Glamping in Rajasthan
The 150th birthday of Rudyard Kipling finds MICHAEL SNYDER playing Mowgli with the leopards and tigers of Western India. It's upscale camping with a conservation edge—and celebratory candles aplenty. Photographed by LAURYN ISHAK.
Published on May 16, 2016
"there are parallel worlds here. The leopards live above, the people below," Adam Bannister, a lanky South African who's spent so much of his life working in the bush that it's difficult to imagine him setting foot on pavement, tells me on our daybreak drive as he scans the interstices of a sandstone hill for the sharp green glint of leopard eyes. "It's only at this time of day that those worlds intersect."
An elusive leopard stalks the early-morning hills of Jawai.
Moments later, as if on cue, we overhear a pair of leopards arguing over the remains of a several-day-old kill. The animal, Bannister says, had been taken from a cattle pen in the nearby village, a typical food source for animals in this area, a hidden, but not at all remote, valley in the western Indian state of Rajasthan. The valley, known as Jawai, gives its name to the luxury tented safari camp where Bannister works as head of field operations, and is home to at least 178 species of birds, ghost-like Asiatic wolves, long-tailed langurs, and what might well be the densest population of leopards anywhere on earth—about 30 in the 150-square-kilometer area used regularly by the Jawai field team. That same area is also home to some 5,000 people, and while the leopards abscond with, on average, 100 head of livestock from each village annually, there has not been a single human death by leopard recorded in the last 160 years. Poaching here is equally rare. Jawai is not a park or a sanctuary: it is a living ecosystem in which humans and animals coexist without outside interference.
Now at the end of their second season here, the field team at Jawai has only just begun uncovering the secret of how exactly that ecosystem works. They're in a unique position to do so: Jawai is the first and, to date, only tourism operation in the whole 1,000-square-kilometer valley, and backed by a family-owned hospitality company called Suján that—while also running Sher Bagh luxury tented camp in one of India's healthiest tiger reserves—has the clout to take its conservation seriously.
Conjuring a convivial spirit 'round the campfire at Sher Bagh.
India today is the last haven for the world's largest, most majestic cat—but, even here, tigers and their ilk are embattled. Only a century ago, big cats roamed the wild all across the subcontinent, stalking their prey through the teak forests of central India and the foothills of the Himalayas. This was the world into which Rudyard Kipling was born 150 years ago in December 2015, a world where the animal kingdom seemed as powerful as, if not moreso than, the delicate human one built atop it. For many foreigners, myself included, it's exactly that world—the one Kipling immortalized in The Jungle Book, first published in 1894—that provides the first childish impressions of a vast and mysterious place called India. It was a world of wilderness, where animals and men lived cautiously alongside one another, a world of Western civilization erecting its flimsy edifice on ancient soil.
In his most famous story, Kipling chronicled the life of Mowgli, the man-cub who straddled the parallel kingdoms of man and beast. Kipling wrote The Jungle Book while living in Vermont—about as far from India as can be—some five years after he left the subcontinent for good. At that point he'd spent 13 of his 29 years on the Subcontinent, from his birth in 1865 to age six, and from 17 to 24, and the stories that make up The Jungle Book are charged with all the romance of youthful nostalgia.
Spend enough time in the country's sprawling, enervating, aggravating urban centers and it's easy to feel that that India has been lost for good, if it ever existed in the first place. But in places like Jawai, a community composed of leopards, langurs and humans, Kipling's world is very much alive. Colonial Sher Bagh, with its canvas tents and gracious, Old World charms, is just the kind of place where he might have had the imaginative space to dream up Bagheera and Baloo and Shere Khan, the cruel tiger who is Mowgli's deadliest foe.
Family photos line the halls of Sher Bagh.
jawai's 10 luxe tents are set on valley-facing plinths, all but invisible to one another, with expansive views from their private verandas. Spread across 10½ hectares of land, the tents and communal spaces—also tented but entirely open-air—look out on some of the most exceptional scenery I've encountered anywhere in India: an idyllic pastoral of villages and hamlets superimposed on a landscape of tilting hills and bulbous rock domes straight out of Dalí. Days are spent driving or walking through villages and fields, spotting birds by the reservoir, following the trails of Rabari herdsmen with their scarlet turbans piled high on their noble heads, watching families of langurs dash between the hills with infants clinging to their stomachs, and spotting leopards—about eight live in the area the game drives typically traverse—as they emerge and disappear from the networks of caves winding through the rocky outcroppings. At night, the camp is lit by hundreds of candles laid out in the grass, a mirror image of the pinprick stars scattered across the huge silent sky.
