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Updated: November 3, 2012 19:12 IST

Taking the rhino by the horn

Ranjit Lal
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Ranjit Lal finds that an account of the rhino’s front-man in Nepal goes beyond being just a “conservation” story.

Volumes have been written about the tiger and the elephant but there’s been precious little regarding the Indian rhinoceros, the “gainda” (which, means “fat and stubborn” and is not diplomatic, considering its mythological origins), that armored tank of an animal now surviving only in the Indian terai and the north east — and of course, in Nepal, which is what this book is about. Like the other two, it has been hunted for its body parts to which we have (in our eternal wisdom) ascribed all sorts of miracle properties.

In Nepal the rhino was designated a “Royal Animal” back in 1846 and only the ruling family and its guests were allowed to hunt it. But the animal was at the brink of extinction when, in the early 1960s, the then King Mahendra decided to do something to save the fabled terai — at the heart of which was Chitwan, the rhino’s stronghold. But this book goes beyond just being a “conservation” story; it is as much the story of the author’s relationship with the majestic beast and the often bizarre contradictions and dilemmas he faced regarding Western and Eastern attitudes towards its preservation, which forms one of the major themes of the book.

After studying Forestry in the Indian Forest College in Dehradun in 1965, Hemanta Mishra got a job as wildlife officer with Nepal’s Ministry of Forests. He won a scholarship to study Wildlife Management at the University of Edinburgh in 1969 on condition that he would return to Nepal to put his education to practical use. In 1972 he went to Yellowstone to learn about how to deal with wildlife and people issues and conflicts. Back home that year he was invited to serve in the Royal Palace Conservation Committee — which made all the policy and operational decisions regarding wildlife conservation in Nepal and ever since he’s been the rhino’s front-man in his country.

His work on rhino conservation began with doing a census in Chitwan and then on figuring how saving rhinos in Chitwan could be linked to reducing the poverty in the region. He describes the three-pronged strategy put in place: 1. Ensuring that the local population benefits directly and monetarily from tourism in the National Park; 2. Linking the saving of rhino habitat to pragmatic sharing of forest resources with the locals; 3. Dealing with problem animals. The pros and cons of each are clearly discussed.

Later he describes the relocation of some rhinos from Chitwan to the Bardia National Park, to prevent a wipeout in case of an epidemic in one place, a project which was top priority for him.

Candid confessions

Mishra’s work also involved obeying the orders of the King, and these could be distressing, such as the killing of mother rhinos so their calves could be “kidnapped” to take part in palace celebrations or for American zoos. Perhaps the greatest dilemma he faced was when he was ordered to take part in the 16 century ritual called the “Tarpan” in which the king had to hunt and kill a male rhino and make an offering of the animal’s blood to his ancestors and pray for peace and prosperity in his kingdom. He finds the rhino for his king, watches it being shot repeatedly — and after the king has sat inside the beast’s stomach and conducted the rituals — amid the chanting of prayers and flickering of oil lamps — does the same thing himself along with others.

It is here that one feels uncomfortable because Mishra says that “after months of suffering political, physical and mental stress” he was finally at peace and “finds his soul in the rhino’s body”.

I’ve always believed that religious rituals (which have come down for hundreds of years without being questioned) are powerfully hypnotic, even psychotropic — and in the cold light of day — their actions dissipate into meaninglessness, but in these matters everyone is entitled to their opinion and beliefs, and there is no right and wrong. What is redeeming is that Mishra does go on to mention that the “Tarpan” did not work for King Birendra, who, along with his family, was brutally murdered by his son in the palace in 2001.

Absolutely endearing

It is this earthy candour — that runs through the entire book — which is its most refreshing and endearing quality. Mishra spares no one, high and mighty or otherwise, be it the maharaja of Cooch Behar or Queen Elizabeth I. He describes his own relations with his irascible elephant driver, who teaches him more than any textbook, and those with the dedicated colleagues he worked with, whose methods and philosophy often clashed headlong with traditional ways.

After the recent trouble in Nepal and the abolition of the monarchy, the fate of the rhino again hung precariously in the balance, but in recent years, the number of rhinos in Chitwan has increased again. Mishra feels that the people have realised that this gigantic beast is worth saving after all — and their numbers are rising: which means he’s done his job well, though there’s still no room for complacency.

The Soul of the Rhino, Hemanta Mishra with Jim Ottaway Jr., Penguin Books, Rs.299.

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