Call of the wild

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By TT Bureau
  • Published 4.12.11

Are you desperately worried about the environment and always looking for ways to do the best for it — while having a jolly good time in the process? Would you like to holiday in an environment- friendly resort that’s been built on reclaimed land and with locally available materials?

Singinawa Lodge that opened in 2009 is built on 58 acres of degraded land just outside the buffer zone of Kanha National Park in Madhya Pradesh. Today three acres have been used to construct 12 luxury stone and slate cottages — with a spa to unwind after a hard day of tiger spotting. The rest of the land which was partly used as a town dump with weeds growing wild on it, has been planted with trees.

“We wanted to show that tourism, conservation and community development can go hand-in-hand,” says Latika Rana, who has a degree in tiger conservation from Oxford and is part of the husband-and-wife team who’ve opened the resort. Her husband Nanda S.J.B. Rana is a tiger consultant.

Cut to Reni Pani Jungle Lodge, opened in 2010, which has 12 air-conditioned cottages on the periphery of the Satpura National Park. The resort offers luxury — but not at the cost of the environment. Brothers Faiz and Aly Rashid, of the Bhopal royal family, are wildlife enthusiasts. So, they involved local masons and carpenters when building the lodge and ensured that no trees were cut. They’re also taking time out to explain the importance of wildlife conservation to the villagers who live nearby — for instance, they are helping them to grow organic crops.

The Singinawa Jungle Lodge is the brainchild of tiger consultant Nanda S.J.B. Rana and his wife Latika, who holds a degree in tiger conservation from Oxford University

The Ranas and the Rashids belong to a clutch of environmentalists attempting to combine tourism with wildlife conservation — and focus largely on tiger protection. These resorts are different because they’ve been built with serious wildlife conservation issues in mind — but guests can also have a good time staying there. Says Latika: “Also, the profits from the lodges are channelled into community development projects.”

And there are plenty of middle class Indians who are on the lookout for a holiday with a difference where a bit of environmentalism is part of having a good time. This might involve something like helping with a wildlife awareness programme for school-going children. Or, even helping with a village clean-up drive.

That may not be everyone’s idea of a good time but today’s tourists are often more interested in a ‘different experience.’ Says Deepika Choudhry, executive administrator, Travel Operators For Tigers, India: “The guests who go to these lodges are not just looking for an action-packed regular jungle holiday. They often take part in the conservation work done by the lodges.”

The Rashid brothers’ blueprint for their 30-acre property, Reni Pani Jungle Lodge, included no tree-cutting for construction and employing local masons and carpenters

So, cross to Sarai, a lodge opened in 2010 at Toria with six independent cottages and which is 2km from the entrance to the Panna Tiger Reserve at Madla. The lodge is the creation of conservation biologist Dr Raghu Chundawat and his British wife, Joanna Van Gruissen, a wildlife photographer. Sarai is situated on a nine-acre plot, much of which is the natural grassland that’s been left untouched during construction.

Besides that, the couple says that the site has huge potential for research on wildlife and its impact on climate change. The rates here are Rs 12,500 on twin-sharing per night inclusive of all meals and activities. Chundawat has spent 20 years as a conservation biologist and has done detailed work on the snow leopard in the Ladakh region.

So what’s the essential difference between these jungle lodges and the ones run by hospitality majors like the Taj and the Oberoi? The key element, say the owners, is that they offer guests undivided attention. The personal touch is evident in Reni Pani as the brothers are there 24x7 during the season personally looking after guests. Says Faiz: “We give them individual attention, accompany them to the jungles and also enlighten them about responsible tourism by holding workshops and lectures.” According to Joanna: “Raghu’s knowledge and scientific work on large carnivores certainly gives an edge. We also offer unobtrusive but very personal hosting.”

Pugdundee Safaris, started by
conservationists Manav Khanduja (above) and Shyamendra Singh, has jungle lodges in Panna, Bandhavgarh and Kanha

One of the older players in the ‘conservation tourism’ business is Shyamendra Singh who started Pugdundee Safaris back in 1986. Today, he has teamed with a conservationist friend, Manav Khanduja, who left his advertising career to take up wildlife tourism.