A Rabari herdsman.
As recently as 2012, no one, neither in tourism nor in conservation, had fully grasped the place's potential, despite its otherworldly beauty and convenient location along one of India's most popular tourist routes. "For centuries leopards and humans have cohabited in this area in harmony—as far as humans and wildlife can live in harmony," a director at Suján, Yusuf Ansari, tells me, "and it's working out fine." He saw the extraordinary in this mundane fact and wanted to share it with visitors. Gathering data to better understand how and contributing to local communities in order to help them maintain that balance, are as much a part of the Jawai mission as hospitality.
With its wide open spaces and minimal, modern décor—everything bright, in black and white with flashes of red; tents opening onto expansive views—Jawai channels the vibrant renegade spirit of the African bush. At Sher Bagh, an eight-hour drive east, both the aesthetic and conservationist impulse take a different shape. The 12 tents, arranged in a semicircle in a wooded clearing, hark back to colonial India: intimate in scale, all teak and canvas and candlelight, clustered together as a haven of refinement and civilization in the middle of the wild. At night, guests gather to chat around a bonfire under a canopy of trees and hanging lanterns, while liveried waiters serve snacks and drinks. The spirit of conviviality at camp is in itself intoxicating.
A welcome roommate presides over a luxe Jawai tent.
Tigers are Ranthambore Park's raison d'être, but they are hardly the only thing the place offers. Covering 392 square kilometers of tropical forest, draped over sheer bluffs and rocky hills, Ranthambore is punctuated by glassy lakes, and crisscrossed by seasonal streams. In the dry season, the best time for spotting animals, the bare-limbed dhok trees turn the forest dun. Banyans spread their dusty canopies over giant drop roots that cascade over the ruins of step wells and follow the contours of cusped arches in the old hunting lodges once used by the maharajahs of Jaipur. In the early morning, the sun illuminates the austere ramparts of the centuries-old Ranthambore Fort, set high on a sheer escarpment.
In full bloom, flame of the forest trees live up to their name in Jawai.
On my first drive out I didn't see any of the nearly 60 tigers now living in the park's 275-square-kilometer core zone, but as the morning settled over the forest, I watched egrets drift elegantly between trees, caught glimpses of woodpeckers in the brush, and spotted the brilliantine baubles of kingfishers ornamenting the skeletons of branches. Half a dozen crocodiles sunned themselves lazily on the lakeshore; giant nilgai, the largest antelope species in Asia, hulked gray among the trees; and spotted stags lifted proud antlers into the low branches. The park's star may not have turned out, but as I sat drinking warm masala chai by the water, the India I'd dreamt of as a child most certainly did.
A nilgai, Asia's largest antelope.
that sense of timeless peace is deceptive. Poaching is a problem nearly everywhere large game remains wild (as I said, Jawai is unique), but in India, where humans and animals have always lived in such close proximity, it has often ravaged wildlife populations. When Sher Bagh opened in 2000, the park was in the early years of its second poaching crisis, having only just recovered from a period in the early 1990s that had depleted its population to just 12 tigers. In 2005, naturalists discovered that the tiger population of Sariska National Park, Ranthambore's neighbor to the north, had been completely wiped out. Tiger Watch, one of the most prominent NGOs working around Ranthambore, and the Wildlife Institute of India then found that Ranthambore's tiger population, after rebounding to around 40 in the late 1990s, had decreased again by 18, a shocking figure for one of the country's most important sanctuaries. "Conservation is always difficult," Ranthambore's field director, Y.K. Sahu, says, "and because of population pressures, conservation in India is especially difficult."
Jaisal Singh, Suján's founder and CEO, was only 22 years old when he opened Sher Bagh, but he'd been coming to the park since his early childhood, tagging along with his parents, who were among the first people to document the animals here. Were he less urbane, less anachronistically genteel in his dress and bearing and manner, Singh might seem a kind of Mowgli himself, happier here in the forest than in the confines of the city. "There was a period in the early 2000s where the forest department and government were both in denial" about the risks of extinction, he tells me in a voice still animated by a child's passionate urgency, "but now when you say something, the government is listening." Sher Bagh's jeeps, when not out with guests, help the forest department track tigers, but it's the combined efforts of various players that have made the last seven years some of the best the park has ever seen, Singh says.
