When the cat's away

Leisa Tyler finds a new breed of eco-tourism in India's central parks has widened its focus beyond tiger spotting.

In 1939, Lord Linlithgow, then viceroy of India, visited Maharaja Joodha Shumshere Jung Bahadur Rana, then prime minister of Nepal. The men went hunting in Nepal's Chitwan Forest for 20 days, in which time they slayed 120 tigers, 38 rhinos, 25 leopards and 15 bears. In those days, tigers were so prolific it was considered a duty for royals and nobles to kill at least half a dozen to bring peace and prosperity to their people.

Seventy years later, Maharaja Joodha's great-great-grandnephew, Nanda Rana, is trying to save south Asia's tigers from extinction.

India's tiger population is about 1300, with only two genetically viable populations remaining. The two primary reasons for the big cat's demise are poaching (dead tigers fetch between $60,000 and $160,000 on the black market; their pelts are used to line Tibetan coats and the bones and nails for Chinese medicine) and dwindling habitat (India's Forest Rights Act allows disadvantaged communities to live in and gather firewood from national parks).

Tiger tourism, on the other hand, is booming and, in some cases, has been credited with boosting tiger numbers. Poachers are less likely to be active in tourist areas.

However, tiger tourism also has its drawbacks. Resorts have been blamed for cutting off watering holes and corridors used by wild animals, flushing swimming pools and waste into national park rivers and ignoring the wishes of tribal inhabitants. Then there is the sheer volume of tourists: in the more popular parks, it's not uncommon to see dozens of vehicles gather around a single tiger, thwarting the cat's ability to hunt and reproduce.

As an antidote, a new wave of wildlife lodges is being developed in India. Owned and operated by conservationists - many of whom have spent years combating dwindling tiger numbers - these lodges hope to redraw the standards of eco- and tiger tourism in India and protect the remaining felines.

Singinawa Jungle Lodge, run by Nanda and Latika Rana, is one such lodge. Skirting the edge of Kanha National Park in India's central state of Madhya Pradesh, Singinawa has 10 cottages with energy-efficient ducted air-coolers, hot water heated by organic waste, drinking water filtered by reverse osmosis and tiled balconies overlooking a tangle of grasses and the remainders of a eucalyptus plantation. There is a free-form pool studded by boulders and a tented spa but most activity is focused in the two-storey reception building with a balcony breakfast room and lounge, bearing photographs of Lord Linlithgow and Maharaja Joodha's hunting spree.

It is here the outspoken Mr and Mrs Rana entertain their well-heeled guests, peppering talk with the challenges facing India's big cats.

Refined and righteous, Nanda Rana believes the villagers who live in and around India's national parks are best equipped to protect the tigers. Significant loss of habitat in recent years has brought villagers and their domestic animals into precariously close quarters with the big cats - the tigers sometimes prey on goats and even humans. The government offers no compensation for lost livelihoods, which creates animosity. "When village people feel they have ownership of the park and a live tiger is worth more than a dead one, they will automatically start to protect them," Rana says.

Seventy per cent of Singinawa's staff come from the surrounding villages and two-thirds of profits from the spa go to a medical fund for local people (the other third pays the spa staff's wages). In 2010, during the past financial year, the lodge's medical fund paid for 16 doctors from Delhi to treat 2300 people. Singinawa hosts annual seminars for people on the importance of saving the tiger.

The Ranas have embarked on a program to turn lantana into cooking charcoal. The flowering shrub, native to Africa, is a noxious weed in India, spreading through its national parks and significantly depleting grazing land for deer and bison. Driving in Kanha National Park, a naturalist from Singinawa, tells me the government department responsible for the national parks has received "tonnes of money" to clear lantana. "But they do nothing and the lantana persists, like poaching. So it's up to us to do something about it," he says.

A conservation biologist and snow leopard expert, Dr Raghu Chundawat, was banned from India's national parks after blowing the whistle on tiger poaching in Panna, a lush park in the northern reaches of Madhya Pradesh. Chundawat independently began to put radio collars on cats when he noticed their rapidly decreasing numbers. Nobody would listen. By mid-2009, all of the park's 24 tigers had disappeared.

Two females and a male have since been reintroduced to Panna but Chundawat is still forbidden from entering the park. Instead, with his British wife, Joanna van Gruisen, he opened in October the six-room Sarai at Toria, a small resort perched on the banks of the Ken River, just outside Panna National Park. This, he hopes, will help fund research into the relationship between India's villages and wildlife and monitor wildlife activity outside the parks.

The Sarai at Toria is a magical place, with a communal dining and sitting area and six guest rooms fashioned from insulated mud and thatch, making heaters and coolers unnecessary. The soft furnishings are made from organic cotton, the showers have water-saving heads, the toilets are low-flush and the floors are stained with natural oxide. There are no televisions, no phones, no internet and electricity is generated by a 10-kilowatt solar system.

