We recently interviewed power-couple who run Shergarh (Kanha National Park) about Sustainable hospitality and here are the intercepts of the conversation:
1. What was your motive to choose Kanha as a destination for your property Shergarh?
‘Love’ is the honest answer! Both Jehan and I had arrived in Kanha more by chance than design. We had worked at Kipling Camp – one of India’s original and loveliest safari lodges; Jehan as a naturalist from Mumbai in 1996, myself as a volunteer from UK five years later. Both of us were deeply affected by the richness and purity of the forest and the way in which the local inhabitants’ lives were so beautifully entwined with nature. As twenty-somethings, it was easy to become absorbed in such an environment.
At the time we met, Jehan was living in a mud-hut amongst the young woodland that would soon become the base on which we built Shergarh. It was not a ‘dream’ of his to build a camp, it was an idea that evolved over time, but quickly came into fruition once he had someone to share it with! We had such an adventure – drawing plans and nurturing our nascent ideals on how we would be environmentally and socially responsible. Of course, we had no idea that we were actually laying the foundations of a playground for our two children who would soon follow!
In the fifteen years that we have run Shergarh, we have witnessed many changes in wildlife tourism, which have come with various challenges. However, Kanha has remained as one of India’s best-managed parks. Each time you enter through the gate, you become only further enchanted by the spirit of this incredible forest.
2. Is your property an eco-retreat? What ecological practices do you follow at your jungle lodge?
When Jehan bought the land, it was an unattractive plantation of eucalyptus – an exotic species that stunts the growth of all surrounding native plants. His mission was to restore the land as a natural eco-system, by removing the eucalyptus and allowing the re-growth of indigenous tree species, such as wild fig, mango and jamun. Watching Shergarh re-wild itself has been one of the most rewarding joys. We have witnessed jungle cat, jackal, wild boar and a host of birdlife return to this land. Even tiger has visited.
While Shergarh has some homely comforts, we’ve tried to keep the camp simple and rustic and allow the young, natural woodland and its inhabitants to take precedence. We keep lighting low and avoid paved footpaths to allow the free movement of mammals at night. We provide tents rather than cottages, as the soft, breathable canvas protects you while keeping you close to the rhythmic calls of owls and constant chittering of crickets, which lull you in to a wonderful sleep.
Embracing the notion that you are a visitor in the abode of many creatures, including those that can intimidate you, invigorates you in a way which is very real and long-lasting, it’s not short-term indulgence. For us, that is the true meaning of a ‘retreat’ in nature.
3. Do you believe in sustainable/responsible tourism? Could you throw some light on that?
Wildlife tourism has grown enormously over a very short period of time, largely due to India’s economic boom. The advent of social media has also been a catalyst – there are amazing, carrot-dangling images of India’s tigers all over Facebook! It is very heartening to see how many citizens of our country are now taking an interest in wildlife and choosing a safari holiday as a way of spending their disposable income. The best education comes through experience, and a good safari experience will spur the population to take a collective interest in the future survival of our forests.
That said, as wildlife tourism operates in fragile eco-systems and amongst local communities, both tourism providers and tourists have to be aware about the positive and negative impacts they bring. There is enough evidence today to show that the responsible practice of tourism is the only form of tourism that can contribute to the preservation of natural habitats and traditional culture. The big problem is implementing these values, as tourism is so inextricably tied up with ‘hospitality’ which has many interpretations. There needs to be a huge shift in the perception of what we believe tourists are entitled to (and therefore the type of infrastructure that we provide), for the ideals of responsible and sustainable tourism to really take effect.
4. Do you work with local communities to empower them?
When we began building Shergarh, there were hardly any other lodges on the Mukki gate, so the inhabitants of our village – who we had involved wholly – had very little concept of tourism or of what we were creating. They were our source for local knowledge, materials and skills, and some of them joined as permanent lodge members, who are still with us to this day. Amongst them is our head cook, Antram, who came to us as a timid 15 yr-old, prone to a little bullying by his peers. Antram however, displayed diligence and commitment, which are rare traits. We sent him on a one month work experience to a friend’s lodge in Bandavgarh, so he could understand the nature of a working lodge and imbibe some of the necessary skills (laying a table, making a bed, offering drinks etc) as well as help build his confidence. A few weeks had passed after his return, when we enquired if anyone had any knowledge of cooking. Antram expressed his interest, and promptly presented an exercise book filled with recipes that he’d noted down, simply by watching the chef at work in the Bandavgarh lodge! Such initiative! Over the years, Antram has grown to become one of our most senior members, running the kitchen independently with his two assistants, ordering stores and picking up new recipes. His repertoire includes quiches, cakes, breads and various salads… preparations that have no root in his own culture or taste sense. Antram is able to provide his family with the kind of modern amenities they aspire to, and he sends his child for private education, which is his own choice.
Each individual is on their own personal journey and only they can identify their own needs and goals. Our role is to provide them with encouragement and give them as much support as we can to help them grow and achieve those goals. Other staff members have also displayed good enthusiasm which we have helped to nurture, but Antram has become a role model in his community.
5. While you’re at the lodge what is your favourite activity?
One wonderful aspect of living in this kind of environment is that you are constantly involved and moving between one activity or another. But, the loveliest moments are when some insect or reptile suddenly takes you by surprise, especially something new that you’ve never seen before. It’s a lot of fun trying to work out what it is, and if you’re lucky enough to have it posing close-by, to capture an image on the camera. I particularly remember seeing a ‘Death’s-head Hawkmoth’ for the first time, it was so large and menacing, with beautiful, eerie markings and then while reading-up, I found out all this interesting and dark folklore that surrounds it. We also once witnessed a mud-dauber wasp descend upon a large house-spider, paralyze it with its sting and then drag it out of the house to feed its nest of larvae. These moments fascinate me, because you know all these remarkable incidents and behaviors are silently happening around you all of the time, and they are all contributing to this beautiful eco-system that sustains us, while we are blissfully unaware!