The Soul of the Rhino: A Nepali Adventure with Kings and Elephant Drivers, Billionaires and Bureaucrats, Shamans and Scientists, and the Indian Rhinoceros by Hemanta Mishra
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a delightful and important book. Hemanta Mishra, the acclaimed conservationist who in 1973 established Nepal’s first national park, the Royal Chitwan National Park, tells the more than three decades long story of his—and his native country’s—efforts to protect the Indian rhinoceros. The rhino, a majestic and sacred animal in Nepal, was in the 1960s and 1970s facing extinction due to poaching and habitat destruction. As we know and as Mishra shows, conservation is only for a small part about biology and ecology. The success of conservation efforts is mostly determined by economic and political factors. At the heart of the threats to the rhino lie poverty and the growth of human population. Over the decades, Misha, a Western educated conservation biologist, became adept at navigating the rapidly shifting political landscape of Nepal, with its rampant corruption, and using the traditional culture to protect the rhino.
This is a very passionate book. Its value doesn’t rest in its literary aspects. Hemanta Mishra, with the assistance of his friend Jim Ottaway Jr, tells the story in a straightforward and largely chronological manner relying on illustrative anecdotes and retelling specific events that were significant. While the conversational and personal style is pleasant, the only gripe I have about this book is about some of the literary choices, as illustrated by the fact that a third of the 21 chapters start with a sentence describing the scene and the weather of the day or night in question (“It was a cool and typical Terai evening with a clear sky and a big bright December moon…” or “It was a sunny but pleasant morning…”). The value of the book is ample in many other respects. It includes valuable scientific and historical information about the rhino and its place in Nepal—however, this information is sprinkled throughout the book and in a couple of specific short chapters, so it doesn’t make the book heavy reading on the scientific front. It also provides a wealth of information about Nepali culture and society, which is essential for understanding the conservation trajectory. But most of all, it’s a highly personal account of Hemanta Mishra’s own journey from a well-off Kathmandu city boy to a passionate conservationist and a leading light in the national parks movement. I can attest to the genuineness of his feelings, as I had the pleasure and privilege of working together with and befriending Hemanta a decade ago when we both were employed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in Washington, DC. Hemanta is truly committed to the welfare of wildlife and has little patience with foolish bureaucracy, although he now understands what makes it tick.
There are a number of highly emotional episodes in the book. One such is when Mishra has been charged with capturing and delivering two rhinos to Forth Worth Zoo in Texas as a present from the King of Nepal. He describes his feelings of guilt kidnapping the baby rhinos from their mothers and how he becomes attached to them over the three months he and his crew must raise them prior to shipment to the zoo. When he finally has to see the rhinos off following a ceremony at Kathmandu airport—flying first to Germany on a Lufthansa flight, then on to Texas—a teary-eyed Hemanta Mishra reflects on the workings of fate: “Fate had forced me to snatch the baby rhinos from their mothers, only to nurture and love them before finally putting them on a German aircraft for a journey of no return, across two continents to America” (p. 135).
While zoos often get a bad rap, good zoos actually play an important role in species conservation through research and captive breeding programs. Hemanta Mishra frequently recognizes the support he and the conservation movement in Nepal received from America through both agencies like USAID and the Smithsonian Institution, as well as individuals like the Texas billionaire Edward B. Bass and Ramona Bass, the chairperson of the Fort Worth Zoological Society. Early on, Hemanta also sought inspiration and good practices from Yellowstone, the world’s oldest national park.
A key segment of the book pertains to the Tarpan or traditional rhino hunt ceremony by the King of Nepal that Mishra again has to arrange. He is deeply torn by his role in organizing the killing of one rhino. He carefully chooses an old male to be sacrificed for the purposes of the ritual. The young King Birendra, highly committed to nature conservation himself (as had been his father King Mahendra), had been postponing the ritual required from all Nepali kings, but had to finally cave in to the demands from the traditionalists in his government and country. The Tarpan presents a dramatic episode in the book with genuine tension, starting with the palace intrigue around the arrangements and culminating in the hunt and the following mystical religious ceremony. In the process Hemanta comes to understand the importance of tradition in conservation and that sacrificing one rhino to the king may be very valuable in maintaining the animal’s status as sacred in the Nepali culture. He often ponders in the book about his own mind has become divided between the traditional Nepalese culture and values and those adopted from the West where he was educated as a scientist. At the end of the Tarpan, he declares: “I had found my soul in the body of a rhino” (p. 185).
