Untravel Weekends: Shergarh Camp, Kanha

Reforesting degraded land and creating a habitat for wildlife – since removing much of the eucalyptus (and using it in construction, for furniture and as firewood), Katie and Jehan have nurtured a wonderful young forest called Shergarh Camp.


Reforesting degraded land and creating a habitat for wildlife – since removing much of the eucalyptus (and using it in construction, for furniture and as firewood), Katie and Jehan have nurtured a wonderful young forest called Shergarh Camp.

Shergarh Camp guests cycling around the forest reserves of Kanha

What started out as a desire to do something for the environment by two 20 somethings, Katie and Jehan, has now evolved into one of a kind eco friendly camp in the Kanha Tiger Reserve.

Living in the land of tigers, Katie Bhujwala, takes out time to talk to The Alternative about her take on responsible tourism and preserving the tiger’s natural habitat.

Can you share your story of setting up the resort? What were you doing before this and your motivation for starting this venture.

We started Shergarh 10 years ago when we were in our early twenties, not long out of college, with barely any money or experience, but a huge desire to live in the wild and do something meaningful with our lives. Jehan had grown up in Mumbai, and had always had a love for nature and the outdoors. He was offered a job as a naturalist at a renowned wildlife camp in Kanha; it was a fabulous opportunity, especially since at that time wildlife tourism in India was largely unheard of. I met Jehan when I was travelling in India, and volunteering at the same wildlife camp. We decided to make our home and a small camp in Kanha, at the quieter Mukki end where, at that time, there were only 3 other lodges. We had the choice of buying a plot of dense Sal forest or a large tract of eucalyptus woodland and disused fields. The former was the obvious choice, until we realized how fantastic it would be to remove the eucalyptus and nurture that space back into indigenous forest and encourage wildlife to return. It was an alternative decision that has cascaded into a life philosophy towards our camp, community and in bringing up our children, now aged 9 and 6.

Katie and Jehan wanted to keep a light imprint on the land and make the guest experience intimate, hence, only built 6 huts out of local building material

What are the 5 aspects of responsible travel you have worked on and what it took to implement?

Sensitivity to the community – we never imagined anything other than employing all our staff and skilled labour from the local area. Through this we have built a nurturing relationship based on trust with our community that works mutually. They bring a natural grace and character to the lodge, and in turn have developed skills, confidence and financial security. With their support, we are able to call Kanha ‘home’. And thanks to them, many of our guests do too.

Light infrastructure – we wanted to create a small camp of just six tents that would make only a light imprint on the land. We also wanted to incorporate local architectural features, so we have used a lot of mud work and dry-stone masonry, and we sourced all of the construction materials locally. We draw water for all our needs from our open well (no bore well), including drinking water which we treat so that we do not have to deal with disposing off plastic bottles. We recycle, compost, minimize lighting, and avoid air conditioning, which is really not necessary in a dry, cool climate.

Reforesting degraded land and creating a habitat for wildlife – since removing much of the eucalyptus (and using it in construction, for furniture and as firewood), we have nurtured a wonderful young forest of wild fig, jamun and mango; and revived disused fields into grassland. Shergarh is now home to a jungle cat and kittens, a jackal den, and hundreds of egrets that come each year during breeding season. We have also been visited by a tiger that was able to seek cover during a period of cattle lifting in the villages.

Shergarh Camp takse a completely tiger-centric approach, not by chasing tigers but by understanding that the tiger is at the core of an entire ecological and cultural system.

Tiger-centric approach, or not – tigers are without doubt the biggest draw to our area. They are incredible animals and even a small glimpse envelopes you with awe and mystique. Part of experiencing the tiger’s spell-binding power is in comprehending the entire eco-system it supports; as well as the community which have lived alongside the tiger for centuries. These days we can enjoy seeing a tiger from the safety of the jeep; however I sometimes imagine the real fear of actually ‘not’ wanting to see a tiger, which was once central to the life of a forest dweller. That is true divinity and respect! So, we take a completely tiger-centric approach, not by chasing tigers, however, but by understanding that the tiger is at the core of an entire ecological and cultural system. We explore Kanha’s varied landscapes, birds and other mammals, and the beautiful surrounding countryside and villages. Our favourite alternative activity is our cycling trip through enchanting forest villages and tribal markets with overnight camp-outs.

Guest involvement – We invite our guests to get fully immersed in to their surroundings by offering detailed briefings, setting clear expectations, dining altogether around one large family-sized table, providing enriching and well-informed experiences, and an informal atmosphere that allows our guests the comfort and freedom that they would enjoy at home (with the odd snake or insect of unusually large proportions to remind them they are far from it!).

