Q&A With the Rhino Man

Wildlife biologist Hemanta Mishra’s efforts to save the endangered Indian rhinoceros

Courtesy of Brot Coburn and Lyons Press

For decades, wildlife biologist Hemanta Mishra—now a senior advisor for the American Himalayan Foundation—struggled to save the endangered Indian rhinoceros in his homeland of Nepal. He established the first Nepalese national parks—including Royal Chitwan National Park, the rhinos' home in Nepal—and created a second population of the animals by transplanting dozens to the Royal Bardia National Park. His efforts led to the beginning of a recovery for the rhino, which he documents in his new book, The Soul of the Rhino. However, the future of this prehistoric-looking creature is in as much doubt as the current political situation in Nepal.

Besides being an endangered species, why is the rhinoceros important in Nepal?
It's obviously a very old and prehistoric animal, perhaps the most modern living dinosaur. [In Nepal], each and every part of the rhino, particularly its heart, is valued for some kind of medicinal property.

It's a unique animal which, in [Nepalese] history, god created by putting together all kinds of parts from other animals. The curious and contradictory thing is that the king of Nepal has to kill a rhino, stand in his stomach and pray for peace and prosperity for his country. Back in the 19th century it was declared a royal animal, so nobody could hunt or shoot these animals except with permission from the king.

So how did it happen then that by the time you became involved there were so few rhinos left in Nepal?
To most people, Nepal is [Mount] Everest, and Nepal must be a mountainous country. But there is an area of flat land in the south called the Terai. The government deliberately kept the forest there infected with malaria. They thought that this would be the best defense against invaders, particularly since there had been a worry that the British would come to Nepal. But in 1951, things changed.

When Nepal opened up, they started eradicating malaria from this area where the rhinos were and to resettle poor people on the fertile plain. That led to the destruction of something like 80 percent of the rhino habitat. And poaching also increased. So the population crashed, from more than 800 before 1950, to less than 100 in 1968, when the first census was done. That did create alarm, and as I describe in the book, it ended up with the creation of national parks, and the Smithsonian also came in and helped us to do research.

Although the rhinos are big and huge, they are also very resilient. The population increased to more than 300 by 1980, to 400 by 1990, and by the time of the last census, to over 500. Then it crashed, mainly because of political unrest.

Courtesy of Sushma Mishra and Lyons Press

So you had all of these people who had been resettled to where the rhinos are. How did you convince the locals that the rhinos were worthy of their protection?
Your point is quite valid. In fact, the root cause why this population crashed is that there's poverty. That's a dilemma, and not only in Nepal but also throughout all the developing countries.

Whether you're trying to save a mammal as big as a rhino or something small, first of all there has to be political will. The political will in Nepal came from the late King Mahendra. We were also successful in some ways because Chitwan became a very important tourist area. They say that in Nepal, we have three isms: Hinduism, Buddhism, and tourism. Tourism is a big source of revenue to the government, and it also gives an income to the local people. I'd like to see it distributed more equally.

And I think the third thing is there was a kind of global recognition that the rhino is unique and that its homeland is also unique. That generated a sense of pride to the local people that the rhino is a part of our heritage.

But you say that the battle is not complete.
First of all, we have to convince people that they can live with the rhino as good neighbors. That's a big challenge. The second is, how do you make a live rhino worth more than a dead rhino? The question then becomes, to whom? As far as I'm concerned, the answer is the community and the people that live in the rhino country. If you can achieve this, then they will live forever. Of course, we're not there. We still have a lot of struggle.

What do you think that people trying to save native wildlife, especially those in other developing countries, can learn from Nepal's efforts to save the rhino?
First of all, generate the political will. Then for us, the support from the World Wildlife Fund and the Smithsonian was very valuable because you need to have good science. But good science by itself is not enough. You need to learn how to change good science into good management. The third thing is you also need to demonstrate you're not only saving a species, you're also saving a whole habitat, and maintaining land, maintaining clean water—the ecological services that are now creeping up as a new science. We also need to link ecology with economics and with the social and political factors in any country. It's hard work.

Nepal has undergone over a decade of violence and political uncertainty, and that may not end even with the April elections. Do you think that the rhinos of Nepal will survive?
You've asked the hardest question. To write that last chapter for me was difficult because I was swinging like a pendulum from one side to the other. The answer changes from day to day. I really don't know, but I must say that one has too be an optimist in our business (conservation). The rhino population has shot down from 550 to about 300 in 2006. You can still go to Chitwan and see the rhinos, but the rhinos I took to Bardia have been wiped out. I can only say that I hope that peace will prevail. With political turmoil, the wild animals are the ones to suffer most.

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