The tracks in the dust look fresh. I drop into a crouch, and let my palm hover a few inches above the red earth. Each pugmark is larger than my outstretched palm. A tiger has passed before us. The adrenaline kicks in, and our senses are on high alert. We continue on without saying a […]
The tracks in the dust look fresh. I drop into a crouch, and let my palm hover a few inches above the red earth. Each pugmark is larger than my outstretched palm. A tiger has passed before us. The adrenaline kicks in, and our senses are on high alert. We continue on without saying a single word, and a few minutes later, come across fresh tiger droppings. The pile is still steaming; the tiger could be a few meters ahead of us. We stop dead in our tracks, and listen. In the forest, once a tiger disappears into the undergrowth, the only way to track it, is to listen for a call. Not from the tiger, but from his prey, who call to alert other animals in the area. Directly ahead is a narrow uneven path with deep undergrowth, and a scattering of sal and teak trees. The forest is silent. And suddenly, in the distance, we hear a barking deer give an alarm call. We turn our heads towards the direction of the call, and almost as one, five binoculars are raised, and we scan the area for the black stripes and orange-yellow fur. As we continue looking, the alarm calls sound further away, and fainter. Time passes. It could be a few minutes; it could be half an hour.
Finally, Surya, the naturalist who has accompanied us on this walk, quietly says “he has gone”. The spell is broken. We are on a walking safari in the Satpura Tiger Reserve — the only tiger reserve in India where walking in the core area is permitted. Before we went into lockdown, wilderness tourism was arguably the fastest growing sector of tourism in India. The parks of central India had grown in reputation, and lodges at every price point had put National Parks like Kanha, Bandhavgarh, Pench, and Ranthambore, on the tourist map. While this was, of course, very good for the economy, several questions were being raised about the ecological impact of unchecked jungle experiences. Did this mean safaris and forest experiences should be banned or at least limited? Absolutely not. In fact, responsible wildlife tourism is the best and perhaps, the only way to achieve awareness and, conservation along with sustainable livelihood and employment for the communities that live cheek by jowl with the animal kingdom. In the last few years, there has been a growing awareness of the need for thoughtful wilderness experiences. After speaking to conservationists, ecologists, and wildlife experts, and thankfully having visited several wildlife sanctuaries in India in the world BC (Before Covid-19), these are the four bright stars in the galaxy of jungle tourism and conservation.
The Forsyth Lodge, Satpura, MP
At the very top of my list is The Forsyth Lodge — the first private lodge in the Satpura area, Madhya Pradesh. A large part of the credit for the unique Satpura wildlife experience lies with Hashim Tyabji — the driving force behind the Satpura tiger reserve tourism model, and one of the people who set up Forsyth Lodge. In the early 2000s, Satpura was a tiger reserve that saw very little tourism, and was very low on the Indian wildlife map. Determined to do something different, and, in his own way, change and broaden the approach to tiger reserves, Tyabji spent several months walking around the core area, and recognised the potential in this almost untouched forest. Along with a few like-minded people, he invested in a 44-acre plot of degraded land close to the Madhai entrance of the park. Using local expertise and material, they built the Forsyth Lodge, with 12 guest cottages on just over 10 per cent land. Small animals, birds, and even the occasional big cat were soon spotted near the Lodge. Local villagers were encouraged to become park guides, thereby supplementing their income, and encouraging them to preserve and nurture the forest and its inhabitants. Wildlife enthusiasts, conservationists, ecologists and nature lovers were soon regular guests at Forsyth Lodge.
