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Selected as one of the best books of 2008 by Publishers WeeklyIn early 2006, National Public Radio reported that "A promising conservation effort to save one of Nepal's signature endangered species is now in serious trouble, due primarily to poachers taking advantage of fighting between government forces and Maoist insurgents." This was devastating news indeed to author and scientist Hemanta Mishra, who has spent the better part of his adult life struggling to save the Indian Rhino from extinction in his native ...
Selected as one of the best books of 2008 by Publishers WeeklyIn early 2006, National Public Radio reported that "A promising conservation effort to save one of Nepal's signature endangered species is now in serious trouble, due primarily to poachers taking advantage of fighting between government forces and Maoist insurgents." This was devastating news indeed to author and scientist Hemanta Mishra, who has spent the better part of his adult life struggling to save the Indian Rhino from extinction in his native Nepal. The Soul of the Rhino is the spirited yet humble account of Mishra's unique personal journey. Fresh out of university in the 1970s, Mishra embarks on his conservation work with the help of an ornery but steadfast elephant driver, the Nepalese royal family, and handfuls of like-minded scientists whose aim is to protect the animal in the foothills of the Himalayas. Yet, in spite of decades spent creating nature reserves and moving rhinos to protected areas, arm-wrestling politicians, and raising awareness for the cause, Mishra is still fearful about the future of the Indian Rhino. To this day, Nepal is overrun by armed insurgents, political violence, and poachers who could kill off this magnificent creature for good. Filled with candor and bittersweet humor, Mishra re-creates his journey on behalf of the rhino, an ugly yet enchanting, terrifying yet delicate creature. The first book of its kind to delve into the multi-layered political labyrinths of South Asian wildlife conservation, and one man's endurance in the face of it all, The Soul of the Rhino is sure to win over your heart and soul.
Mishra, winner of the J. Paul Getty Conservation Prize in 1987, was instrumental in developing Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park, home to one of the last populations of the one-horned Asian rhinoceros (among other species). In this autobiographical history, he explains the roots and creation of this conservation program and the political and cultural differences that made its creation difficult. But what might have been a tantalizing tale is marred by inconsistencies and a lack of clear direction. Mishra's very descriptive prose is in certain parts of the book an asset, but he often goes further than necessary in the retelling of his adventures. The end result is a choppy, long-winded account with anecdotes unhelpful to the story's progression. Additionally, his narration takes readers back and forth through time, which makes unclear the actual order of events. A book of subpar quality; not recommended unless significant edits occur before its finalization.
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I sat fretfully on the back of Mahendra Gaz, a big male elephant in his twenties. Oblivious to my anxiety, this mature elephant trudged through the riverine forests of Chitwan as the sun was sinking over the distant hills. As we approached the Rapti River, lapwings cried stridently, cutting through the cooing of doves and the twittering of forest birds. Orange oak leaves, peacock pansies, rose windmills, and myriad other butterflies bobbed and fluttered silently as they sought moisture from damp patches of earth.
We crossed the river and reached a small meadow in the middle of the jungle. We waited there, silently, for wild animals to emerge into the open. From atop the elephant, I spotted a female bear stumbling out of the bush, following her nose toward a termite mound. A young cub, wonderfully camouflaged on her back, held on anxiously for dear life. The mother bear ripped the anthill with her long claws. With her cub clinging precariously on her back, she licked and sniffed inside the big hole in the mound, trying to suck up the insects with her extensile tongue.
While I watched the bears, a group of wild boars trotted by and melted into the brush on the other side. In the distance a wild hen called "kukuri caa." The bear suddenly stood on her hind legs to expose a big white V-mark on her mangy chest. The sight thrilled me. It was the first time that I had seen a wild bear. She was much bigger than I had imagined, almost six feet tall. Standing on her hind legs, the bear focused her eyes on the edge of the bush where a pair of hog deer stole nervously into the meadow. The deer sized up the bear and then continued grazing, their ears and torso twitching spasmodically. With no danger in sight, the bear dropped her forefeet and continued tearing into the mound. Soon a herd of chital deer, two female sambar deer, and a barking deer also made their appearance. The meadow was a favorite picnicking ground for Chitwan's wildlife.
