Please give a brief backgrounder of your engagement in India.
We were approached by the Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces and Zine Holdings to partner in the development and operation of the country’s first luxury wildlife lodge circuit. The wildlife areas chosen were all in Madhya Pradesh (MP) state and that meant we had dialog with the MP Forest Department. During these meetings we discovered that we had the expertise that was unavailable in India, for mass translocation of wildlife, and for operating luxury safari lodges.
&Beyond partnered with Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces to form Taj Safaris. This joint venture provided guests with the ultimate interpretive wildlife experience in India, based on a sustainable ecotourism model. &Beyond’s collaboration with Taj Hotels rests on decades of expertise in operating luxury safari lodges offering unique wildlife experiences in the wilderness hotspots of Africa, coupled with the legendary service of Taj Hotels. Taj Safaris operates four luxurious jungle safari lodges in Madhya Pradesh, in an easily accessible tiger circuit.
As a conservation expert what have been the toughest challenges that you have faced in the country?
Conservation in India is divided into two camps, those that embrace and pursue active management practices, and those that follow passive management practices. With the passive system you basically record what is happening and blame it on nature. This requires very little decision making and there are no consequences. Active management requires data based decisions to be made, this can lead to mistakes (and in India serious recriminations) so it is a much riskier option. However, if the move from passive to active management does not accelerate across all states in India, we will probably see the local extinction of tigers in many more parks.
In the last decade have you witnessed any positive development here?
Yes many. MP Forest department was privileged to have the visionary Dr HS Pabla as chief wildlife warden for the last couple of years, and he set many active management processes in place in the MP parks. They have engaged the services of the foremost grassland scientists to advise on burning programmes and they have started fencing off conflict areas of the parks. They have reversed local extinction of Gaur at Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve. They are working at local level to tailormake local solutions. The park management and reporting structures are improving every day. The Wildlife Institute of India is getting involved in more and more projects and building a useful national repository of success stories. The NTCA are continuing to fund the removal of villages from inside the protected areas making it possible to start managing them better.
MP Tourism started managing its tourism in the park by introducing routes, zonation, carrying capacity in certain parks.In Panna NP, active wildlife management reversed the local extinction of tigers, with orphans taken from Bandhavgarh NP. Since males and females were relocated, the population has grown to over 15. This is particularly noteworthy when compared to Sariska NP, where reintroduced tigers have not bred to date.
&Beyond has established a public/private partnership based on trust and respect that could help secure other species in India in the future ie barasingah, cheetah, lion. Also, &Beyond trained and employed the first female naturalist in India, Ratna Singh. She is now the group training guide. She was instrumental in influencing the decision to train other women in conservation roles in the MP Forestry Department namely as park rangers. &Beyond established its third training school for guides in India, and our renowned guiding techniques have slowly influenced practices in the parks.
What could be the key learnings for India from the wildlife reserves in various African destinations?
Conservation is about managing your herbaceous layer, the grass. Animals can be moved as and when needed but the grass has to grow. If you have good grazing, you can carry large numbers of prey and therefore higher densities of predators. It’s a simple theory but difficult to implement. In some African countries we use fences to protect the grazing for the wildlife by keeping the domestic stock out. This may be the only way to protect the grazing in some Indian Tiger Parks.
We have successfully recreated conservation areas in Africa, using translocation of wildlife as the core action. That means that India can do the same. &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa is a shining example. We created a Big Five game reserve from cattle farms 20 years ago, this has influenced others to do the same. It’s a conservation victory for cheetah, lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo.
Properly managed and controlled tourism is a key driver of conservation in Africa, and should be the same in India, but it’s not, because it is not properly managed.
Is there still some hope for tomorrow? What needs to be done?
Yes definitely, I am an eternal optimist. We live in a time when we will either secure our own future on this planet or destroy the very resources we need to survive. Conservation in India is at that same crossroads, pressures are building on all parks, all the time. Corridors are tenuous and many are already cut. But we have the technology to use ‘mechanical migrations’ to maintain genetic vigour. Worldwide securing the parks is our major task. In India, this requirement is driven by the massive growing population and needs national focus. Once the parks are secure, we can reconnect the dots, and rebuild the corridors. But the current situation is that Indian parks are not secure.
The &Beyond model of ‘Care of the Land, Care of the Wildlife, Care of the People’ was developed to demonstrate that a financially sound, wildlife-based tourism operator can make a significant long-term contribution to conservation while promoting sustainable development in rural communities. The model, pioneered 20 years ago, links high net worth guests to wilderness areas, and the resident communities directly benefit from ecotourism.