Tyabji found a supportive field director, and state wildlife wing authorities to work with. Together, they made Satpura the only tiger reserve in India where two areas of the core zone (the area where the conservation of wildlife and natural resources is strictly protected by the forest department), were reserved exclusively for walking safaris. They also convinced fishermen, who plied their trade on the Denwa river, to use their local knowledge to offer visitors canoe safaris on the Denwa and its many tributaries that meandered through the park. Another revolutionary idea was to only allow parkowned vehicles to operate in the core area. To keep their carbon footprint as low as possible, Forsyth Lodge encouraged and promoted a ‘no-motor’ day each week, where guests were rewarded if they avoided jeep safaris in favour of either canoe or walking safaris. Newer wildlife lodges, particularly, Reni Pani, that came up in the Madhai area near Forsyth embraced the ideology enshrined by Tyabji, and worked to keep their footprint as light as possible. In addition to donating a restricted number of jeeps to the park, the Lodges also employed only local people, trained villagers to be guides and spotters, sponsored the village school, and worked with and for the community. The Lodges also worked together to promote ‘buffer zone’ tourism in order to reduce pressure on the tiger reserve. Surya Ramachandran, co-owner of The Snow Leopard Lodge in Ulley, Ladakh, and co-author of the definitive Wildlife of Central India: Photographic Field Guide, who I first met when he was a naturalist at Forsyth Lodge, says, “Right at the start, Satpura saw very little wildlife; maybe two sambar, a few deer or an occasional sloth bear. Then, over time, we began seeing regular tigers in the park. Once the prey density increased, the larger cats began to move here. This is a direct result of good-quality, responsible tourism being applied in the right way.”
Forsyth Lodge has reopened, and is welcoming guests again. They have put in place social distancing and sanitation protocols and as they correctly say, “Once at the lodge, you have the 44 acres to feel free again and even when you venture out, you will have natural social distancing in the largest Tiger reserve of MP, and your naturalist to take care of your safety.”
Salban, Kanha, MP
Keeping their footprint light is what travel and wildlife experts Sheema and Aniruddha (Jhampan) Mookerjee had in mind when they decided to leave behind their city life in Delhi, and build a home in Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh. Their four-room homestay, Salban (literally forest of sal trees), is the stuff dreams are made off. All the building materials were sourced from the area, and local building techniques were used to build this sprawling bungalow, with exposed brick walls, a red tiled roof, and an inviting veranda facing the sal forest. Sheema and Jhampan built Salban on a very tiny part of their 13-acre plot of land. The rest of the land is used to grow long forgotten varieties of local rice, along with an array of organic vegetables and fruits. A small team of men and women from the nearby villages have been trained to run the kitchen and house-keeping needs, thus providing employment to locals.
Meals at Salban are a celebration of the produce of their land, and Sheema’s ability to innovate and surprise at every meal is legendary. Her mahua cookies and deeppurple jamun jam are just two of the many delights’ guests at Salban can enjoy. Jhampan, in the meanwhile, tends his land, prowls lightly around, and will occasionally crack you up with a quiet quip. The 2019 Lonely Planet rates Salban as one of the best 5 places in Madhya Pradesh to stay, as well as to eat. Safaris in the Kanha National Park, with either Jhampan or Sheema, are never about racing after the tiger, but about appreciating, understanding, and recognising the myriad birds, smaller animals, and trees that make up the beautiful Kanha jungle. But fear not, Sheema is the proverbial cat magnet, and chances of spotting a tiger at very close quarters when she is accompanying you for a drive, are always very high. Salban homestay is an illustration of how it is possible to live in perfect harmony with the forest without sacrificing creature comforts. Sheema and Jhampan’s example of simpler living, in the sense of reduced and more efficient consumption, is the need of the hour to save our planet from grave ecological harm. Salban reopened its doors for guests on October 24, 2020.