Together the two have taken Pugdundee Safaris on a course of rapid expansion. They now have several jungle lodges in the central India belt. There’s the Ken River Lodge in Panna and the Kings Lodge in Bandhavgarh. Also in Bandhavgarh, there’s the Tree House Hideaway and the newly opened Kanha Earth Lodge in Kanha. Coming up next are two more lodges with 12 luxury cottages each. One is the Denwa Backwater Escape near the Satpura National Park, set on a 10-acre plot, and Pugdundee Pench built on 36 acres in the under-developed Karmajhiri area of Pench National Park. Khanduja’s speciality is environmental law. He also worked on a research project in Dudhwa National Park where he did work on the Indian Bustard.

The Kanha Earth Lodge, opened in Narna, a Gond tribal village, is set on 16 acres of land and consists of 12 air- conditioned bungalows, a pool. There is also an eco-shop for tribal handicrafts the proceeds of which go to tiger conservation work in central India. And while Shyamendra Singh stays at the Ken River Lodge with his wife most of the year, Khanduja lives in Delhi and during the peak season shifts to Kanha Earth Lodge.

Another new venture opened in 2010 close to Kanha’s Khatia Gate is Flame of the Forest with four safari cottages — the brainchild of Karan Modi and his Swiss wife, Isabelle Heini. Says Modi: “We are not pitching our property as just another green lodge but actually taking baby steps to make guests understand responsible tourism,” says Modi.

Karan Modi and and his Swiss wife Isabelle Heini of Flame of the Forest actively participate in community development work around their lodge

So, their lodge was built with traditional materials like cow-dung, mud and limestone. Besides that the couple is also actively taking part in community development work. Isabelle who is a yoga instructor teaches yoga at the Gond tribal school nearby. Modi, who worked for the Taj Safaris took his training as a naturalist with Taj CC Africa. Says Modi: “I wanted to live as close to nature as possible. I chose Kanha because I am aware of its bio-diversity.”

Many of these owners have focused their efforts on the still lushly forested sections of Madhya Pradesh where there’s space for tigers to roam even now. But there is action in other states too. Hop across to the less well-known Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in Chandrapur District of Maharashtra. This is where the newly launched Svasara Resort near the reserve’s Kolara Gate aims to woo the discerning wildlife lover.

Svasara has 12 luxury suites with a spa, pool and gym coming up. “The biggest challenge was the remote location and a barren piece of land. However, the focus is to remain small and niche,” says Ratika Sinha executive director, Svasara Resorts. Sinha was exposed to conservation initiatives while studying in the US for her management degree. Tariffs here are Rs 14,000 on twin-sharing basis per night, inclusive of meals.

Similarly, the Pugdundee owners have started construction on a lodge in Gir, Gujarat, that will open in 2012 with 22 ethnic cottages. They’ve bought 450 acres of relatively undeveloped land in Gir east. Only six per cent of the area is being used for construction. Says Khanduja: “The rest is left as it is for guests to enjoy the thick forest cover.” They are also planning conservation work and adopting 11 adjoining villages. “We are taking care of their education and hygiene. Work on water-management has started recently,” adds Khanduja.

In most lodges, construction styles match local styles using local labour. So Chundawat has used very little concrete and steel for the construction of Sarai. The architecture of Kanha Earth Lodge too is inspired by Gond tribal villages and the lodge is given a rustic feel with local stone, logs and baked tiles. At Reni Pani, they use water from their own dam which charges the borewells and also serves as a watering hole for animals.

A crucial feature is that these resorts generate local employment. “Generally local people are hostile to wildlife sanctuaries because wild animals take the villagers’ cattle and damage crops. So, it’s imperative to improve their living conditions so that they can benefit from it and also have a reason to conserve,” says Latika.

These resorts are undertaking other projects too. For instance, Singinawa recently hosted an international wildlife project called Artists for Tigers for which painters from nine countries painted their experiences of Kanha. The paintings will be auctioned in January next year and the proceeds will be used for the tiger conservation project at the sanctuary. Chundawat on the other hand has plans for bio-gas production and providing electrification to the neighbouring villages from the solar panels of Sarai.

There have, of course, been battles at every stage of the way. Chundawat was the first whistleblower about the vanishing tiger population in Panna due to poaching in 2008. “I had pointed out that 80 per cent of tiger population in Panna has vanished. My research came to an abrupt end as I was banned from entering the park,” he says.

All these people are firmly convinced that eco-tourism in the parks is the way forward — and not barring entry into the parks. Says Karan: “The logic is that with increased tourists we can ward off poaching which is still a huge problem and also encourage more and more green practices.”