Tuesday, September 01, 2009

top of their game

The national parks of Madhya Pradesh are home to nearly a quarter of India’s remaining tigers, as well as a host of other exotic creatures. And while the big cats are increasingly elusive these days, comfort is guaranteed at a quartet of luxury safari lodges

By Jason Overdorf
Destinasian (August/September 2009)

Skidding his jeep to a stop in the jungles of Bandhavgarh National Park, Kartikeya Singh Chauhan craned his neck to examine the rutted forest track. “See there,” he said, pointing to impressions in the feather-soft sand. “Fresh pugmarks.” A tiger was close.

“Pichey! Pichey!” our minder from the state forest department shouted. “Back up! Back up!”

Chauhan slammed the jeep into reverse and raced up a gravel incline, then stopped and motioned for silence. We cocked our heads to listen. A moment later came the short, chirping warning call of a spotted deer. The barks grew louder as we roared forward again, and then, rounding a bend, we found ouselves face-to-face with the big stag that was sounding the alarm. “They’re here,” Chauhan announced. “It’s the cubs.”

About 18 months earlier, one of Bandhavgarh’s tigresses had given birth. Today, the two adolescents were learning to hunt, sending the deer and other game crashing through the brush to escape. Chauhan sped down the track after the noise until a forest guard pushing a bicycle motioned us from the road. “You just missed them,” he said. “They crossed the path, and they’re over there.” He pointed toward a dry slope forested with broad-leafed teak and sal trees.

Suddenly, a herd of spotted deer bounded across a clearing. “Here he comes,” Kartikeya said. “He's chasing them.” Then a wild boar darted through the gap in the trees. Close on its heels loped a graceful young tiger. In an instant, it was gone. I hadn't snapped a photo. I hadn't blinked. I hadn't drawn a breath. “Wow!” I said, stupidly.

Not terribly articulate, I know. But I was stunned. This was my fourth trip to India's jungles to look for tigers, but on the first three I hadn't so much as heard an alarm call, and I'd pretty much resigned myself to the idea that India's remaining great cats would be wiped out before I had a chance to see one in the wild.

Everybody knows that the tiger is endangered. But recently the situation has been revealed to be worse than we thought. For its last tiger census, India abandoned its old method, which extrapolated numbers from counting tiger tracks, and adopted a complex system that uses satellite remote sensing, camera trapping and other techniques. The results were stunning: Instead of the 3,600 tigers estimated to be living in India's forests in 2002, the more sophisticated census found that there are really only about 1400. In other words, either half of India's tigers (and a fourth of the world's total) were killed over the past five years, or they had never existed anywhere but on paper.

Home to six tiger reserves and the setting for Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, Madhya Pradesh could be the most important territory in the battle to save the big striper. With tigers, leopards, and wild buffalo—three out of India's “big five”--and forests that are teeming with monkeys, sloth bear, deer, antelope, jackals and wolves, the state has enormous tourism potential. But due to poor management it has never become a safari destination on the order of South Africa or Kenya, and signs are burgeoning that the situation is about to get worse. A highway alongside one of its best tiger reserves is to be widened as part of a government expressway project, while at another reserve police and forest department officials are refusing to work together--instead blaming each other for the deaths of at least a dozen tigers since November. Worst of all, recently the forest department tacitly admitted that poachers have wiped out the tigers of Panna National Park when it embarked on a much-criticized plan to import breeding tigers from other reserves.

My guide, Kartikeya, was hip-deep in the controversy. A quiet, diminutive man with a Rajput's big handlebar mustache, Kartikeya is the head ranger at the three-year-old Mahua Kothi lodge—one of four luxury wildlife resorts started here by the Taj Group and &Beyond (formerly CC Africa). A former wildlife researcher who the Asiatic lion, Kartikeya is helping to push forest officials to adopt new management philosophies and to raise the standard of service provided by the park staff. But so far, Indian wildlife activists remain skeptical about how million-dollar resorts will affect the country's tiger reserves. “Tiger tourism in particular is all about making money,” Belinda Wright, who heads the Wildlife Protection Society of India, had told me before I left on my trip. “Even though there are groups which are talking about better practices and things, we haven't really seen them in action.”

That was what I had come to the jungle to do.


