During the 1970s and ’80s the Nepali conservationist, Hemanta Mishra, and his colleagues worked tirelessly in Chitwan National Park to save rhinos and tigers from extinction. Three excerpts, slightly adapted from Mishra’s new book, The Soul of the Rhino, tell the story of a familiar old rhino named ‘George’, how the scientists darted tigers for research, and a little about life and rank among the elephant wranglers.
A full moon rose above the treetops as a drone of in sects buzzed through the ungle. Otherwise, it was unusually quiet. A dozen of us huddled around a campfire in Saurah in the heart of Nepal’s Royal Chitwan National park. I gazed at the crackling flames of the sal wood and quietly sipped a “Cheapy Charlie.” A cocktail of cheap Nepalese rum and good Darjeeling tea. The cocktail was invented by an Australian tourist to express his disapproval of the lack of cold Australian beer in the village market.
I was not, however, the only one sunk in deep thought. The others were also quiet, as if the night were too precious to be disturbed by a human voice. Gathering around a fire was a normal routine in our camp. There was little to do in the jungle after dark. No electricity. No television. And nowhere to go. It was December 1978, and I was at our jungle camp on the banks of the Dhungre River.
George was barely visible and motionless at the edge of a forest opening. But we knew that his eyes were also glued to the campfire, as he had been a frequent visitor to our camp for the past twelve months. Yet George was no human but an old male rhino chased out of his natal areas by other, younger rhinos. George usually stayed close to humans and rarely ventured deep into rhino country to avoid harassment from his younger counterparts. He hung around our camp, particularly in the evenings, to graze in our yard.
All of us who gathered around the fire cherished George. Our relationship with him was symbiotic. George was gentle, reliable, and part of our jungle life. George depended upon us for his safety, and we needed him to amuse our guests. George was the prime exhibit for tourists, children, and visiting dignitaries. Many of our visitors had neither the time nor the patience for a long stay. They were certainly not keen for a hike in the jungle or a close encounter with wild rhinos.
On one occasion I was ordered to show rhinos to a visiting dignitary, a high-ranking general of the Indian army on an official visit to Nepal. He had only thirty minutes for a jungle safari. Thanks to George, the task was easy. I took the general on top of my elephant for a quick tour of the patch of forest next to my hut. Instead of taking him directly to George, I meandered with him through the jungle and the tall grassland. During this safari, I showed him George from three different angles from opposing sites. He was so excited that he never stopped bragging about how he saw three rhinos within thirty minutes. I made no effort to correct his illusion.
George also had a local Nepali name, Dabine Kum Chandra Khate Bhale, which translated to “Crescent-Scar-on-the-Right-Shoulder-Old-Male.” The Nepali name symbolized his last dispute over a female. Since Westerners found Nepalese names complicated, this Asian rhino was assigned a European identity. His Nepalese forest guide named him George, after a euphoric English tourist who had bought a goat for the guide to feast on. The goat was a reward for the guide, who had fulfilled the Briton’s childhood dreams of a close encounter with a wild rhinoceros. Later it became fashionable for tourist-lodge owners to copycat us and name their resident rhino George.
George moved toward our elephant stable as the silence of the jungle was broken by the “whuk-whuk-whuk” alarm calls of the chital, a common spotted deer of the forest. “Kai-kai,” wailed a peacock perched on a tree above the campfire. “Phrrr-phrrr,” grunted George the rhino. “Brrrr-brrrr,” rumbled our camp elephant to warn George not to venture too close. The sounds of the forest prompted Ram Lotan, the chief elephant driver, to talk. “I think there is a tiger on the prowl,” he finally said. “The predator must be stalking the chital.”
The others remained silent. I too was quiet but was shifting my attention from George to the men in front of me silently drinking rum. I knew the alarm call of the chital was music to their ears. Next morning some of them would sneak into the jungle and search for the tiger’s kill. Meat was expensive and a luxury in the jungle, particularly as hunting and trapping were banned in Chitwan. However, stealing a tiger’s kill with the help of trained elephants, even when prohibited by the national-park bylaws, was a normal practice. Few would think it prudent to challenge the nonwritten traditional practices of the elephant drivers that had been common for nearly a century. Trying to stop that practice would cause a revolt in our jungle establishment.
