September 2022. Vincent Cuisset and his colleague Éric Pellé, taxidermist and osteologist respectively at the National Museum of Natural History, fly to Guyana. Direction the headquarters of the French Office for Biodiversity in Cayenne. On the spot, a rare and gloomy news awaits them. A few days earlier, Jafar, a young wild leopard, followed in the wild for years by Kwata, a Guyanese association for the study and protection of nature, died, knocked down by a car on a secondary road.
A sad event, but a boon for museum professionals: the feline was frozen and its body is perfectly preserved. “It is rare to be able to work with a wild specimen in such good condition,” says Vincent Cuisset. Weighed and measured from every angle (height, wingspan, circumference of the legs, of the skull, etc.), Jafar is carefully examined before being stripped. The next day, his bones and skin take off for Paris. The second life of the leopard begins. He will fill the ranks of “Felines”, the exhibition of the National Museum of Natural History, whose Grande Galerie de l’Évolution welcomes 80 naturalizations of felids from March 22.
“The lion, the tiger and the domestic cat constantly come up in the ten favorite species of the French,” underlines Sophie Grisolia, the exhibition’s project manager. However, in addition to this sympathy, the felines, whether it is a question of their extraordinary physical capacities, their relation to the man or the many dangers which weigh on them, are still very little known. Present in more than 13 million French homes, the domestic cat is the red thread of this feline fresco, whose biological richness is not long in becoming apparent. It only takes a few steps for the visitor to come face to face with the 38 naturalized felines – ie all of the existing species on the planet – proudly enthroned on a podium at the entrance to the exhibition hall.
A panorama that sets the tone. Lynx, snow leopard, caracal or pampas cat, felines are present in their natural state on all continents, with the exception of Oceania and Antarctica. And everywhere, they are threatened. “The tiger has lost 93% of its historical geographical area. Its habitat is made up of small pockets of life and this fragmentation prevents exchanges between the different populations. This is detrimental to the preservation of the species”, analyzes Géraldine Veron, scientific curator of the exhibition.
Cats are super predators with fascinating skills. But behind this image “hides a biological fragility linked to a lifestyle based on hunting, which exposes you to accidents and lack of food”, underlines the one who is also a professor at the Institute of Systematics, Evolution, Biodiversity. “Infant mortality is very high. Nearly 95% of cheetahs do not reach adulthood because they are devoured by lions, hyenas, or lack food. »
To illustrate this way of life punctuated by endless naps – a feline can sleep up to twenty hours a day – and periods of extreme sensory activity on the lookout for prey, the museum relies on a refined scenography. “The various podiums are tinted black, the walls also, and the light is concentrated on the specimens in action during the hunt”, describes Sacha Mitrofanoff, chief scenographer of the exhibition. Plunged into darkness, the visitor’s gaze is fixed on the movements of the animals. Within these spectacular compositions, Jafar holds a prominent place. “It’s him that we see here, leaping in the air to catch a peccary trying to escape,” says Vincent Cuisset, pointing to the template made of polyurethane foam and fiberglass that sits in his workshop.
Representing moving animals in their environment is a challenge for Vincent and his three taxidermist colleagues, who work in the shadow of the exhibition. “In order to recreate the movements of the leopard, I watch the hunting scenes in wildlife documentaries. We are in a scientific institution, out of the question to disguise reality, specifies the taxidermist. What we do is craftsmanship. The human hand is necessary, whether it is to draw muscles without accentuating them too much, to manage the proportions or to apply the appropriate seams. Like felines during their hunt, the professionals have been arming themselves with patience and meticulousness for three years to prepare for this exhibition. All apply themselves to respecting the motto of the institution: that of marveling in order to instruct.
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