The leopard gets its spots

On June 5, 1978, on World Environment Day, the first gallery opened, with exhibits taken on long-term loan from the Zoological Survey of India, the Botanical Survey of India and the Geological Survey of India.

Updated: January 14, 2018 10:55 am

In 2016, days after a fire gutted the National Museum of Natural History in Delhi, a tail-less fibreglass dinosaur, an albino tiger blackened from soot, a wild ass and a rhino were among 98 specimens that made the 375-km journey to Sawai Madhopur. The Indian Express visits the museum in Rajasthan and finds them restored and ready to move back, but with no signs of a museum in Delhi, they wait.

It was a melanistic tiger that couldn’t clear Customs. In the late ’80s, the skin was confiscated from a foreigner’s bag at an Indian airport and put away as wildlife trophy. A year later, the rare, “partially black” skin wound up at the FICCI building that housed the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Delhi’s Mandi House, only greeting visitors during special exhibitions. It remained locked away on the fifth floor, next to the skin of an extinct Asiatic Cheetah — the keys accessible only to a handful of men.

Vilas Ganesh Gogate, 77, says he wept when he heard the news of the fire. It was the morning of April 26, 2016, and his television set transmitted the awful news. The FICCI building was up in flames and with it, rare specimens and four decades of hard work. “Completely gutted,” the retired NMNH taxidermist says over the phone from Pune. “It was impossible to get any of it back. I feel so sad.” It took men on 35 fire tenders over four hours to douse the flames. No casualty was reported but along with over 200 exhibits, four thick, hard-bound registers and numerous CDs that had digitised the collection, were charred. Only mounds of ash remained. There was no means to quantify the loss.

In the weeks and months after the fire, three trucks full of specimens, including a dinosaur that was propped up at the entrance to the FICCI building, would embark on the 375-kilometre road journey to the museum’s regional centre at Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan, in an attempt to restore and document them. The fibreglass dinosaur was too big for the movers’ truck and its tail had to be dismantled for the journey.

Initially, the plan was to bring them all back to Delhi within six months of the fire. But now, nearly two years later, though most of the specimens are ready to make that journey back, they remain at Sawai Madhopur as the NMNH headquarters searches for a new home in the Capital.

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Soon after she returned from the 1972 Stockholm Conference, it is said that then prime minister Indira Gandhi had scribbled a ‘concept note’ on a piece of paper. She wrote down “world class natural history museum”, says Aligarh Muslim University professor of museology Asif Naqvi, who joined as scientist at the museum in 1978 and retired in 2000.

leopard, Rajasthan museum, Rajasthan museum fire, National Museum of Natural History in Delhi, dinosaur, albino tiger, rhino, Sawai Madhopur, FICCI, FICCI building, Rajasthan museum, The fully restored hyena. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

Gandhi had visited natural history museums in America and Europe and envisioned something similar in India. “The idea was to create public opinion for saving the environment… a mouthpiece for the Ministry of Environment,” says Gogate, the retired taxidermist.

In the mid-70s, the NMNH operated out of a rented room in the FICCI building, with specialists recruited for the task. Experts from Calcutta, Baroda and Aligarh universities, the only ones that offered zoology as a course, were brought in to build the museum from scratch. The NMNH would soon take over the whole building, after intelligence agencies that had occupied the upper floors moved out.

Gogate was called back from Baghdad, where he worked in the natural history museum as a taxidermist. “At the NMNH, we worked for over two years, day in and day out. I don’t remember taking even a single day off,” he says about those initial days of putting together the collection in Delhi.

On June 5, 1978, on World Environment Day, the first gallery opened, with exhibits taken on long-term loan from the Zoological Survey of India, the Botanical Survey of India and the Geological Survey of India. “But almost all the people credited with setting up the museum are no more, or are in poor health. What the museum lost, the nation lost in that fire,” he says.