The night before, photographer Christopher Wise and I had bumped and rattled our way into Mahua Kothi in pitch darkness after a typically Indian day of airport delays and rough roads. As it turned out, our hosts were ready for us. Neel Gogate (the lodge's general manager), Kartikeya, Mahendra (our butler) and the rest of the hospitality crew were waiting with ice-cold towels and glasses of lemonade; Mahendra had already drawn baths in our rooms, sprinkling the water with flower petals and lighting enough candles for a saint's shrine; and the chef had whipped up a classical Indian thali—the degustation menu of delicacies that lies at the heart of any gourmet Indian kitchen. Neel cut straight to the chase. “Would you like to have a bath first, or would you prefer a drink?” he asked.

“I'd kill for a beer,” I said, thinking, There is no gout in the jungle.

Dinner was stupendous. Siddarth Sarmah, the chef at Mahua Kothi, has wisely eschewed an a la carte menu, instead creating his own selection each evening so that he can introduce guests to more varied fare than the chicken curry, dal fry, aloo gobi and palak paneer that otherwise becomes the staple diet of ignorant foreign visitors. Along with some succulent mutton curry, therefore, we were treated to an elegantly prepared ragout of karela (a delicious, knobby bitter gourd that is almost impossible to find on restaurant menus), a dish of spiced and sauteed pumpkin that I still lay awake thinking about from time to time, and a subtle pulao made with fragrant rice and the buttery flower of the mahua trees from which the lodge derives its name. I'd learn about Mahua Kothi's conservation plans later. But I was convinced these guys had the luxury thing down pat.

That was the first goal of the Taj Safaris-&Beyond joint venture, which was essentially knocked into place over cocktails by three high-powered buddies from the hospitality trade, &Beyond chief executive Steve Fitzgerald, Taj Group chief operating officer Rajiv Gujaral, and entrepreneur Binod Chaudhary (president of Nepal's largest conglomerate). “The idea was to harness the combined experience of Taj and &Beyond to create a world class luxury Indian Safari experience,” &Beyond's commercial director, Gary Lotter, told me. To that end, the partners spent five years identifying properties, designing and building their four resorts, hiring and training staff, and developing their relationship with the Madhya Pradesh forest department.

At Mahua Kothi, the first of the four lodges, Goan architect Dean D'Cruz designed 12 Ralph-Lauren-rustic cottages based on the traditional Madhya Pradesh kutiya, a rough-hewn hut with walls made of mud and cow dung and a thatched roof. A beautiful khaki color with a fine matte texture, the thick walls are impervious to the late season's 35 degree heat, and by using indigenous materials, the lodge has not only reduced its carbon footprint but also provided ongoing employment for the local village women, whose job it is to apply a fresh coat of mud and dung to the cottages after the monsoon each year, as they do for their own homes. My cottage had its own little courtyard with a rope charpoi for lounging, and even though the buildings are clustered close together to make the most of the property's small acreage, I found that D'Cruz had managed to orient the cottages toward the jungle, giving guests the illusion of being alone in the forest.


Taj and &Beyond are not the first to bring luxury to India's jungles. Both the Oberoi group and Aman Resorts have been operating luxurious tented camps near the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, in Rajasthan, for six years or more. Similarly, though Mahua Kothi runs conservation-awareness programs for local schoolchildren and provides school supplies for them with guest donations, their ad hoc efforts struck me as neither better nor larger in scale than similar programs run by other resorts.

What sets the venture apart is the wildlife expertise of its staff. Both Oberoi and Aman rely on freelance naturalists to accompany their guests on their game drives, along with the required forest department guide. But by teaming up with &Beyond, the Taj Group gained a partner with more than 35 years experience in Africa's competitive safari industry, where it operates more than 45 wildlife lodges. “We are the only operator in Africa which has our own guide training schools in South Africa, Botswana, and Tanzania,” Lotter had told me, explaining how the company had recruited its head guide from India and brought him to Africa for training, and then sent its head trainer from Africa to help him train the first team of Indian guides in an effort to raise the bar.

In Kartikeya, we seemed to have the best of the bunch. After a short introduction of the animals we might expect to see and an explanation of the park rules the next morning, we took off for Bandhavgar to hunt for tigers. India's forest department does not allow guides to use radios to alert each other to the presence of a big cat, so sightings depend a great deal on luck. Having driven for hours unrewarded through the teak forests of the vast Jim Corbett National Park, in the northern state of Uttaranchal, on past trips, I hoped that Bandhavgar, with the highest concentration of tigers of any of the Indian reserves and lots of dry expanses, offered me a better chance—especially since I would spend only two days there and then three in Panna, where the only tiger was the one that the forest department had imported a few weeks before.