Suddenly, two rhinos snorted and tussled out into the clearing. The deer stopped grazing. The bear ran for cover. I stared, transfixed, at these prehistoric pachyderms. 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 gray, armor-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.
Hidden behind a cluster of Bhelur trees, safely ensconced on the broad back of a government elephant, I watched the two-ton creatures scuffle and snort. Their actions seemed purposeful. Shifting, gently shoving, and encircling one another, they spun in endless circles as they trotted behind one another. Huffing, puffing, and grunting "dhurr dhurr!" hoarsely, the larger male restlessly followed the female. Whistling "kuiee, kuiee!" in unchanging tones, the female jogged gracefully in front. The female seemed to be taunting the male with a gesture of "catch me if you can."
At twenty-two, I was fresh out of forestry school in Dehra Dun, India. Although any novice could have read this persistent prodding of the female rhino as sexual foreplay, I was too struck by awe and curiosity to realize that. I was not sure if the male was trying to kick, bite, or gore the female. His wide-open mouth dripped pools of saliva and exposed big sharp incisors on his lower jaw. His tail swayed gently, and his eyes were glued to the female's rear end. He caught up with the female, and then, raising his forelegs, he made a feeble attempt to mount her.
"Are they fighting over territory?" I asked Tapsi, my sullen-faced elephant driver. His leathery face was lined with the authenticity of jungle lore, a hallmark of a lifetime of exposure to the hot, humid subtropical forests of the Nepalese Terai.
"They are not fighting, city boy," he laughed disdainfully, displaying a jagged row of rotten teeth. "They are trying to mate," he added, spitting a barrage of obscenities.
My academic inadequacies proven for the moment, I did not respond but continued to watch the rhinos. The huffing, puffing, grunting, and whistling foreplay continued until, after several futile attempts, the male finally mounted the female. The female then moved forward, dragging the reluctant male on his hind legs. In this strange mating ritual, they tangoed around for ten yards or so before standing motionless for what seemed like forever. I had expected the rhinos to copulate quickly, mechanically, with impassionate detachment, as most other mammals do, yet there was no such action. They were contentedly standing peacefully still. After a long pause, the female moved again and dragged the male toward the edge of the meadow, only to nibble at a bush. The male held on tight, his forelegs firmly clasping the female's back. He held his head high and scanned the sky, swaying his head rigidly from left to right, as if in response to an ancient ancestral dance. It was a bizarre sight.
I knew from my textbooks that once the male mounted the female, the mating could take an hour or more. I also knew that male and female rhinos reach sexual maturity when they are six to eight years old. Both the male and the female had to come into heat at the same time to mate. I had read that rhinos court each other over a three- to four-day period, nuzzling and bumping into one another. But in reality, I saw that the rhino's sex habits were rather more aggressive. As I watched four thousand pounds of rhino thrashing in the meadow in a struggle toward orgasm, I realized that no amount of academic learning could prepare me for the actual experience of close encounters with wild rhinos.
I watched the rhinos grunt and snort as they made love. I coughed nervously. The elephant trumpeted. Suddenly, the male rhino dismounted. Both rhinos turned and looked at us. Had we interrupted their mating? Were they angry? They began to move toward our elephant. Each curved horn that had earlier seemed so harmless and ornamental now threatened like a gleaming knife aching to be embedded into our soft flesh. They stepped closer, carefully. Were they about to attack?
"Subba sahib," I quivered, addressing Tapsi, my elephant driver, by his honorific title. "Shouldn't we back off?"
"Boor chodiga!" cursed Tapsi in his native tongue, equating me to the female genital. He turned around and looked me up and down, sneering at me, sitting astride the neck of the elephant. "Those rhinos aren't going to charge," he continued. "You'd better go back to the city. You'll never make it in the jungle."
He was right. The prehistoric pachyderms spared us. Obviously having more pressing matters, they eased away into the thicket-huffing, puffing, and snorting.
