“We were at Sher Bagh enjoying a scrumptious Eggs Benedict when there was a crackle on my wireless. A tiger was reportedly seen some fifty yards from the farmhouse in a cluster of dhok trees just moments before. We grabbed our cameras and rushed there in our ’42 Ford jeep to find Stan – a dear friend from England – and Yusuf standing in their dressing gowns, blissfully unaware while they sipped their chhota-hazri on the patio of the house. After warning them, we drove the jeep off track to find this large male, who we named Zalim…”
Ranthambhore, The Tiger’s Realm. Anjali and Jaisal Singh and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra
I have often though to myself, how remarkable it is, that those of us privileged enough to spend our lives in conservation-tourism in India, working with our wildlife, are still able – in the 21st century – to recount, recall and retell narratives of our incredible interactions with wild animals, notably tigers. Jaisal’s encounter, described above, is an account from 2011, only seven years ago and he – as well as other members of the larger SUJÁN family – have had several such thrilling and intimate encounters with tigers since. These beloved, mysterious, awe-inspiring, sometimes fearsome and always charismatic Big Cats, have dominated our lives in a way no other species can. They have given us moments shared with our families, friends and guests that reduced us to tears of joy and have overwhelmed us with their raw, natural energy. Their roars have kept us awake through nights when a mother has been calling out to her cubs in the darkness of the forest canopy in the vicinity of camp and they have granted us an archive of imagery documenting their behaviour which could compete with Ptolemy’s library at Alexandria and they have entered our dreams, night after night.
Earth is the only planet which supports life and while we as humans know this to be a fact, we have ensured that ‘wildscapes’ and wildernesses have never been as fragile and vulnerable as they currently are. Tigers, are amongst the most threatened of our planets mega-species. With 93% of the tiger’s natural habitat obliterated in the last hundred years, 97% of the world’s wild tiger population has faced decimation too. In India, which hosts over 60% of the world’s wild tiger population, over 30% of wild tigers live outside our officially Protected Areas; a network of Reserves, Sanctuaries and National Parks, a precarious situation. One line of thought has even suggested that in ‘evolutionary terms’ tigers are already an extinct species.
We refuse to allow that to happen. For us, there can be no such thing as a “post-tiger world” and in our own small way, we are doing all we can to ensure that India’s national animal, and the cornerstone of our own inspiration continues to survive and inspire future generations.
Ranthambhore is where SUJÁN began and it is our home. In 2000, Jaisal said goodbye to academia and embraced a passion that had guided, inspired and thrilled him since childhood; his love for wildlife. Still short of his twenty-first birthday at the time, he buckled down and settled into Ranthambhore – the scene of his primary memory, his growing years and all the formative exploits that come with that passage of time – and created Sher Bagh, arguably India’s first luxury tented-camp on his family land. This patch of earth, once fallow and skeletal, “without a single tree or vegetation to speak of”, is now a ‘crowded paradise’, its own ecosystem of thousands of trees, acres of grassland and “frequented by over one hundred and fifty species of birds, and regularly visited by Ranthambhore’s big cats.”
Nature’s resilience and the concert of tiger’s and their dogged ability to survival is in full display at Sher Bagh, and Ranthambhore. The Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, with an estimated population of over seventy of the magnificent big cats, has more tigers than the four tiger-range countries of China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia combined!
Of course, this was not always the case and experts as well as regular visitors to Ranthambhore were despondent. Poaching and retribution-killings had played havoc with India’s tiger population in 2004 – 2005 and Ranthambhore was no exception. Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan and Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh in central India had lost their entire population of tigers to poaching, Ranthambhore was hard-hit too and in 2004-2005 approximately 18 tigers were all that remained of its population. By 2006, India’s wild tiger population was estimated to be 1411, a figure even lower than the 1827 tigers estimated in 1972, as a result of which the Indian Government launched Project Tiger in 1973. There was little to cheer about.
Few appreciated the tiger’s tenacity, its dogged resilience to survive in the face of the challenges facing them. The tiger, is “a killer of killers” – a predator of predators – and with the right conservation-management principles in place it is able to make use of its habitat to breed its way back to survival. That is exactly what happened in Ranthambhore, and we at SUJÁN are proud to have played our own part in helping expedite this happy turnaround.
“The growth of the population of tigers in Ranthambhore can be attributed to good monitoring and good anti-poaching work”, writes Dr. Dharmendra Khandal who heads Tiger Watch, a Ranthambhore-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) and has carried out exemplary work in wildlife conservation around the greater Ranthambhore Area. In his annual report for 2017-2018, Dr. Khandal recorded how;
“Sher Bagh and Tiger Watch have been closely working for the betterment of Ranthambhore. Sher Bagh demonstrates a great example of how tourism can benefit conservation and is supporting a very crucial program called Village Wildlife Volunteers program. The village wildlife volunteers are local villagers, cattle herders and farmers who, with the help of latest technology such as smartphones and camera traps are monitoring wildlife and thus playing a crucial role in conservation of wildlife around the periphery of the Ranthambhore National Park. They are regularly monitoring and tracking Tigers, providing important information about wildlife related crimes and documenting man animal conflict. They are monitoring vulnerable wildlife outside the park, which presently includes 15 tigers. Sher Bagh has also sponsored 10 high-grade camera traps for this purpose. In the past, Sher Bagh has also been supporting the Forest Guard Award programs of Tiger Watch. Financial support from tourism groups for wildlife and community development activities has always given a positive message to the local community and wildlife.”
Together we all work closely with the Department of Forests Government of Rajasthan and our initiatives have provided crucial information on poachers as well as on illegal activities such as mining and logging leading to more secure corridors for tigers. Conservation tourism, has not only contributed direct revenue streams into the conservation efforts of the Forest Department, it has also allowed us to create and spread awareness about wildlife-conservation to each of our guests, who directly fund our conservation effort through a conservation contribution, for every night they book to stay with us.
It is the result of this pioneering partnership between the Forest Department, local communities, NGO’s and local stakeholders like SUJÁN that Ranthambhore is today, regarded as the finest habitat on earth in which to see wild tigers. When guests choose to stay with us they individually contribute to protecting the tiger and the unique Ranthambhore ecosystem, over which they reign.
As the world celebrates its 8th International Tiger Day, the SUJÁN family looks back at eighteen years of working with tiger’s, our love for Ranthambhore, its extraordinary wilderness and our profound captivation with this natural realm, inspired by nearly five decades of an invaluable family legacy of wildlife conservation.