I skip Panna National Park to experience some of the resort-based activities instead. One morning, I paddle on the Ken River, a swath of glassy-blue water peppered with birds and small crocodiles. In the afternoon, a lodge guide and I drive to a trail head and we walk six kilometres past villages of whitewashed, rammed-earth houses and fields of bullock and buffalo to the driveway of Rajgarh Palace, one of the finest examples of Rajput architecture in India and the residence of the chairman of Oberoi Hotels and Resorts, P.R.S. Oberoi. Along the way, we inspect the crumbling remains of temples and palaces: a dome, a Shiva temple, the entrance to a palace hidden behind the dangling roots of a banyan tree.

We pass ecstatic children on red bicycles and walk with women carrying bundles of sticks on their heads. "Miss, please come to my house," they urge. "Drink tea/sit for a while/tell me where you come from."

For brothers Fiaz and Ali Rashid, opening an ecologically sensitive resort on the outskirts of the little-known Satpura National Park was a lifetime dream. Once an exclusive game reserve for officers of the British Raj, the 1500-square-kilometre park south-east of the city of Bhopal is small by Indian standards, which is one reason it is rarely visited by tourists. The other reason is the limited cat sightings; although several live here, they are not accustomed to humans and tend to keep well away. The Rashid brothers are adamant this shouldn't matter. For them, tiger sightings should be a bonus, not the main reason for travelling here.

"Tiger tourism is out of control," Fiaz Rashid tells me. "The only people who don't think so are big resort operators making far too much to care about the consequences."

At their small resort, Reni Pani, the brothers introduce guests to the whole jungle, from ants to gaur to grasses. Opening a little more than a year ago, Reni Pani is wonderful; in my view, one of India's best eco-tourism experiences. Scattered among five hectares of teak and reni trees are 12 free-standing villas rendered with cow dung and rice husks, with balconies, local "kadappa" stone floors and recycled windows and floors. There's a swimming pool, a gift shop with locally made wooden toys and a bar-restaurant where most meals are served.

Half the staff lives within a two-kilometre radius and the ingredients used to make the resort's excellent meals are sourced within a 50-kilometre radius.

Reni Pani is miles from the nearest town and surrounded by the park and small farms where bullocks pull wooden ploughs and leopards roam at night, so the genuine hospitality is all the more welcome. The Rashid brothers are from the royal family of Bhopal, a two-hour drive away. Their parents own and run the Jehan Numa Palace Hotel in the city and helped established Reni Pani. A handful of charming butlers become your best friends during a stay, gently knocking on the door with a pot of tea each morning, dishing up curries for lunch, collecting guests for pre-dinner drinks held in a different location each night: under the shade of a giant neem tree or by candlelight on a dry river bed.

One morning I rise at 5.30 for a jeep ride in Satpura. After crossing a lake by boat and picking up a mandatory national park guide, Reni Pani's naturalist, Alger, and I head across a plain covered in golden grasses and the spotty backs of deer to dry deciduous forests peppered with stony hills.

Only one other jeep is in the park this morning. The driver wants to know which roads we will use so we don't cross paths. We don't see a tiger but after spending 15 minutes watching an elusive sloth bear grub for ants, watching flying squirrels soar between treetops and eating breakfast on the banks of a beautiful ravine, it doesn't matter.

Leisa Tyler travelled in Madhya Pradesh courtesy of Indian Experiences.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Singapore Airlines has a fare to Bangalore for about $1420 from Sydney and Melbourne low-season return including tax — to Singapore (8hr) then Bangalore (4hr 20min). From Bangalore, connect with Jet Airways or Kingfisher to a number of Madhya Pradesh cities. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to six months; allow six weeks for processing.

Touring there

British-owned Indian Experiences has tours in Madhya Pradesh staying at the state's best eco resorts. Eight nights combining stays at Singinawa and the Sarai at Toria cost from 118,620 rupees ($2510) a person, including most meals, a visit to the ancient temples at Khajuraho and a tribal village tour in Kanha. Combine a visit to the old city of Bhopal with stays at Reni Pani and World Heritage-listed Sanchi on a four-night tour costing from 49,028 rupees a person. Or see it all in a 10-night Conservation and Wildlife Tour of Madhya Pradesh from 155,452 rupees a person. Alternatively, the owner of Indian Experiences, Philippa Kay, can tailor itineraries to suit. See indianexperiences.com.

The best time to visit the national parks of Madhya Pradesh is November-February. May and June are the hottest months, when temperatures are about 45 degrees. Most of Madhya Pradesh's national parks are closed from June 30 to November 1.

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