planning a trip to Africa and would like any suggestions on
skinning the standard Plains Game animals. I have never worked with
any Exotics but plan on doing all the mounting myself. What do you
boys and GIRLS suggest for any preventive measures. I know that piss
poor planning provides for piss poor performance. So any info would be
greatly appreciated. I understand this is an open question so any reply
is ok, just make them nice ones!!


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Foreign Field Care

This response submitted by John Bellucci on 2/29/00. ( )

Hi Rich,

This is reprinted from an article I wrote for our local Safari Club Chapter Newsletter ... so bear in mind it has been written for hunters ... clients ... that don't often get to skin an animal, but need good information to make sure the job is done correctly.

"Jambo, Bwana!"

Here, I will concentrate on the concerns of getting your overseas trophies properly prepared to help ensure the best trophy mount possible. There is an old adage in the Taxidermy industry -- "A beautiful mount begins in the field." This, of course, refers to proper care of the specimen in the field, will result in a beautiful mount later on.

The biggest set of potential problems and complaints seem to come about with trophy animals taken from the plains and savannas of Africa. There are a seeming abundance of guides and outfitters that hire "only the worst" when it comes to this type of service.

Luckily, there are many exceptions to this statement -- fortunately! However, more often than not, if you -- the hunter -- are not aware of proper procedure, the only thing you will have from your hard-earned hunt is memories. And not the one's that come to you when you view your prized trophy in it's place of honor!

It is for this, the proper procedures of foreign field-care that will ultimately result in a beautiful trophy mount and happy memories of the entire event, that I humbly submit this information.

I will begin with some basics you can look for to determine that the skinners are doing a good job. Possibly the most important thing to remember is to treat the animal as quickly as possible! Sure, you can take a couple of photos of yourself with your trophy, but bear in mind the heat of the day. This is the primary reason skins spoil!

Before knife even touches animal, some basic measurements taken now will provide the taxidermist with invaluable information later. The major measurements of concern are: tip of the nose -- to front corner of the eye; tip of the nose -- to the back of the skull; front corner of the eye -- to the front base of the horn; width of the eyes -- at both the front corners and rear edge -- if possible; circumference of the neck -- just below the ears, and again about 3-inches further down the neck -- these are more accurately taken off the neck after skinning. These are the measurements needed for purchasing the proper sized headform for the mount, and they take but minutes to record!

In addition to these headform measurements, additional measurements are required for a full or "lifesize" mount. The first important measurement, the overall length of the animal, measured from the tip of the nose -- to the base or "root" of the tail, following the contour of the back, is taken while the skin is still on the specimen. Next would be the length of the hind leg, from the bottom of the foot or hoof as it would be posed standing, up to the point of the hock -- the rear heel of the animal. Another is from the bottom of the front foot or hoof as it would be posed standing, up to the first joint of the "knee" and another measured further up to include the point of the "elbow"; as well as the overall height at the shoulder.

All other body measurements can be taken off the skinned carcass. These would include the circumferences of the chest behind the forelegs, around the mid-chest -- the "mid-drift", and around the abdomen. Also, record the circumference of the neck in front of the shoulders; behind the ears; and around the middle. Finally: the depth of the torso, from the top-line to the belly-line; thickness through the body at head of humerus; from head of humerus to head of femur; head of brisket to head of femur; and length of tail, are the important "field measurements" needed for a full mounted trophy.

To begin the skinning procedure, a cut is made from the middle/rear base of one horn, towards the rear point of the back of the skull. When this is done, this step is repeated on the other side of the head. Note: It is best if these initial cuts are made with the edge of the blade facing up -- away from the hairs. In this way there is less chance of actually slicing through any of the hairs!

After the two opening cuts meet at the back of the skull, a long opening incision is run down the center of the topside of the neck, to continue on past the shoulders. Today's headforms have much more shoulders on them than headforms of years past, and pedestal mountings can require even more of a rearward portion of the hide!

Many times I suggest to clients that they instruct the skinners to skin as far as the middle of the animals back, insuring plenty of hide in case a pedestal mount is desired. After opening as far back as needed, the skin surrounding the chest area is cut through, encircling the animal from one side of the opening cut around to the other.

** Be sure the throat of the animal is never cut -- for any reason! **

After all opening cuts are made; skinning proceeds forward and up the shoulders and neck. As the skin is pulled forward, the connective white tissue is all that should be sliced through to remove the hide from the meat of the carcass. This assures there will be no knife nicks in the skin. There is no reason for them!
Skinning continues until the bases of the ears are reached. Skin up over the base of the ears by pulling the skin forward until the creamy-yellowish ear cartilage is seen. Always make sure the muscles of the ear bases -- the "ear butts" -- are cut through at their point of attachment right at the skull. Never let the ears be cut further up the ear muscles. This practice creates a horribly wide ear opening and it cuts through the front notch or "V" of the front of the ear.

After freeing the ears from the skull, the skin must be carefully cut from around the horns. A screwdriver is sometimes a very useful assist in prying the skin loose from around the horns without cutting the skin.

Continue forward down the skull, being careful not to cut through the skin, especially around the eyes. To preserve the eyelids intact, the "free" hand -- the hand without the knife -- acts as a guide from the outside of the skin, so that you feel that you are not cutting into the lids. Reverse the skin and from the outside put forefinger under the rear edge of the eyelid and lift up; then from the skin side cut through this thin skin-tissue close to the bone surrounding the eye until the forward corner of the eye is reached. Then cut very close to the bone and continue to do so until the tear duct is freed -- on animals that have a tear duct!

