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Environment

Making paper from poop to preserve rhinos

Rhinoceroses in the jungles of the Indian state of Assam are being ruthlessly poached for their horns. One initiative to save them involves changing attitudes in forest communities - by making paper from rhino dung.

When Mahesh Bora retired from his job as a coal-mining engineer, he still felt like he was ready to find his true calling. Throughout his career, he'd advocated for cleaner mining operations - but greener alternatives always seemed to lose out to cheaper ones.

"After my retirement, I was doing mining consultancy - but I never liked it," Bora told DW. "I wanted to do something which is more creative, more helpful for nature."

And one day, the retiree read an article that changed his life.

"I was traveling from New Delhi, and in an aircraft I read that someone was making paper from elephant dung in Rajasthan," he said. He was surprised because the desert state of Rajasthan has elephants only for tourist rides. But at his home in Assam, in India's northeast, 8,000 indigenous elephants ply the lands.

Bora was intrigued enough to start researching. He learned that elephants excrete almost all the fiber from the grasses they consume. He'd found as well that that this makes a nice base for gorgeously textured paper.

Stacks of paper hand made with rhino dung, cotton rag, and forest waste at the Elrhino factory in Assam, India (Photo: Chhavi Sachdev)

The paper offers a unique texture and can be used in many applications

From experience, he also knew that rhinoceroses, like elephants, pass most of the grass they eat without digesting it. In his travels and work, he'd seen jungles being encroached into, which led the animals to eat crops and then defecate in cultivated fields.

All these observations added up and began brewing into a business idea for the active senior.

Human-animal conflict

Of the 2,500 Asian one-horned rhinos in the world, 2,000 of them live in the jungles of the Indian state of Assam.

Locals saw these large animals as a nuisance - not something to be preserved. While elephants have been known to destroy entire farms, rhinos not only eat crops, but also turn fields into a personal latrine.

Rhinos often return to a single location to poop, for up to 10 days. That can result in as much as 400 kilograms (882 pounds) of rhino dung piling up in a hapless farmer's field.

Two Elrhino workers lift and couch a suspension of cotton, dung and water to strain through deckle and screens as a part of the paper making process (Photo: Chhavi Sachdev)

Bora developed various processes to turn the poo into paper

"People poison the elephants," said Bora. And in return for money, they guide poachers to the places rhinos frequent. According to estimates from forest rangers, newspaper reports, and conservation societies, around 35 rhinos were killed by poachers in Assam in 2014.

"I was very perturbed by it - so I thought, if people depend on the elephant [and rhino], they will not try to kill it, they will try to protect it," Bora told DW.

So Bora decided to include the rhinos and elephants in a business model that would ensure their protection. He decided try and come up with a way to give these villagers a new livelihood that depended on elephants and rhinos.

Home experiment

For a month, Bora had also lived in Sanganer, Rajasthan - where every household makes handmade paper from cotton rag. When he returned to Assam, he convinced a senior officer at the Guwahati Zoo to share some rhino and elephant dung. The officer obliged - and Bora took it home.

"First, I washed it in running water. Then quietly I took my wife's mixie [blender] - stole it rather - and made a pulp out of rhino and elephant poop," Bora said with twinkling eyes. He then took a section of the shirt he was wearing, shredded it, and added it to the mixture.

"I made a pulp, then I put it in a wire mesh screen," he said. Bora said he'll never forget the resulting thin, textured, beautiful piece of paper - green like his shirt. And thus, Elrhino Eco Industries was born.

Mahesh Bora inspects the dryer he’s designed for hanging sheets of paper to dry at the Elrhino factory in Assam, one of the wettest states in India with high humidity year round (Photo: Chhavi Sachdev)

A special drying process was needed for work in Assam - one of the wettest provinces in India

Growing business

Bora tapped government subsidies for ecological enterprises, acquiring a land allotment two hours outside of the city. He also took a bank loan to buy equipment and machinery (which he's already managed to repay). Then, he started hiring locals to work with him.

Bora is focused on the creation of paper and optimization of the process, while his daughter Nisha handles operations and finances.

At the age of 70, he taught himself how to use AUTOCad to design machines, and he's created a unique wood-fired dryer for the paper to streamline the process.

Two years on, the ElRhino factory can make 1,200 kilograms (1.3 tons) of paper every month. For every ton of paper they produce, they save 27 trees.

Elrhino sells sheets of paper, as well as products like lamp shades, photo albums, journals and jewelry boxes. Although they're currently just about covering their operational costs, their client base is growing - especially in Europe.

ElRhino Founder Mahesh Bora (Photo: Chirodeep Chaudhuri)

Mahesh Bora: Rhino dung paper production king

Pushing conservation forward

Though the amount of dung used to make the paper is not much compared to all that the local rhino population produces, ElRhino includes advocacy with every item it sells. Nisha Bora says they are seeing an attitude change on the ground, in the villages that collect dung and around the factory, toward perceiving the large animals as more valuable.

The elder Bora has a much greater vision. "We have a lot of natural raw material in Assam - bananas, pineapples, water hyacinths - which is all fiber. My dream is to see entire villages where they make handmade paper," he says.

Elrhino has also instituted an award to recognize people who fight poaching and work to conserve the rhino. Mahesh Bora knows his daughter will carry his legacy forward - but even today, at 72, he is tireless in his efforts.

"I have no intention of retiring," Bora said. "If you're physically all right - if your mind can function - there's no reason."

"I have done enough for myself … but there's so much I can do for others. Why not utilize the strength of my body and mind?"

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