An evening game drive through Jawai.
Traditionally hunters of large game, especially tigers, the Moghiya tribe now sends their children to a Tiger Watch-established school, where their ancestral skills are being repurposed to turn them into valued trackers and guides in the park. Four villages—a total of more than 1,200 people—have been relocated at government expense over the last four years from the core of the park, creating a greater area of inviolate forest for wildlife. Those locals have joined the 90-some villages surrounding the park that are largely populated by communities removed from within its boundaries over the last several decades—and, with the help of NGOs, many gather information on possible human threats to the tiger population from outside; it's work that makes entering the forest for their livelihoods unnecessary.
"If you help the tigers survive, if you participate in conservation by not going to the park and cutting wood, then you won't need this erratic living of selling illegally harvested products from inside the forest," says Upparmila Rathore, area director of Dastkar Ranthambhore, a group that tries to help relocated villagers see the financial upside of going green, partly by resuscitating a local handicrafts tradition that had died 40 years before. Visit Dastkar's local headquarters—a humble concrete building a short drive down the road from Sher Bagh—and you'll see women in Technicolor saris printing long reams of handloom fabrics for large orders in the cities, or making smaller stocks for sale in the on-site shop. Babulal-ji, one of the most experienced block printers at Dastkar's workshop, has personally felt the benefit. "We had closed down our work, but today it's increasing day by day," he told me. "When there's regular work, there's no tension. It feels good."
A stunning sunset in Jawai.
By some measures, Ranthambore's core area has nearly reached capacity for adult tigers. "Now there is competition for territory in the park," Sahu says. "We've reached that stage." Conservation may be especially difficult in India, but the success at Ranthambore proves that it's not impossible. It just requires finding creative ways to foster communities of mutual respect between humans and animals.
When I met the man in Jawai who'd lost one of his calves to leopards, he'd seemed to me weirdly phlegmatic about the whole thing, content with the justice of his loss. That's not the case other places in India, where people will actively hunt animals that have trespassed on their land. I asked Ansari why things were different here. "These animals have lived alongside humans for so long," he said, "that they're not viewed as ferocious predators. It's part of the mental landscape and has been forever." Which is exactly what makes Jawai so compelling and so important: parks around India have spent decades trying to nurture and support the kind of ecosystem that has existed here since time immemorial. So it could provide an essential clue to creating more sustainable reserves.
In The Jungle Book, Kipling wrote of a world in precarious balance, maintained by the "law of the jungle." That law, as Kipling describes it, prevented animals from killing humans, a rule that protected the integrity of two equally complex, equally fragile worlds that at times seem both mutually dependent and mutually exclusive. Through conservation, the law of the jungle is being slowly restored out at Ranthambore. The tiger I finally spotted on my last game drive—lounging lazily in a pool of water, then languidly strolling toward a spot in the grass where he laid out on his huge striped flank—was magnificent in his nonchalance. He looked to me as though he was merely deigning to appear before a human audience as part of a tacit understanding with the park operators: Kipling's laws for the 21st-century.
The majestic raison d'être of Ranthambore National Park.
In Jawai, however, the law was never disrupted and the cats who look down over their human neighbors, often unseen, never seem to doubt the sovereignty—or the strict limits—of their territory.
On my last afternoon there, I hiked with Bannister to the top of the highest point in Jawai, a limestone mound in the middle of the vast valley from which I glimpsed, if only for a few moments, the world as the leopards see it: To the east, the Kumbalgarh hills, secreting away one of Rajasthan's most magnificent forts. Below, a broad plain and the glimmering mirrors of two lakes, formed by a dam to the south, reflecting the blue then orange then magenta sky. The bulges of stone, each one crowned with a whitewashed temple tower and surrounded by human geometry—the abodes of the gods and the leopards.
Jawai Leopard Camp Bera, Rajasthan; tents from Rs51,000 per night, double, including three meals, two daily wildlife drives and laundry (beverages not included). Fly into Udaipur or Jodhpur; the three-hour airport transfer from either is Rs6,000 each way.
Sher Bagh Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan; tents from Rs35,700 per night, double, including laundry and three daily meals (beverages not included); wildlife drives are, according to park regulations, organized through the Parks Department and billed separately. Fly into Jaipur; the three-hour airport transfer is Rs6,000 each way.