The Soul of the Rhino: A Nepali Adventure with Kings and Elephant Drivers, Billionaires and Bureaucrats, Shamans and Scientists and the Indian Rhinoceros

Bookworm Issue 80 Jul, 2010

The Soul of the Rhino tells of the life work of the conservationist Hemanta Mishra. Dr Mishra has had a distinguished and award-winning career as a research project director for the Smithsonian Institution in Nepal, as well as work with the World Wildlife Fund, World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Global Environment Facility and other conservation groups. He takes much of the credit for halting the extinction of the rhino and tiger in the jungles of Nepal, and that’s largely what this book is about.

It chronicles Mishra’s life in Chitwan National Park over several decades, from a young man just out of school, to a seasoned researcher and renowned wildlife expert. Along the way, the
author brings readers face to face with exotic and endangered animals. The book is autobiographical. After schooling in Kathmandu, Mishra attended the Indian Forestry College in Dehra Dun and eventually earned his PhD degree in Natural Resource Management from the University of Edinburgh (Scotland).

The book has 21 chapters, each of which has a provocative title, such as: ‘Close Encounters with the Unicorn Kind’, ‘Cheating Yama, the God of Death’, ‘Poverty, Rhinos, Tigers and Tourists in Chitwan’, ‘Killing Mothers to Snatch Babies’, ‘Science and Shamanism’, ‘Popes, Kings, Queens and the Rhino’, and ‘Rhino Versus Royalty’. The final chapter focuses on the ultimate goal of Dr Mishra’s professional life. Entitled ‘A New Home for the Rhinos’, it describes the transplantation of rhinos from Chitwan to Bardia National Park.

One of the most intriguing tales in the book relates Mishra’s role in leading a royal Tarpan, a special ritual hunt requiring the king to kill a male rhino and use the beast’s blood to invoke the royal ancestors and pray for peace and prosperity for the kingdom. In 1978, Mishra was assigned to manage King Birendra’s once-in-a-lifetime Tarpan hunt (one that will never occur again). “The order hit me hard,” Mishra writes. “I was not in favor of the monarch’s killing a rhino as part of an outdated religious rite. I was a Western-educated scientist and did not believe in these superstitious ceremonies....  I am a conservationist, not a hunter,” he told his wife. But, she reminded him: “You are a servant of the king... Anyway, what choice do you have in the matter?”

Interestingly, it was a few Western anthropologists and some traditional Nepali conservationists who supported the rhino hunt by arguing that sustaining tradition and preserving culture were paramount to wildlife preservation in Nepal. While at first Mishra did not entirely agree with their rationale, he took on the job as expected, and tells the
fascinating tale over several chapters.Besides the 21 chapters, the book has a Preface, Prologue, Epilogue, Forewords by two distinguished environmentalists, a selected Bibliography, an Index, and 16 b/w photos.

The Soul of the Rhino is recommended for the general reader on Nepal, or anyone interested in wildlife conservation, and for students of environmental science and resource management. It will also fascinate tourists, especially when read while sitting around the fire some evening in a jungle camp after a day of rhino spotting.

When asked why he wrote this book, Dr Mishra replied: “I wrote it to help publicize the cause of saving rhinos.  Besides that, I also wanted to describe the historical and the socio-political and economical paradigms for the creation and successes of Chitwan National Park.  In addition, I do enjoy writing as a hobby.” He is now working on a book about tigers, describing the important role of the Smithsonian Institution in Nepal. He expects it to be available in 2010, the Year of the Tiger. 

The Lyons Press (USA), 2008, 232pp, ISBN 1-59921-146-7 ( Price  $24.95. Available soon at Vajra Books in Kathmandu. The author may be contacted at