A few hundred leopard skins, rhino horns and various animal parts lay in dusty shelves in a decrepit building, guarded by smartly-dressed soldiers.
How can someone have the heart to skin a creature and wear that skin? Would they like it if someone skinned them and wore their skins? In the Stone Age, before the invention of cloth, perhaps this act was justified – man needed a way stay warm. But why now?
Also beyond understanding is the use of “traditional medicine” – ground tiger bones, ground rhino horns and use of these animal parts to cure diseases including impotency. While science shows these parts have no such properties, certain communities continue to place a high demand and pay even higher prices for these scarce resources.
It would not be completely wrong to say that some of the most charismatic animals that walk this earth are in some of the most unstable places, unstable politically and economically. Gorillas and elephants in different countries of Africa, rhinos in Nepal and India, tigers in Russia, Nepal and India… And when it is unsure where their next meal is coming from, it seems justified – to people living in these areas – that they use the available resources to make sure they don’t sleep on an empty stomach. So when a tiger fetches them a few thousand dollars then they simply take the opportunity to kill a shrinking population.
[Although in some cases, like that of Sansar Chand, the worst biped to walk the earth (I mean it), it is greed and not need that make him kill tigers and cheetahs, selling them to clients in Tibet, Nepal and China. While he died on March 18, his family has reportedly taken over where he left off.]
One of the readings for my Forest Conservation Biology class was about elephant conservation. Apart from the cruel ivory trade, I also read about how elephants are trained for work and why we shouldn’t ride elephants. Even before I had read these articles, I was against riding any animal – I don’t want to carry anyone on my back and I presumed the same of every other creature. And a visit to the Elephant Breeding Center in Chitwan, reinforced my take on riding elephants, as well as all animals.
It was a sad sight to see these majestic creatures tethered to poles in thick chains. While it is not advisable to anthropomorphize, seeing an elephant with drooped eyes and forehead resting against a pole as if she had simply given up and would do anything you asked of her; a calf feeding her mother fresh grass because the mother couldn’t reach it and elephants simply swaying side-to-side or rocking (a sign of depression and boredom in animals), was gut-wrenching.
The elephant at the hotel that we stayed had all four legs tied to poles and bruises on her forehead.
The literature at the Center stated how these elephants are trained where training includes keeping elephants chained, not feeding them enough, not giving them sufficient water to drink, calves being taken away from mothers and desensitizing techniques that included use of fire, which usually burned their skin.
This is the dark side of conservation. While seeing such things is difficult, they help us remember that not everything is easy and pretty. These sights help us remember who we are fighting against and what we are fighting for. Those leopard skins and rhino horns in those dusty shelves waiting for orders from the Prime Minister of Nepal and Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species – CITES – so they can be destroyed, those chained elephants and now-free calves to meet the same fate as their parents are all reminders that there is work to be done. The road is hard and the ride is bumpy, so we can either fasten our seatbelts and get ready or get off at the next stop.