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The Soul of the Rhino.

The Soul of the Rhino, by Hemanta Mishra with Jim Ottaway Jr. The Lyons Press, Guilford, Conn. (USA), 2008. 232 pages, 16 black-and-white illustrations. US$ 24.95


The long subtitle "A Nepali Adventure with Kings and Elephant Drivers, Billionaires and Bureaucrats, Shamans and Scientists, and the Indian Rhinoceros" is as apt as the poignant title of this book, which camouflages the ultimate fate of the animal in the jungles of Nepal. The book is written in the first person by Hemanta Mishra, narrating his three-decade-long struggle to save the rhino and establish the Chitwan National Park in Nepal--and what a narrative it is! However, nowhere in the book, not even in the Preface, is the exact role of his co-author Jim Ottaway Jr. defined.

I met Hemanta Mishra at the Tibetan Conference at the Aspen Institute at Aspen, Colorado in late July 2008. Small of structure and a genial man, he certainly does not look the part that he has played in this adventure tale involving two of the largest animals on land--the elephant and the rhinoceros. One is distinguished by its unique trunk--because the elephant uses its trunk as a hand (hasta in Sanskrit) it is called hasti--and the other by its distinctive horn, known in Sanskrit as khadga meaning a sword. A subtext of this book is a tale of the remarkable use Mishra and his numerous colleagues made of the elephant (Elephas maximus) to save the rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis).

While the elephant's tusks rather than the trunk have been the cause of its misfortune with the species known as Homo sapiens, the reason for the rhino's similar fate is its horn. Ironically, the author of this riveting and cautionary tale begins his Preface by narrating a fascinating incident from his childhood. When he was only five, his devout brahmin father asked the child to fetch the khaguto from his mother while he sat down to perform the annual ritual for departed ancestors. When the boy asked what a khaguto was, the father explained that it was a cup made with the horn of the rhino used to offer oblations to the ancestors, and was a precious family heirloom. If only the use of the horn was limited to Nepali brahmins for an annual rite! A lot more rhinos would be alive today. Unfortunately, the horn is also desirable to the Tibetans for carving religious objects, and most egregiously, ingested by the Chinese and others in powdered form to increase sexual potency. This is the principal reason why the animal continues to be mercilessly slaughtered both in Nepali and Indian national preserves which have been created, ironically, to protect the species. Alas, it seems to be a losing battle despite all efforts on the part of such dedicated preservationists as the author of this book.

It is particularly poignant to learn that in their struggle to save the rhino the now discredited and deposed King Gyanendra of Nepal and his immediate predecessors Birendra and Mahendra played a positive role. In fact had it not been for their sincere and enthusiastic support, Mishra and others--and there are many fascinating saviours such as the old Tharu elephant driver Tapsi, the heroic Mingma Norbu Sherpa, the enlightened bureaucrats Tirtha Man Maskey and Chandra Prasad Gurung, the British John Blower who was the UN advisor, and Ed Baso the Texan billionaire, to name only a few--could not have accomplished their heroic task of saving the rhinos of Nepal. This is truly an engrossing and heartwarming story of East--West cooperation. One wonders if the new Maoist leaders of the country will adopt the beneficent attitude of the ousted monarchs towards these hapless, harmless, and defenceless animals to protect them from the greed and folly of the human species.

This is an engrossing adventure and morality tale that is written with both passion and elegance and should be universally popular. In fact, there is so much drama and excitement in the narrative that it could be made into a thrilling film which would reach a larger audience and may help towards diminishing the carnage that is being perpetrated by us humans in the false belief that the horn of the rhino increases male virility (besides, there is plenty of synthetic substitute available today). By halting the extinction of this shy and solitary animal, we may save our own souls. Not only does the author's account present a lively and suspenseful animal adventure, especially with the dangerous and difficult task of capturing and transporting rhinos from one habitat to another, but it has some fascinating subtexts, such as the author's experience as a young adult of friendship with and separation from a baby rhino, his pathos-filled account of his intimate relationship with the much older and wiser but somewhat difficult royal elephant driver Tapsi, and the remarkable and mysterious royal rite with a dead rhino performed by King Birendra, ostensibly for the prosperity of the kingdom (though it did not save his own life or the crown) which the author witnessed, participated in, and has described in fascinating detail.

Publishers' blurbs on dust-jackets of books are rarely worth the ink they are printed with. But in this instance one cannot improve upon the following apt and eloquent passage:
  Filled with candor and bittersweet humor, Mishra recreates 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.

It has certainly won over this reviewer's heart and soul. The Indian rhino is not the only species threatened today, his African and Sumatran cousins are also no less vulnerable. Indeed, as I write this review on a warm fall day in California the radio announces the alarming news that the journal Science has just published a study that claims that one-quarter of the mammals (not including the human species) are threatened with extinction today. How very, very sad!
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Author:Pal, Pratapaditya
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2009
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