Darting a tiger
Elephants and elephant drivers were vital to our work. In 1978 I was in Chitwan to lead a research project studying the ecology of the tiger and its main prey, the deer. As part of our research, we had to affix radio collars on tigers. But first we had to catch them.
Combining old Nepalese hunting techniques of the early nineteenth century with modern American medicine of the twentieth century, we mastered the technique of catching the
elusive tiger. This operation consisted of three steps. First, we surveyed an area for the presence or absence of a tiger, using telltale signs such as footmarks, droppings, or scents of its urine. Then we laid out a series of baits consisting of live young domestic buffalo, tethered to wooden poles in the tiger’s domain. After killing the buffalo, the tiger would snap the rope and drag its kill a few yards into cover. After feeding on part of its kill, the tiger would move to a nearby stream for a drink. After quenching its thirst, the cat would then rest near the kill to return to feed again later. The next morning after baiting, we would survey the area again, study the direction of the marks showing where the tiger dragged its kill, and estimate the location of the tiger.
Thus, using elephants, we would lay vhit cloth in a V shape to locate the position of the tiger in the center of the V. The vhit cloth was a three-foot-high wall of white cotton cloth stretched about one-half mile on either side. A small opening at the narrow end gave the vhit a resemblance to a large funnel. About a dozen elephants spread out at the open end of the funnel. Equipped with a drug-loaded dart gun, I would take my position hidden in a tree at the narrow end of the V.
Once I was in position, the men and the elephants moved forward, shouting and thrashing the vegetation. This caused the tiger to move towards me. The tiger was certainly able to jump over or crawl under the thin barrier of the vhit cloth, yet either fear or some
instinct forced the tiger to avoid it. It would slowly move toward my tree. When it got under my tree, I would shoot it with the drug-loaded dart and put it to sleep for the next three hours. Then I would affix a radio collar and wait at a distance on the back of an elephant for the tiger to wake and disappear into the jungle. Later we would track the tiger from the back of an elephant or from inside a single- engine aircraft.
As they were for big-game hunting by kings and emperors, elephants were
vital for our scientific research. Normally, two handlers would control each elephant. The elephant driver would sit on the neck with his feet spread on each side of the head. Then he would steer the elephant with his toes placed directly into the cavities behind the elephant’s ears. An assistant would stand on the elephant’s rump, clutching a rope extending from the base of the elephant’s saddle. The elephant driver would maneuver the elephant with his feet. The back rider is called the pachuwa, and his job is to spot game. At times, the pachuwa also assists in controlling panic-stricken elephants by beating the animal to a halt with a wooden dumbbell-like tool called the loba.
In the 1970s the elephant driver in Nepal was not called a mahout, as he is in India. Calling him a mahout or mahoutay, the general term used in Nepal, would be considered an insult. In Nepal mahoutay ranks lowest on the pecking order of the elephant stable hierarchy. All elephant drivers started out as mahouts; their chief duty is cleaning the elephant’s stable. Even the chief elephant driver, started his career at age ten by spending years knee deep in
elephant manure. Cleaning elephant dung is a rite of passage for all elephant drivers.
The next rank above mahoutay is the pachuwa or the back rider. Above the pachuwa is the phanit, a rank that entitles him to drive an elephant in all formal functions. It takes a mahout at least five years to graduate to pachuwa and up to another five years to be a phanit. Above the phanit are the ranks of rahout and daroga, both of which carry administrative duties in the elephant stable.
For royal hunts, Nepal’s Ministry of Forests maintained five hatisars, or elephant stables, containing more than one hundred elephants. Each stable, even today, is in a different game reserve of southern Nepal, a legacy of the hunting tradition enjoyed by Nepalese rulers. Since royal hunts in modern times are quite infrequent, the government leases its elephants to tourists for sightseeing and to Nepalese citizens for important ceremonies, including weddings. Besides government elephants, a few tourist lodges in Chitwan maintain their own elephants.
From the book The Soul of the Rhino by Hemanta Mishra (Copyright © 2008 by Hemanta Mishra). Used by permission of The Lyons Press, www.lyonspress.com. The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more of Dr Mishra’s story see the book review in ‘Page Turner’ (p.68). We thank the author and publisher for permission to adapt the excerpts used here. Information in the box is based on the text.