I’ll be contributing a few posts to ‘Engagements’ A blog published by the Anthropology and Environment Society, a section of the American Anthropological Association. Here is the link to my first one on Tigers and symbols and bus rides.
On a recent visit to Assam’s Kaziranga National Park, home of the famed Rhinoceros unicornis, or great one-horned rhino, I was saddened to learn the day before our arrival a forest guard had been trampled to death by a rhino. The following night, a rhino was shot and killed, its horn cut off and its body left to be found by the Department. It was shot within view of a nearby anti-poaching camp in the park. A forest official later told me that 24 poachers had been shot and killed in Kaziranga this year alone. I was told anyone caught walking in the park who might be a poacher is shot and killed on sight. Reflecting on my research in the South by examining, however superficially, what wildlife governance looks like elsewhere here has been informative for understanding the stakes involved in protecting endangered species within different biogeographic contexts.
The next day, I learned that these same rhinos, when not out avoiding poachers or trampling forest guards, enjoy lapping up human urine at the primitive toilets constructed for tourists and forest guards found in the park. They do it for the salt, presumably. It seemed to me a symbiotic relationship; the tourists attract the rhinos with their urine, and in exchange the tourists get an unparalleled view of rhinos from only a few meters away as the rhinos peacefully lap up the piss. Being so close to a wild rhino is, I think, generally well-understood by tourists in the Park to be incredibly dangerous. But if the rhinos understand where the urine is coming from, why would they attack the source of the free liquid salt lick? What are we to make of this particular form of animal encounter?
It is common belief among those who work with these rhinos that they equate humans on foot as a threat; poachers are the only humans who typically risk being so close on foot to rhinos in Kaziranga, as illustrated above, such encounters are often deathly. So does the relation change when an exchange–in this case urine– is made? What, if anything, changes when typically uncompensated animal labor (we do not pay the rhino to take its picture or watch it shit) is compensated in the form of an exchange commodity? Conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts might likely be aghast to hear of wild rhinos drinking human urine (‘going feral’?), but does this potentially represent, albeit by way of a somewhat unconventional example, what a more radical, more-than-human animal conservation of the future might look like, where animal labor and encounter value1 are up for discussion?
1 This smattering of ideas on rhinos and urine can be partially attributed to, or blamed on, my recent reading of Maan Barua’s forthcoming article, “Lively Commodities and Encounter Value,” in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. I thank Maan for sharing with me a pre-publication copy of his manuscript.