India Travel: Top of Their Game

  • Vulture-spotting in Bandhavgarh.

    Vulture-spotting in Bandhavgarh.

  • One of Bandhavgarh’s tigers.

    One of Bandhavgarh’s tigers.

  • Kartikeya Singh Chauhan with an assistant at Mahua Kothi.

    Kartikeya Singh Chauhan with an assistant at Mahua Kothi.

  • A Pashan Garh Bedroom.

    A Pashan Garh Bedroom.

  • Dining room decor at Pashan Garh.

    Dining room decor at Pashan Garh.

  • Après–Game Drive Cocktails.

    Après–Game Drive Cocktails.

  • A Safari Elephant in Bandhavgarh.

    A Safari Elephant in Bandhavgarh.

  • A suite at Mahua Kothi.

    A suite at Mahua Kothi.

  • A herd of deer grazing in the grasslands of Bandhavgarh National Park.

    A herd of deer grazing in the grasslands of Bandhavgarh National Park.

  • The terrace at Mahua Kothi’s main lodge.

    The terrace at Mahua Kothi’s main lodge.

  • One of Pashan Garh’s 12 stone cottages.

    One of Pashan Garh’s 12 stone cottages.

  • The temple complex at Khajuraho.

    The temple complex at Khajuraho.

  • lunch at Mahua Kothi.

    lunch at Mahua Kothi.

  • An old fort gate in Bandhavgarh.

    An old fort gate in Bandhavgarh.

  • An old fort gate in Bandhavgarh.

    An old fort gate in Bandhavgarh.

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What sets Taj Safaris apart is the wildlife expertise of its staff. At Ranthambore, both the Oberoi Vanyavilas and Aman-i-Khás rely on freelance naturalists to accompany their guests on 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 of experience in Africa’s competitive safari industry, where it operates more than 45 wildlife lodges. “We are the only operator in Africa with its own guide-training schools—in South Africa, Botswana, and Tanzania,” Lotter had told me, explaining how &Beyond had sent its head trainer from Africa to help coach the first team of Taj Safari guides.

In Kartikeya Singh Chauhan, we seemed to have the best of the bunch. On our first morning at Mahua Kothi, he gave us a short introduction to the animals we might expect to see and a précis of park rules. Then we took off for Bandhavgar to hunt for tigers. India’s forest department does not allow guides to use radios to alert each other when a big cat is spotted, so sightings depend a great deal on luck. On past trips, I’ve driven for hours unrewarded through the teak forests of the vast Jim Corbett National Park, in the northern state of Uttaranchal. I was hoping that Bandhavgarh, 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 before moving on to another Taj Safari lodge 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, Chauhan hinted that our chances were good. Apart from the density of tigers, he explained, Bandhavgarh boasts a big male and a breeding female that make their territories very close to the tourist road; 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, Chauhan pointed out the park’s wild boar, sambar, and spotted deer 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?”). He made sure we got our tiger sighting, too, by tracking the 18-month-old cubs through their hunting ground.

We stopped for brunch afterward at a ranger station, and Chauhan laid out a spread that reminded me of the days when travelers needed a retinue of bearers to haul their gear and grub: warm paratha flatbread and kathi rolls; homemade muffins and fresh fruit; coffee and tea in silver urns. Christopher and I were on our second cup of coffee when a ranger rolled up in a jeep and told Chauhan that some mahouts on elephant back had turned up a tiger near the park entrance.

When we got to the spot, we climbed aboard an elephant and headed into the jungle. In a few moments, half a dozen jeeploads of tourists had arrived, roaring up in billowing clouds of dust. 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 tourism is the key to saving the tiger. And that’s precisely what Taj Safaris needs to demonstrate if it is to be an unqualified success.

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

Already, the income and public scrutiny associated with wildlife tourism has helped to curb poaching, which explains 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. Yet 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 or 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 declines 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 for the effort. “To bridge that hurdle, the single biggest factor is that you’ve got to move from passive, recording management to active management—containing, 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 upward 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, claiming that the bureaucrats pushed forward with the scheme before plugging the leaks that had allowed poachers to take the 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. Taj Safaris conceived its four wilderness lodges (the other two being Banjaar Tola in Kanha National Park, and Baghvan in Pench) 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—an arid, rocky 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 75-hectare property, and because the rubbly 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 comfort and decor of my cottage won me over. The interior design by &Beyond creative director Chris Browne features bold, black-and-white photographs taken by the company’s own naturalists, clean-lined utilitarian furniture, and a spacious hearth-side lounging area that I favored over 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 and a colossal, empty reservoir cut out of the earth that general manager G. Arvind vowed would be filled with water one day. 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 have 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, the fascinating erotic sculptures of which have earned it World Heritage Site status.

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. On our first evening at the lodge, Sajith Ponappa, a former call-center employee from Karnataka, regaled 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. Ponappa, a charming, well-spoken twentysomething, was a strong endorsement for the rigorous process, which sent about half of the recruits packing before it was over.

For our first game drive in Panna, Ponappa took us along the winding Ken River, which cuts through the park and is home to a legion of waterfowl, as well as gavials and marsh crocodiles. Because of its stony ground, Panna’s terrain is harsher than Bandhavgarh’s rolling hills. The trees here are stunted, and the heat belched back from the baked ground gives the land a bleached character that had Christopher complaining about the lack of anything colorful to set off his photographs. Viewed with the naked eye, though, the landscape is stunning within its narrow, blond palette —its silvery rocks, crisscrossed with fissures, are evidence of an ancient lava flow.

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 sambar, 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 Bandhavgarh’s elephant rides. Luckily, Ponappa had brought along some of chef Nitin Sharma’s freshly baked 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, on our way to a high cliff w­here vultures nest, we stopped at a ranger station. One of the forest guards was standing on the roof with an antenna in his hands, pointing it into the trees farther up the road.

“Where is she?” Ponappa 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 its 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.

THE DETAILS:
Taj Safaris

When To Go

The best time to visit Madhya Pradesh is between October and April, when temperatures hover around 27?C. In summer, temperatures can soar, while the monsoon season lasts from June through September.

Where To Stay

Taj Safaris (91-22/6601-1825; tajsafaris.com) operates four jungle lodges in tiger reserves in Madhya Pradesh. It is possible to visit all four parks, but given the distances between them it’s perhaps best to just focus on one or two. The northernmost lodge, Pashan Garh, opened this year, with 12 stone cottages overlooking a stream outside Panna National Park. To the southeast, Mahua Kothi is in Bandhavgarh National Park. Its 12 eco-chic suites are designed to resemble village huts, with rammed-mud walls and open rafters. Farther south, the Banjaar Tola lodge also opened this year, just outside Kanha National Park. Two camps each feature nine eco-friendly tented suites. Near the state’s southern border, Baghvan’s 12 bungalows edge Pench National Park. Cool and airy, the rooms come with Parsi tiles and woven furniture. All four lodges cost US$615 per person per night, inclusive of safari activities, park fees, and meals.

Getting There

From Delhi, Mahua Kothi and Banjaar Tola are both accessible by daily Deccan Airlines (deccanairlines.in) flights to Jabalpur, followed by four- and five-hour drives, respectively. To get to Baghvan, Jet Airways (jetairways) flies between Delhi and Nagpur, followed by a two-hour drive. Jet Airways also operates daily flights between Delhi and Khajuraho, from where it’s an hour’s drive to Pashan Garh.

Originally appeared in the August/September 2009 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Top of Their Game”)

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