Hemanta Mishra’s Bones of the Tiger: Protecting the Man Eaters of Nepal is a reflection on the author’s work on tiger conservation. Mishra describes the many obstacles he has faced and the obstacles he still faces and shares many stories and experiences that illuminate his journey. His stories describe obstacles shared by activists across disciplines, like political gridlock, issues that face many endangered species, and issues specific to that of the tiger, like the animosity between humans and the tigers that live near them. Finally, it illuminated several of the aspects of Nepalese culture that sometimes seem counterproductive but could be huge catalysts of environmental change.
Throughout his book, Mishra discusses many situations that require quick decision making and are instead met with bureaucracy that he must creatively circumvent or fail. In his initial effort to begin researching and protecting tigers in Nepal he must appease both the Americans and the Nepalese government as well as several different non-profit groups. He describes a stressful balancing act that had little to do with the tigers that he wanted to protect. Whenever a situation arises that requires immediate action Mishra becomes worried because the bureaucracy in Kathmandu works too slowly to allow him to do his job effectively.
As the title of his book indicates, Mishra’s book focuses on the contentious relationship between humans and tigers. An incident Mishra describes between a tiger and a man that resulted in the man’s death occurred when the man was walking through fog to a river to pray and the tiger attacked him. The man died and the villagers nearby were furious and demanded the tiger be killed in retribution. Initially I was annoyed by this story. What was the man doing alone in the jungle in the middle of a dense fog? To me, it felt like it was partially his fault. However, as I reflected more on the story I realized several things. First, the local people around tiger conservation areas are essential to the goal of conservation. Without their cooperation, nothing can be achieved. It also made me realize that these villagers view tigers very differently than I do. I have only ever observed or learned about them from a position of power and reverence – a zoo, books, and pictures. They are obviously powerful, dangerous animals, but I have never been in a position where a tiger was directly threatening. The prospect of tigers in the world has never needed to be frightening to me. However, to people who live near them, tigers aren’t beautiful, amazing animals; they are a daily threat. This lead me to a comparison between tiger conservation and wolf conservation. Wolves were driven out of the Yellowstone area by ranchers who saw wolves as a threat to their livelihoods. This caused the park to change drastically and when wolves were reintroduced it revitalized the ecosystem. This shows the necessity of major predators in the health of an ecosystem and shows that eliminating a “threat” can have drastic and unexpected consequences. This felt especially important because they villagers to whom tigers are a threat are also people who depend on their ecosystem for necessities like food and water and if the ecosystem were to change it could potentially be disastrous for them. This story also held an important lesson for Mishra and the other researchers that resonated with me. The tiger that had killed the man just happened to be a tiger that the researchers saved from certain death after being attacked by another tiger. Intervention on the part of the researchers meant that the tiger lived, but he became lame. Tigers usually avoid people and contact between the two is rare. This tiger was driven to confrontation because of his inability to hunt his natural prey. Mishra realized that the entire incident would probably have been avoided if they had initially let nature take its course and not rescued this wounded tiger. Even the smallest of actions can have an unexpected chain reaction.
Mishra also has a lot of hope for the relationship between humans and tigers, which is shown through the history he tells of the tiger in Asia. They are depicted as the kings of the jungle, with the markings on their face are the derivatives of the Chinese symbol for king. They used to be worshipped, but Mishra thinks that this might also have been their downfall. Tiger bones were thought to have healing properties and skins are seen as trophies. Nepalese royalty used to hunt tigers and ended up killing thousands. While the relationship between humans and tigers has degraded over the years, Mishra thinks that the ancient respect of tigers in Nepalese culture can be harnessed to help save them. His book highlighted the importance of perception between humans and endangered predators and how much distance changes perspective. It also made me think more critically about conservation. Mishra found that instead of trying to save every animal, conservationists must be much more utilitarian. Playing God in the life of one tiger might have unintended consequences. However, how can you always judge when it is appropriate to intervene? Surely if there were only a few tigers left you would intervene if it meant the difference between life and death. Mishra’s book challenged me on a position that I previously thought was pretty much black and white. He helped me to see that every situation has many sides and the only way to find a solution is to understand all the sides and try to balance their needs.