There were no roads or motor vehicles in Chitwan. The only way to travel through the jungle was by elephant. Moreover, the only way to travel by elephant was to work with Tapsi Subba, the chief elephant driver of His Majesty's Government elephant stable in Saurah, on the banks of the Rapti River. A man of medium height and slender build, with dark, slightly Mongoloid features, Tapsi was a Tharu, a member of the ethnic group that had traditionally inhabited Chitwan and the rest of the Terai.
Unlike my ethnic group, the Western hill Brahmins, who traditionally worked as priests or as appointed bureaucrats behind government desks, the Tharus had a reputation as tough survivors. Through drought, malaria, floods, and savage summer heat, they had survived in the Terai for centuries. They farmed rice, mustard, and other crops in small patches and fished and hunted for deer, wild boar, and birds in the jungle. The most skilled of the Tharus found employment as guides and elephant keepers for the royal family. Tapsi was known as the most skilled and toughest of the Tharus who worked in the Chitwan area. According to government protocol, I was Tapsi's supervisor, but when it came to the ways of the jungle, he was definitely my boss.
My apprenticeship with Tapsi had not gotten off to a very good start. I was encroaching upon what was obviously his domain. When I arrived in Chitwan, I found him standing near the large thatched grass shed that served as the elephant stables. I looked like a typical college-educated Nepali male-dressed in pants, shirt, and leather sandals. I could not hide the fact that, within the narrow, highly influential middle-class stratum, I had succeeded in gaining employment that, if I made the right political deference, would ensure an uninterrupted monthly salary until I retired.
The economic and social disparities of my country had never seemed as apparent to me as I stood apologetically before this wizened old man. I saw no personal insult in the disdainful looks he cast at me, in the way he spat and scratched his privates. I was embarrassed and sensitive. I saw a million bureaucratic inadequacies that had caused his caste its lamentably slow progress to a better economic opportunity. Between his rude gestures and his meticulously placed grunts, I heard the silent protests of the impoverished people of my country. As my brain rapidly processed all this information in favor of Tapsi and his tribe, I considered, for a moment, ditching it all and heading back to the capital in defeat. However, the tenacity of the middle-class mind must never be underestimated. In spite of my sympathy for Tapsi and his people, I returned to my career goals-a monthly salary, societal respect, and a hunger to succeed with the breed of people who were in a position to make a difference in ecological preservation, and, more important, to bring back the greater one-horned Asian rhinoceros from the brink of extinction.
When I first met him, Tapsi was leaning against a bamboo support, smoking a bidi, a kind of cigarette. He was bare-chested, wearing a red lungi, or sarong, that reached just below his knees. His toes gripped ascetic wooden sandals or kharaow.
"Namaste," I said, "I am Hemanta Mishra from the Forest Department." Namaste or namaskar is the traditional form of Nepalese greeting that means, "I bow to the God in you." It is usually spoken with both hands clasped in a praying posture.
Tapsi grunted, twisting his wrinkled face into an unwelcome snarl. "What do you want?" he said in Tharu, a dialect I could understand. I stared at him.
"Haathi ke boor!" cursed Tapsi, calling me the vagina of an elephant. "What are you staring at?" With that, he turned and walked away.
My friends had warned me about Tapsi. I retreated to my hut and then, after a while, returned to the elephant stable. "Namaste," I said, attempting to gain his attention.
"You again?" scoffed Tapsi, insulting me by scratching his testicles. "I don't have time to deal with a city boy like you."
I held out a bottle of Nepalese-made Khukuri brand rum. I had been told that this was Tapsi's favorite. "Subba sahib," I beseeched, my voice almost reverential. "Perhaps we should drink first and then talk."
Tapsi released another one of his trademark grunts. He glared at me but took the bottle all the same. We drank. Finally, we talked.
I respected Tapsi. Tapsi had never collected scientific data. He had never performed regression analysis. He had never read a biology textbook. He had never learned to read. What Tapsi did know about was life in the jungle. He knew the habits of the rhinos, what they ate, where they slept, how they mated. I might have possessed textbook knowledge, but he had a lifetime of laboratory hours in the wild.
We began to work together, spending days wandering the jungles of Chitwan on the back of an elephant. Often, my lack of field experience was painfully obvious. At other times, we worked together well and even played with his elephants.
