It is no secret that luxury safari properties in India offer exceptional nature-driven experiences to their guests, but their ancillary conservation initiatives are worth talking about as well. By Riaan Jacob George
Some of India’s upscale safari properties are among the global leaders in the glamping and nature tourism segments. But a consensus has emerged among owners that their scope of responsibility goes beyond the walls of their individual properties. “As plush as a lodge might be, it cannot exist if the surrounding area is not up to the mark or is showing signs of deterioration,” says Shoba Mohan, founder of RARE India, a curated consortium of boutique hotels.
Reversing The Trend
Admittedly, there have been cases of tokenism where PR activities and hollow CSR initiatives have been loosely translated into conservation efforts, but there are a few significant players in the market for whom conservation runs in the blood. The team at Jehan Numa Wilderness, for instance, has worked for the reintroduction of the critically endangered barasingha (swamp deer) from Kanha National Park to Satpura National Park. This project was funded by Madhya Pradesh Tiger Foundation Society, and included initiatives such as providing clean drinking water to forest guards and ensuring food supply during the recent lockdown.
On the same lines, Taj Safaris conducted a gaur relocation programme under the aegis of the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department. After a five-year-long effort, the extinction of gaurs, the largest herbivore species in the country, was reversed in Bandhavgarh National Park. As many as 44 animals were relocated from Kanha to Bandhavgarh in 2010-11, and their current numbers are promising.
Aly Rashid, director, Jehan Numa Wilderness, shares the industry perspective, “Unfortunately, as hospitality players, we are not authorised to participate directly in conservation in protected areas of India, as this is the role of forest departments and approved NGOs that operate in and around our areas. We can support these initiatives in terms of funding and manpower assistance.”
At the Panna Tiger Reserve, the dynamic entrepreneurs behind The Sarai at Toria describe their venture as more of a rural experiential property and less of a safari lodge. Their team is focussing on a forested habitat beyond the reserve boundaries and buffer zone, with an aim to create tiger-friendly communities, to extend conservation beyond the government’s protected areas, and to develop inclusive conservation models. Raghu Chundawat and Joanna Van Gruisen, owner-partners of The Sarai at Toria, emphasise that they “want to create new areas of protection, which will also be refuges for tigers, increasing the viability of the small Panna population and acting as stepping stones for their dispersal between government tiger reserves.” They believe that it is important for the local communities to be the main beneficiaries and stakeholders of such an initiative. The duo has also been assisting in the design of a community eco-tourism project for a village in the buffer area of the tiger reserve. This will enable future tourists to experience the reserve by means other than jeep safaris.
In addition to working with animals, many hoteliers are battling the deforestation crisis. The team at Aman’s luxe Ranthambore outpost, Aman-i-Khas, collects forest seeds, prepares seedlings, and plants trees around the camp. The focus is on indigenous species to protect these plants from the risk of over-grazing. These efforts also increase the soil’s holding capacity, and provide food and shelter for mammals. Introduction of local species of trees and grass has provided a feeding, breeding, and nesting ground for birds.
Going Beyond Tokenism
While the grassroots-level work carried out by properties across the country is admirable, it is important for them to not get sucked into the circle of tokenism. Conservation efforts need to be part of a brand’s identity, before appearing on a press release or CSR report. A case in point is the uber-luxe boutique chain, SUJÁN. “Most of the work remains completely unseen to our guests as it forms part of our management’s and teams’ daily lives. For example, our scouting and anti-poaching patrols, sustainable building, rainwater harvesting, research, and collaboration with local village heads and conservationists. Most of our projects are done daily, behind the scenes,” says Jaisal Singh, the scion of the Sujan family, which first set down roots in 1974 in Ranthambore, and went on to establish the Ranthambore Foundation in 1988 with tiger conservationist Valmik Thapar. The Sarai at Toria’s owners share similar beliefs. “Our investment in conservation is more of a commitment to ourselves. In our climate-changed planet, even individual actions may help to arrest disaster. We set up The Sarai at Toria as a means for us to work towards furthering conservation in the area, and believe that tourism can be a significant catalyst and economic driver for conservation,” say Chindawat and Van Gruisen.
The area within the parks and the surrounding buffer zones is largely clean, according to Mohan, but it is important for lodge owners to be cognisant about pollution and garbage, which is a mounting threat due to the large number of properties coming up. “Some lodge owners are aware of this and are working towards utmost conservation. I don’t need to tell you why a lodge that sells at INR8,000 a night is different from one that sells at INR16,000 a night. The latter employs local people, uses local resources. Many such properties’ conservation work is not even spoken about. The most favourable outcome of any responsible tourism business is eventually to keep the land and the destination pristine—culturally, economically, and ecologically—and to ensure that the tourism project is favourable to the local community,” she concludes.
The onus of conservation in protected areas is primarily on the government. But the industry players are lobbying that tourism can be an important conservation driver. The revenue that tourism brings in and the jobs it gives the local community are extremely important to change the mindset of forest dwellers, who are otherwise in competition with wildlife for resources. “There are examples of private and community partnership initiatives that are now working to protect wildlife outside or on the periphery of protected areas. In such areas, tourism is effectively being used as an alternative livelihood and communities are tolerating wildlife coming onto their lands. Such examples can be seen in Maharashtra for tiger conservation and in Ladakh for snow leopard conservation,” concludes Rashid.