'It was my first sighting of rhinos in the wild. Ugly and vicious, yet, for all their physiognomic anomalies, they radiated an undeniable appeal. Grotesque, yet elegant, cloaked in the unique regalia of brownish grey, armour-plated, hairless skin covered with tiny warts. Clumsy and misshapen, yet lithe and graceful. Their sight frightened me, but I could not turn away. I was spellbound,’ writes wildlife conservator Hemanta Mishra in his book The Soul of The Rhino, which he has written with Jim Ottaway Junior, published by Penguin Books India.
‘I learned about the rhino from my father when I was five years old during a religious event at home,” says Mishra in an e-mail interview to the Millennium Post from New York, where he is based. The incident that Mishra mentions is described in the preface to the book. Mishra’s father had asked him to fetch the khaguto, a cup made of rhino horn, so that he could use it to offer milk and water to his ancestors. ‘Seventeen years later, I saw my first Indian rhino from the back of an elephant in the jungles of Chitwan in Southern Nepal. Since then, animal has created an aura of awe and mystery in my mind,’ says Mishra, explaining why he turned his focus to the conservation of the rhino.
Mishra says he stumbled into wildlife conservation quite by chance. ‘I wanted to do something different from what my father and uncles did, which was to join either foreign service or administrative service of the Nepalese Government. I did not want to be a desk jockey either in Kathmandu or in some diplomatic outpost in the Nepalese Embassies or Consulates in some foreign capitals. After I graduated, I got a scholarship from the Government of India to study Forestry at the Indian Forest College in Dehra Dun. Wildlife conservation was a part of the curriculum,’ he recalls.
But the task at hand was not easy, especially in the 1970s when wildlife conservation was a relatively new subject. What often left him stumped was how to involve the local people in the conservation project. ‘The local people had no interest in saving rhinos. Their priority was the basics of life, like food. Saving rhinos and tigers were meaningless to them. Over the years, we learned, albeit the hard way, that the challenge was to link wildlife conservation with human needs, largely through community based livelihood programme and tourism that helped to create jobs and markets for the local community. Over the years, we could also demonstrate that saving rhino (and the tiger) also saves land and water catchment areas from erosion and degradation, maintains clean air and a sustained supply of clean water, the lifeline for human survival. In addition, it also creates jobs for the local people and revenue for the community and the government,’ he says.
Often though, the people looked upon the wild beasts as enemies, and rightly so. ‘The most harrowing experience was when I had to deal with the family of a poor farmer who was gored to death by a rhino. During my course of work in Chitwan, I also had to deal with man-eating tigers. In addition, rhinos also raid farmland and destroy crops, putting them into direct conflict with humans,’ Mishra explains.
The Nepali royal family was a big support. ‘The Nepalese Royal family, akin to the royalties all over the world were also interested in wildlife, though often their interest lies in big game hunting (shikar),’ says Mishra. In fact, the conservator was once asked to help set up a hunting expedition for the member of a royal family, an incident that finds mention in the book. But they did understand the need for conservation. ‘They understood that all the rhino needs is protection from poaching, a bit of grazing and browsing land and water. However, the key challenge was to get them to agree that there are more ways to view wildlife than only through the barrel of a gun and to adopt the international concepts and standards of a 20th century National Parks and Protected Areas,’ he says.
The support of the Royal family, says Mishra, was instrumental in creating a network of National Park and Wildlife Reserves in Nepal including Nepal’s first National Park – the Chitwan National Park specifically targeted in bringing the rhinos from the brink of extinction. His efforts, spanning over four decades have paid off. ‘Back in the late sixties and the early seventies, I was among the wildlife experts who had predicted that the rhinos would be extinct from Nepal by the 1980s. I am extremely proud that my prediction was proved totally wrong. There were only about 100 rhinos when I did the first census of rhinos in 1968 from a helicopter and ground counts with a wildlife expert from the United Nations. Now, there are more than 500 rhinos in Chitwan,’ he says.
In India too, where he was initiated to wildlife conservation, the rhinos have a better deal today, he feels. ‘At the beginning of the 20th century there were only 200 rhinos left in India. Now the estimated population (according to the UK based Rhino Resource Centre) is 2,500, with almost 2,300 rhinos in Assam’s Kaziranga National Park,’ he informs.
For this passionate rhino lover though, much remains to be achieved. ‘The biggest challenge can be divided into two areas: (i) the immediate and mid-term and (ii) long term. In the former, the immediate needs are three pronged: Stop the drop in the number of rhinos by controlling poaching and illicit trade on rhino horns and body parts. Eradicate invasive species such as Micania that are strangling the grasslands and riverine forest (particularly in the context of Chitwan National Park). Curb grazing encroachment and agriculture expansion.
I believe the final victory on the war to save rhinos in and beyond the 21st century depends upon how well we address the following three questions: How can we make a live rhino worth more than a dead rhino to the local people and the governments that own the real estate that is home to the rhinos? How can we ensure that rhinos and humans in the rhino-land live as good neighbors? And that their relationship is not antagonistic but symbiotic? How can we generate political will, by ensuring that our efforts to save the rhino is not a barrier, but a bridge for social and economic development particularly in poverty reduction, job creation, livelihood development, and welfare of the people? Insurgency and political violence also have an adverse effect on the wildlife,’ he says.
While The Soul of The Rhino addresses the serious issue of rhino conservation, it stops short of becoming didactic because of the fluidity of narration and the way Mishra includes small anecdotes about his life and family and glimpses of Nepali society. What also adds to the experience is the charming range of people who inhabit Mishra’s world and whom he brings alive in his writing. If on one hand, we have descriptions of his interactions with the royals, his picture of Tapsi, an elephant driver who ‘taught me the art of the jungle’ is as fond and vivid.