One winter evening, as twilight drew its gray shades, Tapsi turned our elephant away from the river. "Chal-chal," he said, "move, move," pressing his toes into the soft flesh behind the elephant's ear. The hum of insects pervaded the atmosphere; chattering flocks of emerald parakeets played in groves of curry-leaf trees and Indian rosewood. A herd of chital deer grazed on saccharum grass, their spotted coats blending with the lengthening shadows.
Riding on the broad back of an elephant, I scanned the darkening banks of the Rapti River in the jungle of southern Nepal, straining to catch a glimpse of more rhinos.
"Pay attention, you city boy," barked Tapsi. "We are coming to the Rapti, where you may see rhinos crossing the river. Learn to keep your eyes and ears open all the time," he ordered, a crooked grin cracking his dark, deeply lined face. "I will make a shikari out of you." A shikari is a hunter or a game scout.
We approached the Rapti River. A fisherman was casting his net from a dugout canoe. A few yards upstream, an egret was standing motionless on the riverbank. Nearby, a pied kingfisher hovered over shallow backwater. I watched it dive into the water but could not tell if it caught a fish.
"Look," said Tapsi, pointing to an opening in the forest that revealed the waters of the river. And there it stood, a modern-day dinosaur, a massive two-ton creature with armorlike skin, grazing on water plants in the shallows. The soft yellow glow of the setting sun lit a silk cotton tree. The rhino's large, dark shape contrasted with the gold, snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas, fifty miles to the north. This was Chitwan, a pristine Asian jungle. The land has nurtured the rhino for thousands of years.
As we got closer, the rhino moved out of the water. He walked along the riverbank, urinating backwards and spraying urine more than two yards away. I had never seen any animal pee like that. A single horn, about eight inches long, emerged from his snout. I wondered if the rhino knew that his horn was not a boon to, but the bane of, his survival. Its high price tag-in thousands of dollars-often spelled the rhino's death; it attracted poachers from all over Asia who exploited the horn for its perceived medicinal and ornamental value. Did he know that humans believe that his urine cures asthma, stomachache, and tuberculosis, and his meat is supposed to create male vigor?
This big male seemed unconcerned by my thoughts. Using his protruding lips, the rhino continued to forage along the riverbank. He reached a pile of dung and sniffed it. The sniff seemed to induce the rhino to empty his own bowels immediately. He turned around and proceeded to defecate on the pile of dung by first walking backwards, then dropping his new pile of oval-shaped dung, slightly smaller than a soccer ball. It was a strange way to defecate.
"That is the rhino's latrine," muttered Tapsi, pointing to the pile of dung with his stick. "After inspecting a latrine, rhinos usually defecate at the same place. This is how they communicate with each other and find out who is around the area. A calf will usually defecate immediately after its mother does."
As I watched night fall in Chitwan, thoughts raced through my mind. What use was my book learning when faced with a real-life rhino? How could I possibly give orders to someone like Tapsi, who had spent his whole life in the jungle? Before I could assume my responsibilities as the wildlife biologist in charge of Chitwan's rhinos, I had to become an apprentice to the people who best understood the creatures of the jungle.
On a hot afternoon in July 1968, Tapsi and I were wallowing with some of his elephants in the Rapti River. Waist deep in the water, he was scrubbing the back of Himal Kali, a female elephant, when he came up with an idea-an idea years ahead of its time.
"City boy," he muttered. "I have watched you closely. As time marches on, you will grow up, not only to be a powerful person in His Majesty's Government but also a skilled wildlife technician."
I did not know where he was going with this train of thought. Flattery was never in Tapsi's vocabulary. I stared at him. Words were unnecessary. "Please the king," he told me in a fatherly voice. "Ask him to send you abroad for higher studies. When you return to Nepal, you must find a new home for my Chitwan rhinos."
"New home for rhinos?" I questioned.
"The survival of rhinos is at best uncertain," he continued. "Currently, they are all in one place here in Chitwan. What if a disease or any other sickness wipes out the rhinos from Chitwan? We need a second home for rhinos."
Excerpted from The Soul of the Rhino by Hemanta R. Mishra Jim Ottaway, Jr. Copyright © 2008 by Hemanta Mishra. Excerpted by permission.
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