In the winter of 1978, Hemanta Mishra led the king of Nepal deep into the country’s Chitwan forest and helped him shoot down a greater one-horned Asian rhinoceros, one of Nepal’s most endangered animal species.
And yet, for 40 years, Mishra has been one of Nepal’s foremost wildlife conservationists. Just five years earlier, he had helped convert the Chitwan forests into a national park and sanctuary for tigers and rhinos.
But organising the ritual rhino hunt was the king’s command, and Mishra could have defied it only at the cost of his work as a conservationist in Nepal.
“If I had refused, I would not have been able to save the rest of the rhino population in my country,” says Mishra, 67, who describes this moral dilemma in his non-fiction book, The Soul of the Rhino, launched in India earlier this month. Co-authored by American writer Jim Ottaway Jr, the book was published in the US in 2008.
Mishra, a native Nepali who grew up in Kathmandu and studied forestry in Dehradun’s Indian Forest College, is credited with halting the extinction of the rhinoceros and tiger in his homeland and boosting Nepal’s wildlife tourism industry. His book portrays this journey through his experiences with Nepali kings and governments, tribals and scientists and the clash between the East and the West.
In Nepal and across Asia and Africa, for instance, the rhino is a sacred animal, revered for the same magical properties that see it hunted for everything from its horn to its testicles and tail.
“My Western education taught me that ancient superstitions must be shed,” says Mishra, who has lived in Washington DC for 20 years, where he retired about five years ago as an environment specialist for the World Bank. “But I also understood that traditions and culture have tremendous importance for my people.”
So, over 20 years as a wildlife advisor to the Nepal government and then director of the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation, Mishra and his team of conservationists worked to create national parks, lobby for anti-poaching laws and set up infrastructure for wildlife tourism.
“Our kings already had the political will to preserve forests and animals so that they could continue their royal hunts,” says Mishra. “The challenge was to transfer this passion for shooting from the gun to the camera.”
Mishra also worked with local residents and villagers to raise awareness.
“Villagers saw the rhino as a pest, endangering crops and lives,” says Mishra. “We showed them how preservation of rhinos and their habitat could save their land from degradation, and how tourism could earn them money.”
Eventually, thanks to their efforts, the rhino population in Chitwan rose from less than 100 in 1968 to more than 500 in 1990, with rhinos also transported to forests across Nepal and abroad, including four to Uttar Pradesh.
Now, civil unrest is threatening their numbers again. Since the start of the Nepalese Civil War in 1995 and the end of monarchy in 2001, says Mishra, unrest has made it very difficult to implement laws, control poaching. By 2005, the rhino population in the Chitwan park had dropped to 300.
Today, illicit trade in rhino horns and organs continues across Asia and Africa.
“It is not enough for just one government to have laws against this,” says Mishra. “It will stop only when many governments act together.”
[The Soul of the Rhino (Penguin, Rs. 299) is available in bookstores]