First published by Nepali Times

One of Nepal’s foremost tiger and rhino conservationist, Hemanta Mishra began his career in 1967 as part of the government’s pioneering team that created Chitwan National Park in 1973. He then went on to help establish a network of protected areas in the Tarai and the Himalayas. In 1987, the native of Kupondole was awarded the prestigious J Paul Getty Conservation Prize for his outstanding efforts in protecting the country’s endangered species.

Mishra, who has a PhD in natural resource management from the University of Edinburgh, joined the World Bank in Washington DC as an environmental specialist in 1992. A decade later, he moved to Manila to work with the Asian Development Bank. He also did a teaching stint at George Mason University in DC. The author of The Soul of the Rhino (2008) and The Bones of the Tiger (2010), Hemanta’s next book, Nepal’s Chitwan National Park – a Hand Book, is scheduled for publication in April.

Mishra is currently an international advisor for Humane Society International, an animal welfare organisation based in DC. His deep concern for the fate of Nepal’s wildlife, brings the 68-year-old biologist back to his homeland frequently. Mishra spoke to Lucia de Vries just after his return from the annual Elephant Festival in Sauraha, where the Tourism Association of Chitwan honoured his contribution to eco-tourism in the region and his lifelong conservation work.

Lucia de Vries: How was the Elephant Festival?

Hemanta Mishra: It was a fantastic display of various Nepali ethnic groups living in harmony with nature. The people of Sauraha manage to accomplish what Kathmandu often cannot: bring everyone together for a common cause. The locals understand that their livelihoods depend on the wild animals and vice versa. Communication and cooperation between park authorities, tourism entrepreneurs, and local communities has greatly improved.

What is your assessment of wildlife conservation efforts in Chitwan?

I went out into the jungle every day and am very pleased to report that once I saw six rhinos in just an hour. I spotted all deer species, lots of monkeys, some mammals, reptiles, and many birds. No tiger, but I did not expect that to happen. The numbers and varieties of animals that I saw indicate that poaching seems to be under control.

How is the state of working elephants in the area?

In the past there were few tourists; consequently few working elephants. Now, the elephant is treated like a beast of burden with little care and compassion. I feel that the state-owned elephants are less worked and better treated than the private ones. An increasing number of tourists are speaking out against the exploitation of elephants. I am told that TUI, a major European travel company, removed elephant safaris from its itineraries. This should be wakeup call for the industry. I feel we need welfare standards and monitoring, a ban on elephant smuggling from India, and training of mahouts in elephant management.

What are some of the challenges that young conservationists are likely to face?

I believe Nepal’s future lies in protecting and capitalising on our natural beauty, particularly our unique network of protected areas, which we have religiously developed for the past four decades. And how successful we are in the years ahead depends on the commitment of the few young conservationists I met during my visit here.

I have often joked that Nepal has three religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, and tourism. To preserve tourism we need to protect the country’s main currency — our wild flora and fauna and our cultural heritage. The good news is we are already leaders of eco-tourism in the region. However, I worry about whether we have learnt to live with our own successes particularly when it comes to tourism in critical ecosystems such as Chitwan. The growth of new hotels coupled with the missionary zeal of their owners to maximise profits at any cost often makes me wonder: are we killing the goose that lays the golden egg?

Tell us about the work of Humane Society International (HSI) in South Asia.

HSI has developed innovative animal welfare programs worldwide, including in India and Bhutan. We are exploring to see if we should expand our projects in Nepal, especially humane dog management. During a visit to a dog shelter in Chobar, CEO Andrew Rowan and I saw a street dog that was attacked with acid, covered in burns. That really shocked me.

Another issue that concerns us is the upcoming Gadhimai festival in November in Bara district. I am shocked to learn that the Gadhimai temple will be a venue of the world’s largest animal sacrifice, where more than 250,000 animals will be slaughtered. I really don’t understand the need of blood sacrifices in this time and age.

How is your life in the US? Do you get treated differently here because you are a non-resident Nepali?

There is no social life in the US to speak of. We are there for our children and grandchildren. Having said that, Americans are very interested in foreign cultures and generous if you come with the right idea. My best friends are ‘Nepal baula’ (Nepal crazy). We go back a long way, like Peace Corp volunteers from the 70s.

When I visit Nepal, I sometimes feel a bit lost. People here tell me, “You no longer know Nepal.” But then in the US, they say I am too nationalistic. I feel a strong connection with Chitwan, my first posting. I want to dedicate myself to the development of that part of the country.

Of rhinos, tigers, and men

‘The Soul of the Rhino’ charts Hemanta Mishra’s unique personal journey and struggles in saving the magnificent on-horned animal. From dealing with politicians, fellow scientists, elephant drivers and even the Nepali royal family, one cannot help but feel inspired by the sincerity and passion that Mishra displays when it comes to saving the rhinos that he cares so much about. The book is an enlightening read, one that provides a complete commentary on wildlife management.

The Soul of the Rhino: A Nepali Adventure with Kings and Elephant Drivers, Billionaires and Bureaucrats, Shamans and Scientists, and the Indian Rhinoceros. Lyons Press, USA, 2008, 256 pp

Mishra’s second publication, Bones of the Tiger, is a captivating memoir of his early years in Chitwan National Park. It has fascinating insights on Nepal’s tigers, all the way from the early hunting expeditions, the royal patronage that led to the setting up of the sanctuary and tiger research and relocation. The book makes a significant contribution to the endeavour to ensure the survival of the wild cats until the next Year of the Tiger in 2022.

Bones of the Tiger: Protecting The Man-Eaters of Nepal Lyons Press, USA, 2010, 256 p