A new calling: Saad Jung believes in eco-tourism that conserves more than animals
As the last rays of sunlight filter through the leaves, a shadow slinks out of the thick foliage with an unmistakable feline elegance. “There,” whispers 27-year-old Shaaz Jung from his perch atop a jeep. Immediately, seven pairs of eyes turn to the clearing ahead. Under the rapt gaze of the tourists, a male leopard emerges from the foliage. A flurry of clicks from SLR cameras breaks the silence of the waning dusk. But the leopard makes an indifferent model. He was aware of the jeep the moment the vehicle entered his territory, deep in the jungles of Karnataka. For the tourists, however, this sighting is a privilege. The shy animal deigned to make an appearance on the last of the five game drives organised by Bison Wildlife Resort near Kabini Lake, Karnataka. The resort, started by Shaaz’s father, 53-year-old Saad Bin Jung, lies between two national parks, Nagarhole and Bandipur, and is a two-hour drive from Mysore. It is also a labour of love, one in which villagers and tribals work with the Jungs to conserve and preserve this ecologically vibrant zone.
Though the eco-resort opened five years ago, it took over a decade to come to fruition. Consider its back story.
Like his uncle Mansur Ali Khan—the late nawab who is remembered by his moniker ‘Tiger’ Pataudi—Saad Jung started his career as a cricketer. A descendant of the royal Pataudi family of Bhopal and the Paigahs of Hyderabad, he acknowledges and accepts the popular portrayal of Indian nobility as hunters. “I now realise the mistakes we made while addressing wildlife conservation within the forests that belonged to our family,” says Jung. “The rulers, to a large extent, permitted community usage of forest produce. Locals were asked to manage forest land, but were banned from hunting. That was the sole prerogative of the royals. There was control, but there was also inclusion.”
Image: Prasad Gori for Forbes Life India The village: The resort maintains a rustic look and feel, although it houses luxurious facilities
Saad began taking an active interest in conservation in 1986. He started with Bush Betta Resort at Bandipur and an angling camp on the Kaveri river soon after. In 1997, he acquired patta (registered) land outside the protected forest area and worked with locals to build a luxury resort, one that doesn’t intrude on or disturb the ecologically sensitive zone. The Bison Resort, made up of African lodge-style stilted, elaborate tents and decks that overlook the forest and Kabini lake, is the result. Most of the building material for it was sourced locally. Rather than alienating tribals and villagers from the land, Saad brokered a symbiotic relationship between resort and village.
The Bison, which opened in 2009, has succeeded because it combines luxury with inclusive growth. Saad and Shaaz, who is the resort manager, create a rustic yet opulent experience. From sunken showers in bathrooms to bars that overlook the lake, the resort delivers a unique kind of grandeur—one that typically costs more than Rs 10,000 a night for Indians and Rs 24,240 ($400) a night for foreign nationals. Most employees are locals and their intimate knowledge of the land heightens a visitor’s experience.
Image: Prasad Gori for Forbes India
Inevitably, this reciprocity came at an initial cost. Many travel agents did not list the Bison because Saad had employed villagers. They didn’t think locally trained staff could deliver the expected service.But Saad’s gamble paid off, and word of mouth proved to be an effective marketing strategy. (After it won TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence 2013, business has been booming.)
The Bison operates on a model Saad calls “real conservation”. It runs on solar power, and relies on the region for its requirements. This is what sets it apart from other resorts in Kabini, he says. “When people and even the government think of eco-tourism, they think of protecting the tiger when, in reality, it is far more,” says Saad. “Conservation is the continual, ethical pursuit by humanity of just allowing things to be in nature. Protection is a small part of conservation and is implemented when conservation fails.”
Saad underscores the importance of trust and dialogue among all parties involved—locals, politicians and government officials. “Eco-tourism builds mutual respect between each of these players.” Faith is the lynchpin. “Once trust is established and there’s a feeling of belonging, real conservation begins and the entire community sees it for being the saviour that it truly is.”
Initially, Saad had stuck out like a sore thumb in interior Karnataka. Getting locals to trust an outsider was not easy. But he mastered the language—today, he rattles off instructions to his staff in Kannada—and slowly set about earning their trust.
Image: Prasad Gori for Forbes Life India
At the age of 19, Saad was one of Hyderabad’s most promising batsmen, but was forced to give up his career for health reasons. He traded cricket for another life-long passion: Conservation. Saad and his wife, art curator Sangeeta, moved to Mangala near Bandipur in Karnataka—an area with one of India’s densest elephant populations.
He remembers the first week after their arrival. “Elephants grazed at our doorstep. Leopards marked their territory at our gate. Wild dogs denned on the opposite hill. We were in heaven,” says Saad. “And then the devil showed up.”
The area was a battleground for the bloody conflict between wildlife and locals, where “beautiful animals and people” were at loggerheads. Villagers often made a living by poaching and smuggling. Bombs, traps and snares shattered the mouths and limbs of tigers, elephants, leopards and wild dogs. Badly laid electrical lines executed indiscriminately. A leopard killed Saad’s cow. A bear ripped apart a tribal. “We loaded the injured man onto a jeep to drive to the hospital only to discover that some local people had dug up my road in an attempt to extort money from us,” he says.