Skin down the face until nearing the rear corners of the mouth. Again, from the outside insert the forefinger in the corner of the mouth and pull up, giving tension to the cheek muscles. Cut through the cheek muscles about one-inch from the corner of the mouth; then free the skin of the lower lip from the jaw by cutting close to the bone. Free upper lip and nose, cutting close to the bone, in the same manner. As with the eye, the forefinger may also be placed as a guide in the nostril when skinning down over the nose cartilage and cutting through to finally free the skin from the skull.
With the skin, or "cape" removed, now it is time for the important details to be tended to. The ears must be turned inside out, using the thumbs as wedges to assist in this step. They must be worked very nearly to the tips and sides, but great care must be taken not to break through the edges. The actual ear cartilage remains attached to the front ear skins here. All remaining red meat is removed from the ear cartilages, leaving the full "bowl" (rounded base of ear cartilage) of the ears intact. Proper salting will preserve these parts -- don't let anyone tell you otherwise! Proper turning of the ears is paramount to preserving them, thus producing well-mounted ears.

The lips are opened or "split" by holding the outer surfaces -- the hair-side and the textured "gum-side" -- between the thumb and forefinger, while slitting the inner flesh with a knife so they will lay open -- as you would butterfly shrimp. The edges of the lower lip, at the front, should also be opened in this manner, and with extreme care to avoid cutting through these narrow walls. Surplus fat and flesh should be removed from the skin for best results.

Get the skin off and salted with the least possible delay. If in hot country where the skin may be a long time in coming to camp to be salted, it is wise to arrange to have some salt carried with you so, as the trophy is skinned, salt may be applied to the surface and continued frequently until the skin is completely removed. By the time the skin is off, the salt has started its valuable work and the safety of this trophy is assured!

Salted skins are less apt to be attacked by insects and mice than those cured by drying only. Common, non-iodized table salt is the one best thing to apply to any and all skins, and there is no danger of using too much. While skinning, or after skinning, the flesh side should not be allowed to become dry, as it will not take the salt. The skin should be spread on the ground, flesh side up -- preferably on a tarp or canvas -- the edges opened and stretched, and liberally sprinkled with salt. The salt supply should always be kept dry ... the drier it is the better it draws liquids from the skin.

The salt should be well rubbed into every part of the skin with the flat of the hand, and the skin folded, flesh sides together, placed in a shady place on a slanting platform, allowing the initial fluids to drain away. After eight to twelve hours, the skin can be unrolled, the old salt scraped off, and a new dry layer of salt rubbed into all areas of the skin again. Be sure no wrinkles form in the skin that will not allow the salt to reach them. Salt must be in contact with all areas of the flesh-side of the skin.

This can be followed up with an additional salting or two, until the skin is dry enough, but still able to be folded for shipping. The skins are folded up compactly, flesh side out for protection, when almost dry, so they can be packed into shipping boxes without taking up much room. Skins thus handled will readily relax in the tanning process, and are safe from becoming hair-slipped.

** All swine animals: pigs, boars, warthogs, etc., are to be packaged separately from the other trophy specimens. They may be in the same shipping box, but they must be individually wrapped so as not to come into contact with the other skins. Failure to do so will result in lost time of the entire shipment being held in quarantine plus additional and unnecessary dippings! **

At this point, be sure all shipping tags are secured to all skins and horns. Don't forget to use corresponding tags for the skins and their horns, so as not to confuse them with other trophies of another hunter! Your Kudu horns should be going home with your Kudu cape! Please don't think this doesn't happen.

** You can use non-corrosive write-on "Impresso-Tags" for this type of identification. You can either number them before you leave, or you may number them in the field. Either way, these will give you double "control numbers" for cape and horns! **

A client of a fellow taxidermist brought back the entire skeleton of his trophy White Rhino, only to find out from the taxidermist that he most likely had the bones of three separate rhinos! Never mind that the thing had three different sets of foreleg bones!

In a climate where heat, dampness and a greater danger of damage by vermin confront the collector, "boosting" the ordinary salting step can make a better job of preserving the hides. By mixing the salt with alum or aluminum sulphate -- in half and half ratios (2 lbs salt plus 2 lbs alum) -- the drying ability of the salt will be nearly quadrupled! Virtually before your eyes, you will see the skin begin to puddle much of the liquids contained within, as it puckers and dries! This mixture is especially useful during the wet season!
No matter how carefully trophies are treated in tropical countries, they become utterly ruined if not packed and boxed properly for overseas shipping. To lessen the danger from attacks of insects, skins should not be boxed until ready to ship, and frequent examinations for insects should be made. Ask the outfitter, guide, or PH to provide the skins with a good insecticide. Many brands are in use for just this purpose.

Here is a list of don'ts:
Don't leave the care of the trophy until tomorrow.
Don't cut across throat or split it.
Don't use wire or tin tags for marking capes -- they leave rust marks.
Don't dry skins in the sun or near fire.
Don't leave fat or meat on skins.
Don't leave trophies without corresponding tags on horns and capes.
Don't delay shipment.
Don't think taxidermists are miracle workers. We can fix a lot of damage -- bullet holes are closed, torn ears are mended, and missing eyes can be replaced, but insect damaged areas -- areas that are so badly chewed and eaten through, are a nightmare!

There's much to be said for the poor appearance of large areas of missing hair that has "slipped" due to improper handling. Natural areas of hair rub are just that, natural -- the epidermal layer is still intact. Some antelope, especially the older animals, have a tendency to "rub themselves raw" while relieving an itch. In these cases, at least the skin texture is still evident in the epidermis. Epidermal slippage however, leaves a smooth, slick area to the affected section of the skin. This requires much work to restore.

When it comes to foreign field care, it is the client that can make the difference between the beautiful trophy and the well-mounted trophy of a poor quality animal. I hope I have well armed you for your next Safari -- wherever it takes you. "Kwaheri!" ... John B.

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