In the weeks and months after the fire, M Vijay, in his late thirties, who had then just been recruited as Scientist-B to work at the Delhi museum, would oversee the big move of all the specimens that could be salvaged from the first-floor gallery, where, miraculously, the fire hadn’t spread.

leopard, Rajasthan museum, Rajasthan museum fire, National Museum of Natural History in Delhi, dinosaur, albino tiger, rhino, Sawai Madhopur, FICCI, FICCI building, Rajasthan museum, The fibreglass dinosaur, that once stood at the entrance to the FICCI building. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

Ninety-eight “zoological specimens” could be salvaged. “I was there when they came to douse the fire,” says Vijay. “After five floors were gutted, they stopped the fire from spreading to the first floor where some of the exhibits were kept. But in the process, these exhibits were completely drenched. The firemen also used carbon powder to arrest the fire, which settled on these specimens.” Vijay and his colleagues drew up an inventory and supervised the packaging of the specimens to transport them away from what he terms a “national disaster”.

It was a sorry sight in mid-2016, rows of drenched specimens, waiting to be brought back to ‘life’, their origins erased by the fire. “Some even came from the British,” says Vijay. First, the team wrapped the specimens in layers of acid-free handmade paper that would absorb the water, then a layer of soft cotton and finally, shock-absorbent material such as foam or bubble-wrap for the long journey by road to Sawai Madhopur. A custom-made wooden crate was made for each specimen. Despite these precautions, an adult tiger broke its pelvic girdle, a wild ass suffered head injuries and broke its neck, the rhino, which is also the museum’s logo, lost a tail, and the black buck tips of its ear.

At the Rajiv Gandhi Regional Museum of Natural History in Sawai Madhopur, one of four regional natural history museums in India, the air-conditioning in the large hall on the first floor was cranked up. “It was summer and we brought all the specimens and laid them out here,” says Vijay, pointing to the hall in the Sawai Madhopur centre. The 16-member team, including some who had come from the Delhi centre and who continue to be here, got to work: documenting the specimens, others sitting around on all four sides of a Tibetan Yak on chairs using small driers — “not like our hair driers”, says Vijay — to make the water evaporate. “Feel the hair,” he prompts. “It is soft now, and not pisu-pisu (sticky) like it was before,” he says in his native Tamil.

But before anything else, the team made pedestals for every specimen. The objective was to make the dead stand up, restore the dignity with which they used to be displayed on the first floor of the FICCI building.

Now, on the first floor of the regional centre in Rajasthan, when the tube lights come on a room labelled ‘Reserve Collection’ reveals rows and rows of animals. The white ‘albino’ tiger is white again, the langur golden once again, perched on a branch and staring vacantly at a wall. Two years ago, they came to this centre with black, dusty and matted hair.

leopard, Rajasthan museum, Rajasthan museum fire, National Museum of Natural History in Delhi, dinosaur, albino tiger, rhino, Sawai Madhopur, FICCI, FICCI building, Rajasthan museum, The headquarters of the NMNH that caught fire. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

A peacock and a Gangetic dolphin share space on steel almirahs, and bird eggs in wooden boxes, corals and sea sponges lie inside glass and steel almirahs.

The hyena and the leopard, however, no longer hang out on the first floor. They were taken downstairs to be displayed in the gallery to showcase Rajasthan’s prized Ranthambore National Park — the park’s entrance is barely a few kilometres away. “It took group meetings to decide how to display each of these animals. We had to make the fake branch with Plaster of Paris and paint the background,” says Vijay, adding that display cost up to Rs 10,000 to be propped up. “These two animals (hyena and leopard) were ready to be displayed but the others still require a few more rounds to bring them back to shape,” says Vijay.

The last round involved putting them in giant wooden boxes to fumigate them with a combination of chemicals and eucalyptus and lemongrass oils in a bid to sniff out all the larvae and beetles that could have built home in the skin. All this involved a long, bureaucratic journey of asking for written permission from the “headquarters”, and waiting patiently for sanction letters to come through from Delhi, where there are no signs yet of a site to house the restored specimens.

The plan now is to keep at least some of the specimens at Noida’s Botanical Gardens, where a gallery will open later this year, until they find a more permanent home.

At the same time, a board has been up since 2015 next to Purana Qila in Delhi announcing its allegiance to the museum. Currently, it is a parking lot for Volvo buses that transport school students to the National Science Centre across the road and also doubles up as a cricket pitch and a space for open defecation.

An artist’s impression of the new museum is impressive, with modern designs and dedicated green spaces.

