A horn not called Dilemma

When a rhino stirs, everything about it shakes

By Uddalak Mukherjee
  • Published 20.05.18

Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, is dead. The news of Sudan's passing brought to my mind the life of Gnore, one of Jaldapara's famous rhinoceroses. Gnore - rhino in the local parlance - used to begin his day when the sun was on the wane. Each evening, at sunset, with the forest bathed in shadows and light, Gnore would make his way out of the tall elephant grass and head towards a muddy watering hole. Then, he - this was before India was being whipped to become Swachch Bharat - would enter the mud, his horn sticking out of the muck like a stubborn submarine that refuses to go under. That proud, protruding horn was the signal for Gnore's fans, noisy visitors on elephant back, to reach for their cameras. And Gnore would oblige them each evening - I was the recipient of his kindness many years ago - till darkness made it difficult for the paparazzi to differentiate the animal from a lifeless trunk that floated next to him.

Indeed, Gnore, I was told during my stay at the enchanting Hollong Tourist Lodge, was an ageless phantom. Some tourists - all Bengalis - suspected that the rhinoceros was made of wood, just like the trunk afloat next to him. What else, they insisted, could explain the fact that nearly every tourist in the sanctuary managed to catch a glimpse of Gnore even though his brethren were nowhere in sight? Did that mean that Jaldapara, the tourists whispered conspiratorially over their staple dinner of phulkas, sabzi, dal, chicken, rice and pudding, actually has one rhino?

In the mid-Nineties, the time I was visiting Jaldapara, the methods of enumerating wild animals may not have been as scientific. But official estimates suggested that Jaldapara, even then, had the second largest population of rhinos in India. But my co-visitors would have none of it. They seemed convinced that Gnore, the rhino with the wooden look, was a solitary installation in the jungle.

Evidently, this was an existential crisis for Gnore. So the animal took matters into its own hands - or should that be on its own horn? - to solve the crisis. One evening, with the light giving way to shadows in the forest, a posse of tourists - several cynics and one believer (me) - sat astride a rather docile elephant and made their way into the dense, green wilderness. Our destination was the familiar watering hole. But that was some distance away when we came across the first of Gnore's many neighbours. A family of wild boar, a mother and her porky children, snorted in alarm on seeing the approaching elephant. Next, it was our elephant's turn to be afraid - the kunki had spotted, before any of us had, three of his wild cousins standing among the distant trees. With the not-so-gentle variety of the pachyderms looming in the distance, another route was found to reach Gnore's pool.

And there he lay, submerged in the mire, but for his horn. There was no stopping the cynics now. They started hollering that Gnore was fake. That it was all a ruse, made of timber. The mahout's pleas for silence and his stout defence of Gnore's existence as a creature of flesh and blood fell on deaf ears. One irate tourist, his headphones playing Rabindrasangeet in the middle of a forest, was the most demanding: " Ekta bagh dekhiye dao bhai, bari jai," he shouted over the melody.

It was then that it happened: Gnore, rather his horn, came to life. And then, over the next few minutes - they seemed like hours to me - the animal started to raise himself, inch by inch, till it stood facing an incredulous elephant and its sceptical riders.

Everything went still momentarily. Even the birds seemed to have stopped chirping. One could only hear the faint strains of the Rabindrasangeet. And, then, I was treated to a live rendition of the man-animal conflict that afflicts conservation efforts even today. Gnore took a step forward and all hell broke loose: the elephant retreated in a hurry, the non-believers - had they turned a bit pale? - lurched comically atop the gentle giant, holding on to what they could find for dear life. Of course, none of us was in a position to know whether Gnore had stood chuckling at the sight of his doubters tumbling about on an elephant moving in back-gear.

But, dear readers, now you know why the very mention of rhinoceros makes me smile.