Thursday, February 21, 2008
The Soul of the Rhino -- A book review
Many biologists feel that some chapter of their life is worthy of a book, and a few actually take the trouble to write about it.
The Soul of the Rhino is such a book. Hemanta Mishra is a Nepali conservationist, and that's what makes this book special. It's a conservation story from the perspective of a developing country national, albeit western educated. Most books of this genre are written by westerners, who rarely treat us to the kind of cultural perspective found here.
This book is about Mishra's rhinoceros years. If you enjoy reading memoirs that intersect travel, wildlife conservation and cross-cultural phenomena, The Soul of the Rhino is worth your time. If you really dig Nepal and its people, all the more reason to get a copy.
Early on Mishra gives us cultural orientation with a glimpse of his childhood. Since Hemanta's birth was preceded by those of 5 brothers, all of whom died within months of birth, you really can't blame his mother for having her son's nose pierced so he would look like a baby girl. It was her way of fooling the fateful Goddess Yama, and it worked.
Next, Mishra's youth plays out against the medieval backdrop of Kathmandu's shuttered houses, narrow streets and temples. When the Kingdom's doors are thrown open to western tourism and foreign aid in the 1960s, the bored graduate joins a clandestine British film crew that captures forbidden footage of Tibetan Khampas beleaguered by the Red Army. When he returns family and friends save his butt from jail.
Next we pan to the terai, where Mishea learns about rhinos from an unlikely guru, an irreverant Tharu elephant driver named Tapsi. Though a Nepali Prime Minister bashed Tapsi's teeth out with the butt of a rifle during a royal hunt, the punishment failed to staunch his foul-mouthed candor and jungle wisdom that pointed the young Mishra in the direction of rhino conservation. (The surly Tapsi is long gone, but in Chitwan's tea shops you can still hear his name.)
Mishra's early career was in Nepal's national parks, and park work in the developing world is a topic unto itself. He weaves the park thread through the book as a series of linked anecdotes. I appreciated "The Clash of Cultures" in which the late Graeme Caughley, a brilliant population ecologist finally became exasperated with "Nepali time". (All Asia hands know what Anthony Burgess meant when he wrote that "time stands still in the East".)
Then the cultural table is turned. The King sends Mishra off for graduate education in the United Kingdom, and he is forced to deal with the distractions of European "dress code", problematic for a young Hindu used to seeing no more than a woman's ankle. There are also the problems of linguistic nuance. He wants to belly laugh when the emissary from the British Council introduces herself as Mrs Hoare.
Then back to Nepal where he tells us about the status of the world's rhinos, poachers and middlemen, royal hunts, and the capture and taming of greater one-horned Asian rhinos. All of this leads to the realization of Tapsi's sentimental wish -- that Nepal's rhinos recolonize with western terai. Before that can happen, though, Mishra is ordered to participate in the ultimate conflict of interests, to participate in the King's once-in-a-lifetime ritual killing of a rhinoceros followed by puja (worship) in its eviscerated body cavity. To my knowledge this may be the only English language account of the famous Tarpan ceremony. Then follows the capture and translocation of Chitwan's rhinos to Bardia Wildlife Sanctuary.
I've known the author for over 30 years, and can say that he is never one to pull punches, gild the lily, or suffer fools. His scatological references are the real thing. That's how he talks. But his court behavior in the presence of the royal family, which is something else altogether, certainly clued me in on the intricacies of caste and Nepalese tradition.
Many of Mishra's friends and colleagues have their parts in the story, including the late King Birendra and prince (now King) Gyanendra, Sir Edmund Hillary and Margaux Hemingway, Esmond Bradley Martin, the seldom seen expert of wildlife trafficking, philanthropist Ed Bass, John Coapman the fun-loving Texan and founder of the famous Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge, and intrepid biologists like Eric Dinerstein and 'Minnesota Dave Smith' (whose names you have also encountered elsewhere in this blog). For me, reading the book was like a visit with old friends.
The Soul of the Rhino is amusing and tragic, and makes it clear that conservation is as much about managing people as wildlife. Progress is by fits and starts, but setbacks are part of the game. The rhino's future in Nepal is far from certain, but there is hope as long as there are people like Hemanta Mishra.
Click here for an interview with Hemanta Mishra, and here to order your copy.
[Below, pit-training a recently captured male rhino calf; a couple pages from the codger's Nepal fieldnotes back in the 80s]