As we drove down the winding forest tracks, Kartikeya hinted that our chances were good. Apart from the density of tigers, he explained, Bandhavgar boasts a big male and a breeding female that make their territories very close to the tourist road, and over the years they've grown indifferent to jeeps, cameras, bright saris, silly hats, and everything else that comes with the tiger-watching trade. He also impressed me with his knowledge. As a genuine wildlife researcher, rather than a jumped-up tour guide, Kartikeya pointed out the park's wild boar, sambar, spotted deer and “star birds” – a category that &Beyond has invented to initiate first-timers to the pleasures of spying and identifying the more than 140 species that roost amid the park's sal and ghost trees – without bludgeoning us with factoids or the tour leader's dreaded rhetorical questions. (Do you know why the yellow-throated fox weasel mates after the monsoon? Yada yada yada). He made sure we got our tiger sighting, too, by tracking the 18-month-old cubs through their practice hunting ground.

We stopped for brunch at one of the ranger stations, and Kartikeya laid out a spread that reminded me of the days when travelers needed a retinue of bearers to haul their gear and grub—warm paranthas and kathi rolls, homemade muffins, fruit, and coffee and tea in silver urns. Chris and I were on our second cup of coffee when some rangers rolled up in a jeep and told Kartikeya that the forest guards, riding on elephant back, had turned up a tiger near the park entrance. Now tourists like us could race over, climb from the back of the jeep to the back of an elephant, and follow the tiger into the bush.

When we got to the spot, we climbed aboard an elephant and headed into the jungle. In a few moments, half a dozen jeep loads of tourists had arrived, roaring up in billowing clouds of dust, and the mahouts began trying to drive the tiger toward the road. As our elephant bobbed and weaved like the world's most ponderous cutting horse, the tiger stalked ahead, alternatively aloof and irritated, and eventually padded across the road to find a spot to lie hidden in the tall grass. It was an amazing experience. But it was difficult to reconcile with the claim that the tourism industry was the key to saving the tiger—and that's precisely the benchmark that &Beyond will have to reach if it is to be an unqualified success in India.


On the five hour drive from Mahua Kothi to Taj Safaris' Pashan Garh lodge, on the outskirts of Panna National Park, near Khajuraho, I thought about what that will take.

Already, the income and public scrutiny associated with wildlife tourism has helped to curb poaching, according to the tourism lobby, which is why about 40 percent of India's tigers (or 560 of the big cats) live in a handful of national reserves that see heavy tourist traffic. But a great deal more needs to be done. A few days before, I'd spoken with &Beyond's South African conservation manager Les Carlisle, who has bold ideas about what the deep-pocketed operator can achieve. “Indian conservation is where South African conservation was 35, 40 years ago,” he told me. “They're facing major human-wildlife conflicts, and, most importantly, they've got areas with local abundance and other areas with local extinctions.” As in South Africa, the solution lies in more tourism and more active management of the animal population, Carlisle believes. Every year, the tigers in India's unfenced reserves give birth to dozens of cubs, but the overall total falls or remains the same for one simple reason: the maturing tigers are leaving the parks to stake claim on territory, and they're getting killed. “To bridge that hurdle, the single biggest factor is that you've got to move from passive, recording management to active management—containing, confining, protecting, breeding and relocating,” Carlisle said.

Relocating breeding tigers from other parks is precisely the course of action that the Madhya Pradesh forest department took when it discovered that Panna—which researchers allege has lost upwards of 30 tigers over the past five years—had no tigers left. But if this is the path that India needs to take, it promises to be a bumpy one. When the forest department unveiled its relocation plans, eight of India's most respected tiger experts wrote to the prime minister in protest, alleging that the bureaucrats pushed forward with the scheme before making any effort to plug the leaks that had allowed poachers to take 30-odd tigers out of Panna in the first place.

Partly because there is only one tiger in Panna, I knew Pashan Garh would be very different from Mahua Kothi. But it's also different by design. The Taj Group and &Beyond conceived their four wilderness lodges as a circuit, so it was imperative that each property had its own unique character.