“The ministry is in the process of completing tenders for the museum and an architect has been selected,” says NMNH Director Naaz Rizvi. “The then environment minister Anil Dave had made some changes to the design of the museum. It also required changes to the land use, and formalities and permissions to be completed by the Archaeological Survey of India and Monuments Department since the site is right next to Purana Qila,” she says.

“The reason for allotting the land there was because it is close to the Science Centre and the Delhi Zoo, and so, when school children come visiting, there are other interesting sites nearby,” says Rizvi.

This land, however, came to be allotted after a series of other offers around Central Delhi, say people associated with the museum from the start. “We were offered the current Delhi Secretariat, Bikaner House, then a plot of land in front of the Zoo for which we didn’t get permission since it would block the view of Purana Qila. Last I heard, there is a board on a land allotted near Purana Qila,” says Naqvi, the AMU professor, adding there was “some issue or the other” with each of these venues.

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From a museum focused on “showcasing the natural wealth of India”, the NMNH’s attention shifted in the Eighties, say old-timers. In other words, critics say, it went from being a museum of natural history to one dedicated to environmental conservation and education, and today provides audio-visual publicity for the Ministry of Environment. The museum largely focuses on outreach programmes with school children, like the visit scheduled for next week to the Bharatpur bird sanctuary.

Experts say what sets some of the best natural history museums around the world, such as Smithsonian in the US, apart from the NMNH is the lack of specimens here. “Natural history museums abroad have collections running into millions of specimens,” observes Naqvi. “When the NMNH was set up in Delhi, the vast collection offered by the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) should have formed the basis on which the natural history museum was set up. But that was not done; instead the museum was set up with just a handful of specimens and today, even the ZSI collection has not been maintained properly,” he says.

But wildlife conservation in India has come a long way and it’s no longer easy for natural history museums to get hold of specimens, says Rahul Khot, curator of the natural history collection at the 134-year-old Bombay Natural History Society. “Previously, people used guns, nets or simply handpicked specimens, but after the Wildlife Protection Act came into force in 1972, hunting was totally banned and collection of specimens was restricted to scientific and academic purposes,” he says.

leopard, Rajasthan museum, Rajasthan museum fire, National Museum of Natural History in Delhi, dinosaur, albino tiger, rhino, Sawai Madhopur, FICCI, FICCI building, Rajasthan museum, A visitor at the Sawai Madhopur museum. The museum is one of four regional centres of the National Museum of Natural History. (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

Over the years, the Society has collected over 1.2 lakh specimens, of which 20,000 are mammals, 30,000 birds and 70,000 insects. “But our collections are not open to the public. It is for academic and research purposes. We did, however, give some of our exhibits to the Prince of Wales Museum next door, which draws a lot of crowds,” he says.

Sitting in his office, Vijay talks about the Sawai Madhopur centre’s failed attempt at getting the remains of Machli, India’s most iconic tiger. Four months after the fire ravaged the museum in Delhi, the 19-year-old Bengal tigress passed away at the Ranthambore National Park. The museum wrote to the Forest Department, asking if they could preserve her remains, perhaps display it and continue her legacy? However, they were denied permission because Machli was a Schedule 1 animal, fiercely protected by India’s Wildlife Act. She was cremated somewhere within the national park, with traditional Hindu rites and a crowd in attendance.

Vijay says that though the law makes it difficult to display specimens, he is in agreement with its spirit. “Even if we request for an animal that has died due to natural causes, we need to understand that procuring it may lead to complications. It may provide an incentive for people to kill animals and pass them off as natural deaths,” he says.

Initially, keeping with Indira Gandhi’s vision, natural history museums were to come up in every state, but this has since been restricted to regional centres which showcase the biodiversity of the entire geographical region. Apart from the one at Sawai Madhopur, there are centres in Mysore, Bhopal and Bhubaneswar and plans have been finalised for setting up one in Gangtok, Sikkim.

“Thank god for lack of space in Delhi. An incredible collection of frogs was moved to the Mysore centre and a famous collection of tiger bones is now in Bhopal. Perhaps it is not necessary to have every national museum in Delhi. This definitely makes the case for declaring one of the other centres the headquarters,” says Naqvi.

If that happens, the leopard in the gallery of the Sawai Madhopur centre, that’s now the object of attention of selfie-taking crowds, may have finally found its home.