It was a community that was misunderstood and forgotten by the rest of the world. “As I was perceived to be part of this outside world, I had become a threat.” Later, when Saad became familiar with the fragmented society that was Mangala valley, he found a society steeped in untouchability, caste and class discrimination, female infanticide, dowry harassment, alcoholism and violence. There was a collapse of communication between locals and officials, animosity towards the wilderness and anything that was perceived to belong to the government. It took more than five years of discussion to foster trust.
Image: Prasad Gori for Forbes India
Man at arms: Shaaz manages the day-to-day activities of the resort
Today, former poachers and smugglers work as housekeepers and landscapers. “It takes months, even years, to train them. And it’s not unusual for them to steal at first. They saw nothing wrong in theft, and would brag about it. Firing them from their jobs would have been a mistake,” says Saad. By training people and providing them with secure jobs and regular income, he hopes to create a sense of stability for hundreds of families.
Ramesh, who is in his early 30s, is in charge of activities at the resort. He takes guests on walks through the nearby village and surrounding areas. He’s been with the Bison for eight years and is among the 10 staff members recruited from Sigur Haddi village. Many of the 200 residents of Sigur Haddi, which is just a few minutes away from the Bison, are tribals who were relocated by the government.
After they were moved by the state, they were given houses: A single room with no bathroom, kitchen or running water. This was a strange new world for people who had been separated from the forest they knew and loved. With their high cheekbones and curly hair, the tribals have a distinctive look, one that differentiates them from other villagers. “They get sick more often here than they did in the jungle. A medicine van comes from Vivekananda Memorial Hospital in Sargur, 40 km away, only once a week,” says Ramesh.
Image: Prasad Gori for Forbes Life India Inclusive luxury: Staff at the Bison Resort
He has seen the transformation that permanent employment has brought to the families. People who were solely dependent on seasonal jobs such as cotton picking, fishing or farming now have fixed monthly salaries at the Bison and can send their children to high school, he says. “Government officials have neglected our village,” he points out. “They visit us only before elections to exchange alcohol for votes.”
The resort tries to help by providing health care and education. Saad visits the village often to distribute bedsheets and teach families about saving money. “He’s even planning to build a water tank with pipes. Saad is more important here than the government,” Ramesh says.
Like Ramesh, the staff at the Bison has learned Hindi and a little English. Both Ramesh and Saad say that the forest department should employ tribals to help protect these forests. As Ramesh points out, a tribal can identify individual elephants by smell alone.
With all parties—government and private—working together, the big cat population in Nagarhole and Bandipur parks are at optimal levels. The Wildlife Conservation Society, in fact, says they have reached a saturation point in that belt, with 10 to 15 per 100 sq km. Also, the 2011 Tiger Census by the Ministry of Environment and Forests shows that Karnataka has overtaken Madhya Pradesh as the state with the most tigers. At last count, there were 300 tigers in the state. However, the ministry also points out that Karnataka lost 15 tigers to poaching between 2008 and 2013—the highest in India.
Image: Shaaz Jung
Sights and sounds: The forest and its animals around the Bison
Tiger poaching is driven by demand from China, where body parts are used for medicinal purposes. For lessons on how to—and how not to—keep animals safe and people happy, Saad looks to Africa, where he also takes tourists on safaris. He believes Indian officials should study countries such as Kenya and South Africa to see how the two countries have failed, and study Namibia as a success story. Namibia, he says, has effectively implemented eco-tourism as an integral tool for conservation.
Unlike India, points out Saad, who is critical of the government’s efforts. For instance, in 2011, the forest department banned private resort vehicles from the protected area. The government believes that rampant vehicles disrupt the forest, and tourists should use those provided by state lodges. Now, guests at the Bison have to pay Rs 1,250 (Indians) or $50 (foreign nationals) per safari to use government vehicles. Saad is in the process of filing a case in the Karnataka High Court to end the ban.
As is obvious, the Jungs have to maintain that fine balance between conservation and tourism. When they hear the tell-tale warning calls and know a big cat is in the area, they have to get to the best vantage point quickly to show guests the animals they’ve paid to see. Yet, at the same time, they need to cooperate with other government lodge vehicles and point out where the game was spotted, which could mean they miss out on that priceless sighting.
Image: Shaaz Jung
A naturalist and photographer, Shaaz manages the day-to-day activities at the camp. His work has helped boost Kabini’s profile as a wildlife eco-tourism destination. His Facebook page, where he posts his photographs, has over 1 lakh followers. The images are the result of hours of patient waiting at watering holes or clearings. His uncanny ability to spot leopards is far more than just intuition.
When the sun sets, the guests in the jeep settle down for an evening campfire. Shaaz talks about his adventures with the inhabitants of the forests. The father-son duo often lead game drives, he tells them. They track leopards and tigers by listening to the sounds of the forest.
It is so palpably a shared love with his father and, the Bison, a true family project.
The sun-drenched savannahs of Africa and the steaming rainforests of South America are larger-than-life experiences. But the quiet, dusty dusk of an Indian jungle—there’s nothing quite like it. Anyone expecting a 7-star hotel with tuxedoed butlers and limousines will be disappointed.
The Bison offers something intangible. While his illustrious family shapes Indian sports and cinema, Saad Jung is quietly conserving something far more valuable.