By Tirthankar Mukherjee
Walk alone, like the rhinoceros,” enjoined the Buddha, but even with all their reverence for him, few Mongolians are likely to know much about this pachyderm, chosen by the Buddha as a role model because of its solitariness and focused existence, both of which he considered essential for spiritual enlightenment. The principal reason why Mongolians cannot be expected to be familiar with rhinos is that both places where the animal is found – South and South-East Asia and Southern Africa -- were beyond where the old Mongol empire ended, and more modern times have not seen too much interest in these places here.
This is a pity, as I have always found the rhinoceros, the world’s second largest land animal after the elephant, a magnificent beast. Its peculiar appeal is that it seems to have lumbered straight out of the Age of Dinosaurs. It is a massive creature, with folds of thick flesh that look like protective plating. A white rhino can stand two metres at the shoulders and weigh 3,000 kg or more, with a horn up to two metres in length, and a slightly shorter one just behind. Its eyes are dim little poppy seeds low on the sides of its great skull, but the big feathered ears are acutely sensitive, as are its vast snuffling nasal passages.
In a rather self-serving passage describing how he killed a rhinoceros in Africa – admittedly in days where hunting for fun elicited no opprobrium – Theodore Roosevelt watches his soon-to-be victim, and says, “The big beast stood like an uncouth statue, his hide black in the sunlight; he seemed what he was, a monster surviving over from the world’s past, from the days when the beasts of the prime ran riot in their strength, before man grew so cunning of brain and hand as to master them.”
But before your wonderment at what the rhinoceros has to do with The Mongolian Mining Journal turns into despair and takes you away from this page, let me give you the link. Man is the only threat to the rhino and now a specialised form of human activity – mining – poses a new threat to the world’s greatest rhino sanctuary, the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi park in KwaZulu-Natal province, which is seen as ground zero in the battle to save them. It is the oldest protected wilderness in Africa, proclaimed in 1895, and the scene of one of the most inspiring conservation success stories of the 20th century. Plans for an opencast coalmine on the boundary of the South African reserve are causing concern among those whose concerns go beyond the immediate.
I recently read some visitors’ accounts of how this historic achievement is being undone at a terrifying pace. Forget the relentless poaching for horns that cost their weight in gold to end up in traditional medicines in Vietnam and China, there is a new peril on the horizon. A mining company has applied to build a colliery just 40 metres from the boundary of the park. There are fears that the 14,615-hectare opencast mine would pollute air and rivers, displace local communities and hasten the demise of the rhino. A magnificent rolling savanna would be scarred by waste dumps up to 70m high.
The contention points to wider concerns over the extraction of mineral resources and its impact on the Africa’s biodiversity. In South Africa alone, the number of operating mines increased from 993 in 2004 to 1,579 in 2012. Those flying over the park see how coalmines already operating just outside its borders form black cavities in the otherwise pristine green landscape.
One account I read quotes a Zulu community leader saying: “We are concerned wild animals like rhinos and elephants will go extinct,” and adding: “Our cattle drink the toxic from that side and die. Now they are preparing to mine the grazing land of our cattle.” The community has known the same way of life for generations and resents the prospect of losing it for a mine expected to operate for about 40 years. “We’ve managed to bring up our children from selling cattle. If the mining opens the land, how will our cattle be able to graze and how will our children go to school?” His son said: “We are losing our livestock rapidly from mysterious diseases which we think are related to mining in this area. Our water resources for the cattle are polluted.”
Many warn that the mine project would hurt rhino security: “It will be easy for poachers to access the park. Right now we have communities working with the reserve to ensure it’s inaccessible. If the mine comes, no one will be able to monitor who comes in and who comes out.” Another account finds Roger Porter, an ecologist, sadly agreeing: “Mines tend to be a magnet drawing in people from surrounding areas because of jobs. Universally crime increases around mines.” Rhinos and other animals will also suffer harmful side-effects, Porter believes. “What we do know is that blasting affects crocodiles so they no longer breed. We also know that elephants ‘hear’ through their feet; with these vibrations, what’s going to happen now? We have no idea what the blasting effect would be on rhinos.”
It’s really ironic that some of South Africa’s richest coal chests lie beneath key biodiversity areas. The threat to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi is heartbreaking for Dr Ian Player, the man who fought and won the battle to save the rhino in the 1950s and 60s. He began working there as a ranger in 1952, and led the first aerial count and launched the now celebrated “Operation Rhino”, breeding the animals in the park, and then reintroducing them into other protected areas in the subregion. The lessons learned are still used today to protect endangered species around the world.
Now 87, the eminent conservationist says he has no doubt that if the mine went ahead it would destroy the wilderness. “And what a tragic world it would be if your children and your grandchildren couldn’t see a rhino in the wild.” Player believes there is still hope. “We cannot let bureaucracy kill great ideas. That is the most important thing. People were saying ‘It’s impossible, you can’t defeat these big mining companies,’ and we said ‘No, you can, but you’ve got to be convinced that what you are doing is absolutely right.’ You have to know that. If you know that, then the rest is strategy and tactics.”
The mining company is accused of failing to notify and consult the local tribal authority about its prospecting. It declined to comment on the objections raised. Replying to media query, a spokesperson said: “We cannot participate at this stage since the exploration and assessment processes of the prospective mining development are still at an early stage and public comment on our part at this initial stage might compromise onward engagement processes with various important stakeholders.” She added: “Our company is committed to responsible mining practices, with due sensitivity to the considerations for the environment as well as the community on or near the footprint of prospective mining activity.”
South Africa is a long way from here, and rhinos are neither reality nor romantic for Mongolians. But the setting, the script, and all the quotes: haven’t we seen and heard all this before, and continue to do so? All you have to do is to change the speaker’s name to one you are familiar with, and with a bit of willing suspension of disbelief, you will find that I have been writing about Mongolia as much as South Africa.