In general, Hemanta Mishra gives much credit to Kings Mahendra and Birendra for their commitment to environmental protection. The reverence towards the King and the royal family in Nepal has been extremely beneficial to conservation in the country. Similarly, what Mishra realized was that he had to win the local population support for managing the national park and protecting the rhinos if the project had any chance of succeeding.
There are also many interesting and outright funny occurrences described in the book. A particularly satisfying anecdote pertains to a corrupt local politician, with private interests in illegal logging, who tried to raise the local villagers against the Royal Chitwan National Park and organized an attack against the conservation staff and their camp. When Mishra and his staff finally caught up with the man after some serious vandalism and violence, they let him taste his own medicine by first leaving the politician tied up in the forest for three hours, then dunking his head covered with a jute bag repeatedly in Rapti River, thereafter transporting him to the other side of the river and letting the man walk back to the village with his hands still tied behind his back.
Throughout the book, Mishra talks warmly about his staff, including the elephant drivers, many of whom are uneducated tribesmen from the Terai or the southern plains. He acknowledges their superior knowledge of the forest and the animals. Their humanity comes through warmly in many segments, not least those describing evenings around the campfire.
Eventually, a crowning glory and major achievement of Hemanta Mishra was the transplantation of rhinos from the Chitwan National Park to the Bardia National Park to provide them a second home. The idea had been put into his head twenty years earlier by his first chief elephant driver, Tapsi, who had proposed it in order “not to put all eggs in the same basket.” If something were to happen to the rhinos in Chitwan, at least there would be another population in Bardia where the last rhino had been shot by a “coldhearted colonial officer of the British Empire” in 1878 (p. 203).
The efforts by Mishra and his colleagues and successors were largely successful. In 1968, a rhino census (Hemanta Mishra was already then part of it) counted 90-108 animals. At the peak, around 2000, the number of rhinos had risen to about 550. On June 1, 2001, the crazed Crown Prince Dipendra shot and killed his parents, including King Birendra, and other members of the royal family. This tragic event contributed to the growing political chaos in Nepal and, consequently, to renewed bad fortunes for the rhinos.
I can imagine many Americans (and others) chuckling at the irrelevance of the topic of the book. Conservation of the rhinoceros in Nepal, a country many people here wouldn’t even have heard of, could sound as esoteric as anything. Yet, the issues raised in the book—and the lessons learned in Nepal—are very relevant indeed to environmental management and the future of our world everywhere.
The epilogue, ‘Hope or Uncertainty on a Himalayan Scale,’ outlines the situation for Nepal’s rhinos in 2008 when the book went to print. Many of the advances of the past decades had been reversed and rhinos were again poached at alarming rates. Of the 38 original rhinos moved to Bardia, only three had survived. The main reason for this sad state of affairs was the unstable situation in the country following the regicide. The insurgency by Maoist guerrillas who had terrorized the countryside and killed many of the national park guards in their fight against the government also created general conditions of lawlessness in the parks and the rest of the countryside (there have also been suspicions that the Maoists collaborated with the poachers to finance their struggle). In an additional blow, in September 2006, a helicopter accident decimated the environmental leadership in Nepal, killing three key figures—Tirtha Man Maskey, Chandra Prasad Gurung and Mingma Norbu Sherpa (Hemanta Mishra had been invited to join the trip but was unable to do so)—as well as several international supporters from WWF and partner governments (including my good acquaintance Pauli Mustonen from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland).
Hemanta Mishra ends with a cautiously optimistic note. The Maoists had entered into a truce and were sharing power in government. Some high-level poachers had been arrested and prosecuted. Much was at stake for conservation in Nepal and much depended on whether the fragile peace and stability would hold and the country would find new resolve in appreciating its natural patrimony. When I last visited Nepal in November 2011, the peace was holding but the law and order situation was still weak, especially in some areas of the Terai.
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