Till 1995, I had never stepped inside a forest. That summer, my wife and I stopped at the Bush Betta Jungle Resorts in Bandipur National Park, with plans to stay a night before hitting the road for Ooty. This was a basic establishment, with cottages and a common dining hall and lights out at 10pm as the whole place ran on generators. We spotted deer on the road, woke up the next morning to elephants trumpeting and peacocks shrieking.
The place cast a kind of spell on us completely urban people (by then,8 I had spent seven years in IT, based largely in Bangalore). We wanted to extend our stay, but they were booked through. Resigned, we were driving out of the resort in our Maruti 800 when, suddenly, a herd of elephants came charging at us. We drove for our lives, and the elephants gave up chase after a few hundred yards. The experience gave me such a thrill I actually reversed and went back in search of the herd.
The elephants had, of course, crossed the road and gone on their way. But the episode stayed with me. I began visiting forest reserves in Karnataka and beyond—the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve (KMTR) in Tamil Nadu, Corbett in Uttarakhand and Africa.
My first significant sighting, though, came three years later, in 1998. At Kabini, on the southern fringes of the Nagarhole National Park, I was out on a post-dinner drive when I came across a full-grown tigress on the highway. For one hour, I watched as the animal criss-crossed the road, drank thirstily from a rain puddle and scared away a sloth bear.
In 1999, I left Nortel Networks and, with my friends, set up Bangalore Labs. In 2002, we sold out and joined Phaneesh Murthy’s Quintant business service provisioning start-up. Within seven or eight months, we were acquired by iGate.
In the meantime, I had become involved in conservation through the Kabini Foundation, set up by Sarath C.R. Because I didn’t have time, I donated money. The foundation used the funds to train local youth in vocations such as television repair, outfitted them with tools and called on their services when the need arose. This way, the youths were less susceptible to pressure from poachers.
When the idea of Cicada was born, the primary trigger was the absence of the organized sector from the wildlife tourism sector. Apart from the Karnataka government’s Jungle Lodges and Resorts, there was one other establishment in Kabini. Our self-funded Wilderness Resorts bought them out, and spent eight months getting it in shape in line with our vision, which was simple: We wanted to be the No. 1 responsible ecotourism company in India. And our first mantra was: Do not exploit the place. We believe opportunities have to result in localized development. So, while we do not involve ourselves directly in conservation, we continue to support the Kabini Foundation. Besides setting up supply lines with local villages for the procurement of milk, poultry, etc., we believe in employing only locals.
Each of our 75 personnel comes from a neighbouring village; each represents a family. They are either illiterate or poorly educated; their single other source of sustenance is rain-dependent agriculture and, in the dry months, herding cattle or collecting forest produce. Now, each of these 75 youths has a bank account into which salaries are deposited.
And to ensure their services are up to par—and to invest them with qualifications that will land them certain jobs should they wish to move on—we have the faculty of the Christ College of Hotel Management making visits to train them in the nuances of the service sector.
On the flip side, we ensure that visitors to Kabini encounter the forest in some depth. We are not about packing people into a Gypsy and taking them down the beaten path. We require respect and decorum towards the forest and its creatures. Each of our Euro III vehicles is accompanied by a naturalist who introduces visitors to the wildlife and the trees. If even 5% of our visitors go back thinking they should do something for the environment, we believe it’s a positive contribution.
As far as the larger picture of conservation goes, I believe all the stringent rules are already in place in the pollution control board’s norms. What we need to do is follow them, without compromise.
Cicada Kabini went live in September 2006. Now, we have plans for three more resorts in Karnataka by the end of the financial year. And then, we’ll look elsewhere in India, including Gir in Gujarat and Kanha in Madhya Pradesh. Kabini, of course, will be the template.
We’ll show them that we can follow the rules, protect the environment, and still run a sustainable business.
As told to Sumana Mukherjee. Write to us at email@example.com