Where D'Cruz riffed on the mud-and-dung kutiya at Mahua Kothi, at Pashan Garh, which means “stone house” in Hindi, South African architect Nick Plewman drew inspiration from the dry-packed stone houses of the surrounding area—a dry, stony landscape that is like an anvil beaten by the sun. These are hard, angular buildings made of pale gray cut stone blocks, fitted together without mortar. Because the cottages are spread out to make the most of the 200-acre property, and because the stony grounds are more reminiscent of a resort under construction than one in full operation, my first impression was of sterile remoteness. But over the next three days, the modern comforts of my cottage and its slick décor won me over. Here, Chris Browne's interior design features bold, black-and-white photographs taken by the company's own naturalists, clean-lined utilitarian furniture and spacious lounging areas on the hearth and window seat that I favored to the bed for reading and drinking my morning coffee. Throwing open the curtains to the enormous picture windows gave me a panoramic view of the scrubby desert forest—much like parts of Arizona—and a colossal empty reservoir cut out of the earth that general manager, Arvind, vowed one day would be filled with water. Despite the windswept sand and long hike to breakfast and the swimming pool, I began to understand the appeal of the huge space.

Without the promise of tiger sightings, the staff at Pashan Garh has to work to entertain guests. Over our three-day trip, we toured the small neighboring town, took a birding jaunt through the resort's home tract (interrupted by our butler, Rohit, who'd pulled a fully stocked bar, converted from a bullock cart, into the woods), and made a day trip to the nearby temple complex at Khajuraho—whose fascinating and beautiful erotic sculptures have made it a UNESCO world heritage site.

Pashan Garh is also the latest of the four Taj Safaris properties to open for business, and my naturalist there was a recent graduate of &Beyond's new guide training program, so this visit perhaps gave me a better idea of the challenges that Taj and &Beyond have overcome. On our first evening at the lodge, our naturalist, Sajith, regaled Chris and me with stories from his training, which the recruits had soon realized had all the components of a reality TV program—late night cramming sessions, an obstacle course, and, every week, somebody “voted off” by the trainer. Sajith was a strong endorsement for the rigorous process—which sent about half of the recruits packing before it was over. A former call center employee from Karnataka, he was a charming, well-spoken twenty-something, and he took care of us well, even if he seemed hampered by the boot camp methods of his training.

For our first game drive in Panna, Sajith took us along the winding Ken River, which cuts through the park and provides home for a legion of water fowl, as well as the long-snouted and more common marsh crocodiles. Because of its stony ground, Panna's terrain is harsher than Bandhavgar's rolling hills. The trees here are stunted, and the heat belched back from the stone gives the land a dry, bleached character that had my photographer pal Chris complaining about the lack of anything colorful to set off his snaps. Viewed with the naked eye, though, Panna's harsh landscape is stunning within its narrow, blond palate—its ancient silvery rocks, crisscrossed with fissures, still evoking the lava flow of centuries ago.

Even on an uneventful drive through India's jungles, there is plenty to see. We watched a jackal pad off to feed its hidden pups and spotted a sleepy owl keeping vigil over the river; our jeep scared up Indian rollers and attracted the attention of green bee eaters, two of Panna's more colorful birds; and we saw dozens of sambhar, spotted deer, chinkara and nilgai, the park's various species of deer and antelope. Still, with tigers off the table I was hoping for a sloth bear, jungle cat or a leopard, so I was a bit disappointed when we stopped for a picnic brunch near the boat launch—a bird-and-crocodile watching trip on the Ken being Panna's answer to Bandhavgar's elephant rides. Luckily, Sajith had brought chef Nitin Sharma's homemade cookies, and after we'd stuffed ourselves, the boat ride offered a few satisfyingly close encounters with crocodiles.

But I am a hopeful soul—or I try to be—so for me the highlight of my stay at Pashan Garh came the next morning when we stopped by a ranger station on our way to a giant cliff that is a playground for vultures. One of the forest guards was standing on the roof with an antenna in his hands, pointed into the trees further up the road.

“Where is she?” Sajith called out to him in Hindi.

“She's over there somewhere,” the guard shouted down.

It was a small moment. But it allowed me to hope that the forest department—whatever their past mistakes—was committed to doing the right thing. The lone tigress of Panna National Park wears a radio collar. And the guards watch her night and day to make sure that she, too, doesn't disappear.

(See http://www.destinasian.com/issuedet.php?id=945)