Snow Leopard Lodge, Ulley, Ladakh
Snow leopards — one of the world’s most elusive cats — thrive in extreme, high-elevation habitats and were, for centuries, considered mythical beasts. While wildlife enthusiasts have always been eager to catch a glimpse of this elusive cat, snow leopard tourism in India was severely limited and unorganised, due to a lack of infrastructure. In 2001, realising the tourism potential, the Snow Leopard Conservancy (SLC) — a local grassroots NGO in Ladakh that works to protect the highly threatened snow leopard, its prey species, and its habitat in India — stepped in and encouraged villagers to set up homestays, and welcome tourists. This was at a time when a few die-hard enthusiasts would hire porters and camping equipment from Leh, and pitch tents in the wilderness, in the hope of tracking a snow leopard. Thanks to this initiative by the SLC, Hemis National Park in the Rumbak area of Ladakh was promoted as the place to sight snow leopards, and several homestays cropped up, piquing the interest of wildlife enthusiasts. As the pressure of tourism grew, there came the realisation that wildlife was present all over Ladakh, and not just in the conservancy area. Rahul Sharma and Hashim Tyabji (of Forsyth Lodge) along with Surya Ramachandran, with their Ladakhi partner, the immensely respected David Sonam — the managing trustee of the SLC — encouraged Tsewang Norbu to set up a homestay at an altitude of 4,000m in Ulley village — one of the most remote parts of the Sham region in central Ladakh.
Norbu is a brilliant spotter and a natural conservationist, who was trained by the legendary founder director of the SLC, Rinchen Wangchuk. Realising the potential of Norbu and Ulley, Sharma and Tyabji started taking groups to Norbu’s basic three-room homestay. What Ulley brought to guests was an exclusive wildlife experience, with one of the best spotters in Ladakh. As luck would have it, their very first group to Ulley saw snow leopards very close to the Lodge. After a few years, Sonam, Sharma, and Tyabji leased the homestay, and decided to radically upgrade the facilities to bring them up to ‘lodge’ standards, and launched Ladakh’s first dedicated wildlife lodge. Ulley soon became the area, in Ladakh for excellent snow leopard, wolf, and other wildlife sightings. Newer homestays opened in the area, widening the stake-holding in conservation. The Snow Leopard Lodge, the SLC, as well as Zeiss India sponsored corrals for the domestic animals in and around Ulley, to protect them from snow leopard attacks. The same team has started a similar project in Mangyu village, a short distance from Ulley. Note: Due to the current situation in Ladakh along with the fact that people are still not willing to take flights to remote destinations, Snow Leopard Lodge will not reopen this season.
Fringe Ford Wayanad, Kerala
After he inherited a large plantation from his father, Ahmed Chamanwala decided to convert his land into a private wildlife sanctuary. The first of its kind in India. Along with the plantation, Chamanwala inherited a 100-year-old house built by an early British settler. He converted this piece of history into a five-room Lodge, and the money earned from the Lodge funds, and sustains the preservation and conservation of the land. Fringe Ford, today, acts as the active buffer between the wilderness that surrounds it, and the civilisation and development that is pushing into this wilderness. Fringe Ford is the only one of the properties in this article that I have not visited, but I wholeheartedly support all that it represents, and will plan a visit at the earliest opportunity. Fringe Ford is welcoming guests again, with all proper Covid-19 protocols firmly in place. After making a booking, guests need to follow all the instructions listed on the Kerala government website. Also, Chamanwala and his team are even more committed to increasing Fringe Ford’s conservation footprint in the near future, by adding an additional 45 acres to the existing 527 acres.
Wildlife tourism in India is growing exponentially. At present, there are 450 National Parks, Wildlife sanctuaries, and protected areas in the country. We are now at an inflection point. Either we continue with unchecked tourism, along with indiscriminate diversion of forests for mining and infrastructure projects and slowly but surely destroy the habitat and drive animals to extinction. Or we consciously embrace conservation, and encourage much more responsible wilderness tourism. There are many ways this can be achieved, and Forsyth, Salban, Snow Leopard Lodge, and Fringe Ford are showing us the way. As the travel and hospitality sector slowly opens up, better-run wildlife resorts and homestays may have the advantage over larger chains, as people will prefer to go to places with fewer people or better still, places where they are the only guests. Smaller homestays, which can be block-booked, or in which a family can take a whole villa/bungalow, will be sought after. This may just be the best time to visit these lodges, and experience for yourself the positive energy of conservation, and responsible wildlife tourism.