Hemanta Mishra is happy to be proved wrong about the extinction of the big cat from the Indian sub-continent. However, there is still a long way to go, as the acclaimed wildlife expert says in his new book
A memoir brilliantly weaving the larger view of the tiger story is Hemanta Mishra’s “Bones of the Tiger of Man-Eating Tigers And Tiger-Eating Men”. From his personal experiences of tracking, filming, darting them for further study and radio collaring, the Nepalese author paints an authentic portrait of the animal. From this intimate sphere, he comfortably moves into a commentative zone, where he takes stock of the efforts on to save the big cat. Conservation theories, the animal’s place in history and legend, facts about man-eating tigers, the wildlife biologist attempts to present a holistic view of the animal the world is trying so hard to save.
He has worked for the Nepal wildlife department, the Smithsonian Institute, WWF, the World Bank and the American Himalayan Foundation. A key player in saving the endangered Indian rhinoceros in Nepal, he documents the struggle of rescuing the rhino in his book “The Soul of The Rhino”. He has established the first Nepalese national parks — including the Royal Chitwan National Park — and has won the Getty award for conservation, one of the most prestigious awards in conservation. Here, Mishra responds to a few questions about the book over email. Edited excerpts:
It looks like every word written in the book has emerged from your memory and experience. Would you call the book a memoir?
Yes, it is certainly a kind of a memoir, mostly based upon my own field notes, publications, and documentary films made for television. However, there is much still to be written about my works including in the creation of Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) National Park and my other works in the Himalayas.
The last chapters in your book deal with conservation theories. Can you talk about them?
The last chapter mainly deals with the bio-politics (the social, economic, and political aspects of saving the tiger from being extinct). I argue the following points:
(i) Saving the tiger (and conserving wildlife and nature) is not science like engineering, physics or mathematics, but like politics it is an art — an art of the possible. Therefore, the goal of best conservation practices has to be politically palatable to the leaders and decision makers; economically viable or doable to the governments, where every sector is clamouring for preferential treatment; culturally and socially acceptable to the people that dwell in and around the tiger-land, and above all ecologically sustainable. Indeed, this is a tall order and often remains rhetorical.
(ii) Generating a political will to save the tiger is fundamental to its success. Thus, I also argue, that the tiger is still around with us, largely thanks to the courage and political will of leaders like India’s Indira Gandhi and Nepal’s King Mahendra.
(iii) The third point I argue is that the government’s effort alone is not adequate. Involvement of local people and their support and their active participation in community conservation practices is necessary. I was recently in Chitwan National Park (Nepal), which over the years has set an example of good community practices, where the local communities reap the economic benefits from the park. In fact, one member of the parliament told me that 30 years ago, politicians were elected if they opposed the national park. Then they voiced that they will do away with the national park and efforts to save wildlife. Whereas, nowadays, they are elected for voicing their support for saving wildlife, particularly rhinos and tigers in and around the park.
(iv) In the last chapter I also draw a parallel by quoting a French general with people like me — the tigerwallahs. “War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men,” Georges Clemenceau, Prime Minister of France, once said. Popularly known as ‘Le Tigre,’ or ‘the tiger,’ for his fortitude, he tried to engender new ideas beyond conventional thinking during wartime. Clemenceau’s words can be paraphrased in the campaign to save the tiger in Asia: Is saving the tiger too serious a matter to entrust only to the conservation biologists or tigerwallahs with the task?
How different is the rhino conservation story from that of the tigers?
Not much, if you factor in poaching and habitat destruction as the main challenges. However, I believe the poaching data of rhinos is much reliable largely because of their size (i.e. a dead rhino is easier to find than a dead tiger). Furthermore rhino- poachers only focus on stealing the rhino and leave most of the body intact. In contrast, poachers take the whole body of the tiger.
According to the tiger census, which has been on in India for a while, India’s tiger population is believed to be better than the 1,706 seen in 2010. Do you think the numbers are good enough or are we still losing the plot?
It is very hard for me to comment on tiger census and population in India, particularly as I have not looked deep into the techniques used in counting tiger numbers. However, to the best of my knowledge, the numbers are as good as one can get given the elusive nature and ecology of the tiger. In Nepal, the latest numbers seem to be reliable, as the estimates are based on systematic camera trapping and identifying each tiger by its body markings. Like human-finger prints, no two tigers have the same head and body patterns.
Has “Operation Tiger” been able to rescue Nepal’s tiger which was believed to be on the brink of extinction?
Comparing India with Nepal is akin to comparing pears with pumpkins. Depending upon specific sites, both countries have their good and bad points. However, Nepal being a smaller country has some advantage. In addition, conservation of rhinos and tigers, particularly in places like Chitwan is heavily linked to tourism, one of the biggest revenue [earners] to the government coffers and [creator of] jobs and income to the local people. Nevertheless, Nepal has become a big transit point of illicit trafficking of tiger skins, tiger bones, and other wildlife products from South Asia to China. However, I believe that “Operation Tiger” (or Project Tiger as it used to be called in India) has been a success. Back in the early 1970s, many others and I had predicted that the tiger would be extinct from the Indian sub-continent, particularly in Nepal, by the early 1990s. However, I am so delighted to be proved wrong. Tigers are still around. Thus, the question is: What would have been the fate of the tigers in the wild without Operation Tiger (or Project Tiger?)