Horn of Shame
This article was published in Nepal's National Daily "Republic" on June 17th, 2010.
As the golden sun prepares to set to the west banks of the Rapti river in Chitwan, out in a lonely field a local farmer wipes his sweat after a hard labour. Soon, a motorbike rider in flashy shirt pants and dark shades zooms in across the small village trail and makes a dusty turn toward the tired farmer’s land. “Ramu! You old man, still working on the fields huh? …not even a little piece of land, same old hut, hungry kids, don’t you want to get rich?”
They are childhood friends. “You bring shame to this land. Do you know you can be fined one-lakh (100,000) rupees and go to jail for killing a rhino?” The sleeker has a sly answer, “Money controls everything. The officers? They are in our hands. And they are in the hands of the ‘higher level’ officials in the right place... Just help me, get your money, make your life easy…” Eventually Ramu is lured to help poach a rhino—the gaida—for a few thousand rupees.
Because the state has continued to deny a poor farmer like Ramu the basics of life despite the political changes, he barely has any ethical foundation to deny the opportunity. When few thousand rupees opens a prospect for sustaining the basics, it certainly makes a big leap to the one toiling in dire poverty. The city sleeker (middleman) on the other hand needs the local farmer’s knowledge of the land and wildlife to devise a proper poaching plan. It is the indigenous people living closely in nature with wildlife since time immemorial who have acquired vast skills, such as to trace a rhino from the smell of its urine and approximate its proximity depending on the freshness or the staleness of this pungent signature in the tall grass.
But do our ‘national planners’, ‘government officials’, ‘ministers’, ‘prime ministers’ and others have such ability to smell the rhino’s urine in crisis? I think they definitely do. Not only that, I am sure they can even smell the acid smell of the poor farmer whose acidic belly is not strong enough for resistance to the ‘naked crime’ to what the ‘high officials’ are allowing upon the wildlife. That is why it seems when people start to stir up as the number of wildlife rapidly go down and free media unsparingly informs the public, they rush to cover the scene of the crime by calling on all sides to co-operate. Comedy in tragedy, as an actor would speak.
Does the prime minister’s recent call to all stakeholders of wildlife to take action against poaching indicate that the government is also ready to initiate legal probe to identify the ‘stakeholders of an organized wildlife crime’ alleged to be largely protected and operating from within the same political and state-controlled system itself? Does the press statement by the Nepal Army about its initiative to investigate the cause of rampant poaching in Chitwan also hint that they will investigate into the institutionalized barbaric tradition of bribery in Nepali power and politics across all ranks? We can only hope that they do.
Last week, before my performance drama Gaida - The Muddy Truth at Bachheuli Village Chitwan in collaboration with local Tharu youth and communities; on whose pretext I built up this essay with Ramu and the City Sleeker’s dialog, a school boy was telling everybody “It is the outside people who are luring our local people to kill rhinos and also some park people are helping them, that his why rhinos are being killed.”
Saving a gaida is not saving a single species. The dialectic, “Why save a gaida when we are not even able to feed the people?” raises a serious inquiry to the authority, and to the philosophical foundation of a Nepali society’s worldview about its nature and cultural identity. This question has to be addressed sooner or later by the state, not only to communities in buffer zone but to a social chain of people beyond the Nepali border in a global humanitarian net. In the wake of climate change effects and ecological awareness, wildlife now belongs not to individual nation but to every citizens of the world. The homage paid to gaida at Kathmandu Durbar Square on Sunday by the locals is a very symbolic signifier of an evolution of this contemporary awareness backed by free press, conscious public and motivated youth. So orthodox modalities of conservation our government still adapts to do not allow room to acknowledge this important dialectic properly.
At this stage, we need to be sensitized that in the process of saving endangered species like gaida or Bengal Tiger or Egyptian Vulture for instance, we are saving a lot of things of the wild, including our own interwoven existence with nature. We are saving forests, natural resources, indigenous culture, knowledge, water… almost everything. This in turn might open a way toward accepting nature as it is, and our existence with all beings of nature in an autonomous ecological partnership. And an economic stability for human culture too for that matter.
Thanks to a few committed conservationists, few good army personnel and generals, few good national park staff, few good journalists, few good politicians, few conscious thinkers and a few committed institutions (the word ‘few good’ is intentionally emphasized to contrast the pathetic state of the majority), the local communities are bridged to the global and appreciated for their encouraging task of dealing with the wildlife even if it comes at a price to them most of the time. Such as when gaidas enter and rampantly graze on the crops, the farmers still chase them with flashlight, fires torches and hooting. They never take up arms.
Ramu (played by Sandip Dongol) finally traps the 2,000kg prehistoric mammal whose ancestors once roamed free from Alaska to South East Asia, in a small muddy ditch and hacks away the few kilos weighing khag (horn). In the performance, we don’t use a gun but a paint brush dipped regularly in a red colour and splattered on the white daura Suruwal of the rhino character to signify the killing, in the form of live art. The white daura suruwal is symbolic of three things - a plain white cloth symbolizing mourning, splatter of red on the pure white as violence over peace, and killing of a gaida equivalent to the killing of a Nepali person in daura suruwal. This live art segment in the drama was an adaptation from my collaborative performance work with the French artist Karl Knapp in ‘Horn of Shame’ in 2009, where we also depicted a rhino killing, inspiring many young environmental activists to work against it.
The Tharu stick dancers led by Dukhan Chaudhary elaborately click-claked and improvised drum beats to the gaida’s struggle to escape. Finally the bloody and muddy gaida is pulled out with ropes with local audience’s participation. Then it starts a slow run, picks up its big metal horn from the ground left by the poacher along the way and heads to Rapti river 3 kilometres west toward the setting sun. The gaida’s passage through villages and Sauraha’s tourist zone arouses curiosity and shock. I could feel the rain drenched earth beat under my bare foot as the thick mud and sweat from inside the muddy daura suruwal dribbled from my skin and plopped on the ground in each step I made of the primordial gaida in me. Alongside, a euphoric clan of young audience was running together avoiding their step on long muddy canvas attached to my gaida horn. Some with stuffy nose, others also on barefoot and some trring-trringing their bicycles… Turn by turn they carefully took courage to touch the running gaida and in the victory of coming in contact with the familiar animal, each spontaneously shouted “Gaida… Jindabad! Gaida… Jindabad!” all the way to the river. There could never be a better revolution on the village trail with a pure agenda other than - children and nature!
A day before, a gaida had been shot dead on the other side. As I made installation of the horn by the silent river banks with the golden sun finally closing its ceremony for the World Environment Day, I washed myself little cleaner in the brown monsoon-coated Rapti. I was just an actor. The real life gaida was out there, threatened to extinction every second from humanity’s tendency of greed-infested crime. If I were a real gaida, perhaps they might have poached me by now and you would be reading a dead line.