Stitching the story of rhino

Did you know that a female Javan rhinoceros lived in the Zoological Garden in Alipore, Calcutta (Kolkata) from 1887 to 1892 till her death? Before arriving here, she was part of the menagerie of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Avadh, whose kingdom was taken over by the British, and he came to live in this city. Or that a rhino of this species even inhabited the Sundarbans, Tripura, etc. till colonial times?
Gems of information like these are strewn across the well-researched book, The Story of India’s Unicorns (Marg) thus inviting readers to look again at an animal that carries on its horn, literally, the legend of the unicorn.
India had once all the three living rhinoceros species of Asia: the Javan, the Sumatran though both confined to the eastern region, and the Great Indian Rhinoceros, now concentrated in the East and the North East, the Kaziranga National Park having the highest number.
In India, the one-horned rhino has been written about in literature from ancient times, known as gainda in Hindi and gandar in Bengali; the Assamese call it garh. In Sanskrit it is called khadga which is also the name of the weapon, scimitar. All obviously refer to its signature protruding horn, target of poachers who cater to the believers of Chinese traditional medicine that considers it as an aphrodisiac. No matter that the horn is only composed of tightly packed hair. The English nomenclature is of Greek origin: ‘rhinos’ means nose and ‘keratos’ or cero means horn.
The book, put together by three authors, looks at different aspects of the legendary animal living from millennia. Asked why this particular book since there have been many on the same subject, co-author Divyabhanusinh, wildlife conservator and past president of WWF-India, claims, “There has never been a comprehensive book on the rhino, from historic times to today. No one tried to explain the story of the rhino in totality. So it’s like stitching the story of the rhino.”
What surprised Divyabhanusinh during his research was the discovery of “How the Mughals hunted the animal. It was kind of ground breaking for me.” He cites the examples from travelogues of Abu Rahim Al-Biruni who had accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni to India and spent years in Punjab around 1030 and later, Muhammad Ibn-Battuta who visited during the Mughal period in the 14th century.
This is amply illustrated by Asok Kumar Das, art historian specialising in the study of Mughal art and culture, writing the chapter “The Unicorn and the Great Mughals”.
However, one can see that the rhino is not as ubiquitous as the elephant or tiger in Indian paintings. Das has his own take on this. “Rhino being an important animal indigenous to this country, I was keen to find out why it did not have so much of a religious association like other animals. I have come to the conclusion that as it was not very well known outside the northern Indian river plains, it never attained the popularity of other animals and was never easy to domesticate.”
The paintings that have been discussed and reproduced in the book, fortunately, are all in good condition, he assures, carefully preserved in the museums and private collections, mostly in countries abroad. “We have tried our best to put it [rhino] in its rightful place in the cultural history of our country,” he says on an optimistic note.
The prevalence of the animal widely in northern India has been extensively discussed and illustrated by researcher and co-author Shibani Bose, a visiting scholar in the University of Minnesota. “It is common knowledge that the rhinoceros inhabits alluvial grasslands and riverine floodplains. Hence, its fortunes are a good indicator of landscape changes in India,” she observes.
Bose’s A Search through Antiquity chapter is a fascinating journey into the rhino story from the Indus civilization to later periods. The rhino horn, besides being written in classical literature, also figured as an item in trade mentioned as far back as in The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea attributed to an anonymous writer in the 1st Century CE.
“The animal was even present at prehistoric as well as proto-historic sites in the semi-arid and arid states of Gujarat as well as Rajasthan. This suggests terrains which must have been able to carry marshy-swampy patches for a moisture-loving species like the rhinoceros. As landscapes changed, the animal retreated,” Bose adds.
With many such examples, it is clear that before getting cocooned in the eastern part of the country, the rhino was a common animal in the Gangetic plains. Various factors led to its steady decline not the least due to the widespread hunting by Indian rajas and maharajas including the British in the earlier period of colonisation. However, to give its due, the survival of the rhino and to today’s thriving population was also a result of conservation efforts by the British.
The story goes that Lady Mary Curzon, wife of then Viceroy Lord Curzon visited Kaziranga (not a reserved forest at that time) in early 20th century specifically to see the fabulous animal she had heard so much about but was disappointed, such was the depletion in its number. So she suggested to her husband to make Kaziranga a reserved forest to protect the animal. Some later day experts dispute it today but the fact remains that it was the beginning of the rhino’s conservation efforts. It is estimated that there are about 3,500 one-horned rhinos today which was about 200 in 1900.
Kaziranga National Park has more than 2,400 rhinos with scattered numbers at other smaller reserve forests like Pobitara, Manas Tiger Reserve, Jaldapara in West Bengal, etc. and the Chitwan National Park in Nepal.
From hunting to its preservation has indeed been a huge step in case of the rhino. That is why the study of animals historically is important, Bose feels.
“Megafauna species like rhinos and elephants are crucial if not always adequate indices of environmental quality. Historically trailing the animal not only helps us map past ecologies, but also facilitates an understanding of how human interactions with the species have gone a long way in determining its fate. Awareness regarding the animal’s past is critical in thinking about its future. ”
Kaziranaga has been rightfully showcased as a success story of the endangered animal. It is the brand logo of some of Assam’s most prestigious institutes. However, as a conservator, Divyabhanusinh is somewhat wary of its high concentration in Kaziranga. “One has to look beyond too. The government must allow relocation of the animal to other areas. Too much concentration at one location has its own danger for the survival of the species.”
He feels that one of the effective ways to save a species “is to create new homelands in its former range of translocation and subsequent protection to the animals in their new habitats.” (TWF)
(Images courtesy: The Story of India’s Unicorns)