Hemanta Mishra’s Windy Road: Navigating Controversy in Conservation

In his memoir The Soul of the Rhino, Nepali conservationist Hemanta Mishra reflects on the many challenges he faces on his mission to protect his country’s rhino population. He strives to help the Indian rhinoceros at Chitwan National Park grow and thrive, and aspires to eventually reestablish the species in other locations. Along the way, his judgement of how best to serve his post as a government conservationist is often put to the test. He faces a harrowing ethical dilemma when he is assigned to lead the Tarpan, a ritual rhino hunt. As someone committed to saving the species, he questions if it is justifiable for him to kill even a single rhino. When he chooses to participate, his careful balance of open-mindedness and integrity serves as a model for handling social-environmental conflicts, which those of us in the Mosaic program can apply to our work in Nepal.

In his response to his new assignment, Mishra must carefully take multiple perspectives into account, because the success of his conservation efforts depends on the support of the outside community. He recognizes that his Western education has imparted him with ideas that diverge from Nepali tradition. At first he is skeptical that the Tarpan is still relevant in modern Nepali society, but after listening to the views of traditionalists he realizes that many people still do consider it important (Mishra 174-178). Although the tradition has little significance for him personally, he recognizes that it is essential for social stability. This insight enables him to handle the situation diplomatically: rather than shut down the conversation by imposing his own view that the Tarpan is pointless and wrong, he accepts its place in his country’s culture, and in doing so maintains rapport with those who can help him reach his conservation goals. In this way, killing one rhino becomes an effective route to help secure the safety of the rest of the species.  His foresight sets an example for our approach to our own work. Like Mishra, those of us in the Mosaic program must bridge a cultural gap between ourselves and the people we work with in Nepal. Our conceptions of the “right way” to approach environmental problems may clash with the perspectives of others who are affected. In order to have effective conversations and develop research that is relevant to the situation in Nepal, we may have to shift our way of thinking.

There is a difference between open mindedness and a lack of moral integrity: viewing a problem from a new perspective does not mean abandoning one’s principles. Mishra admits that he has a selfish motive to go through with the Tarpan: if he disobeys a royal command, he will lose his government job (175). One could argue that he is taking others’ views into account only to justify his actions for personal gains. Similarly, our participation in this program is easily conflated with selfish motives: for example, our desire to advance our careers, to have new and interesting experiences, or to gain respect for our intelligence. However, selfish desires do not necessarily negate one’s motivation or potential to do good in the world. Mishra points out that by keeping his job, he can keep himself in a position to continue helping rhinos (175). In fact, the way he participates in directing the Tarpan adheres strictly to his professed goal of promoting rhino conservation.

As a part of the committee that determines how the Tarpan is conducted, Mishra influences the event to better promote Nepal’s national parks and conservation programs. Whereas others advocate for a private ceremony, he vehemently argues that the hunt should be made public. Mishra feels that dishonesty, if discovered, would hurt Nepal’s relationship with the global community, and undermine support for its conservation programs (186-187). Furthermore, he sees that the use of the rhino in a sacred ceremony demonstrates the species’ cultural importance (179). A public exhibition, if presented in the right way, could reinforce the Nepali people’s traditional reverence for rhinos, and perhaps gain sympathy for his efforts to save the species.Therefore, the best way to promote his conservation efforts is not to hide the Tarpan, but to bring it out in the  open and reap the benefits of its symbolic significance. Through careful discussion, Mishra convinces the other members of the committee to support a public production (188). This transparency is not only good for public relations; it keeps the integrity of the operation intact.  If the Tarpan is truly justifiable from a conservationist’s perspective, then there should be no need for deceit.

By remaining steadfast in our intentions but flexible in our approach, we, like Mishra, can greatly improve the effectiveness of our own work. In our research, we should ultimately seek to better the environments and communities we study. The path to that improvement may take a different shape from what we had envisioned, and it may challenge our belief in what is right. It is important that we find solutions rather than force them. We must focus on making adjustments in spite of difficulty, not because it is convenient. We must be aware of our own biases, and we must balance them with outside perspectives. As we open our methods to the communities we seek to serve and take the interests of those communities into account, our work may not become simpler, but it will become stronger.



Mishra, Hemanta. The Soul of the Rhino. Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

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