What has been the impact of your venture – on the local people, environment, the place itself, traveller sensitization etc.?

‘High quality-low impact’ has always been our driving ethos, and with just six tents this approach has resonated at many levels. For our guests it means they are taken great care of; we have time to talk and understand each other, and provide them with an enriching experience. Our naturalists are varied and brilliant at making safaris come alive; we have a Nepalese guide who is a walking encyclopedia on all things wild, a local guide who offers unique cultural insights and tales, and Jehan who’s the boss! For the forest it means we have only a small number of vehicles visiting the reserve at any time. Encouraging wildlife back to our land has always been the guiding thought whenever we are considering new projects.

The main house interior at Shergarh Camp

Participating in the community has been central to our own sense of acceptance and belonging in Kanha. While our children are mostly home-schooled at camp, we have enrolled them into the village school for Hindi lessons, allowing our children to make friends and play. In turn we feel we can get involved in the school at the level of active or concerned parents, and not just as a responsible camp. With an English tutor that we hire for our children, we go into the school on a daily basis and run fun activities that stimulate the children, get them speaking a little English, and learning a bit more about the ‘science’ behind their special forest, that attracts so many global visitors. Some of our guests join us at the school, interacting with the students and often funding mini-projects; a desk for the teacher and installation of fans are two examples.

Can you share experiences/anecdotes from travellers who’ve visited.

“I would go back to Kanha again just to stay at Shergarh…(even if I didn’t see any tigers.. I’m kidding…we all want to see the cat….) Katie & Jehan have a beautiful place…large comfy luxury tents, lovely food, eco friendly set up..and the hospitality….they set a new bench mark.” (Bangalore 5th July 2013)

“We walked up the hill behind the camp and had extensive views over the jungle. We also visited local villages which was a fascinating experience. Our naturalist was very knowledgeable and we had some great sightings… We were provided with rugs and hot water bottles for the early starts which we appreciated.” (UK, 20th Jan 2013)

What do you see as the future of responsible travel and sustainable tourism in India?

Responsible, sustainable tourism is the only type of tourism that can offer long term preservation of ecologically sensitive areas and indigenous cultures. However, it will only work when this central principle takes root and drives mainstream tourism (at the moment it is only a small sector). Private hoteliers and the Government need to combine forces and adopt a workable and sustainable model, which is not currently the case. If neither of them takes responsible tourism seriously, then how can we ensure visitors are properly guided and educated? It is ultimately the will of the common person who will determine the future. We have to influence mainstream attitudes towards tourism and travel.

The favourite alternative activity in the camp is the cycling trip through enchanting forest villages and tribal markets with overnight camp-outs.

India has a booming population that are now accessing remote locations like Kanha, but not all are ready to acknowledge the damaging ecological and cultural impact it can have, and want to splurge on unnecessary luxuries that literally ‘cost the earth’. There are enough hotels that are too willing to entertain and perpetuate this attitude. What message does it send to the people in the host community? Will they be unaffected and carry on? Unlikely. Might they resent it? How could they react? What could happen if the community largely adopt those kind of values? Will they still care for the forest? Is it a process that is simply inevitable? By the time enough people care, will it be too late for the tiger?

When a rural community becomes exposed to international tourism, it suddenly has a point for comparison. That community needs to feel strongly valued and proud of itself to stay intact. We need those communities to stay intact as they provide a vital link to the preservation of the forests. We need to ensure we can uplift community services without displacing their values: providing access to improved health facilities; education that is site specific and not based on urban conditions. If we can display respect and understanding towards their indigenous beliefs, and embrace their self-sufficient way of life as a model of good living, then we may be on a path to a sustainable future, not just tourism.

Pics courtesy: Shergarh Camp

Untravel Weekends is a feature series on resorts, homestays and guesthouses that are built and run on the foundations of responsible travel by means of nature conservation, using alternative energy, reducing waste, recycling, rain water harvesting, organic farming, sourcing and feeding into the local economy or promoting indigenous cultures.

Also read: 

Untravel Weekends: Dhole’s Den

 


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kavya Saxena is a 19 year old economics student from the infamous Delhi university (yes, cut offs) As a student of the ‘dismal science’, she balances the boredom assumed to go along with her subject by writing about anything and everything that catches her fancy. She naively likes to believe that the pen ( or the keyboard) can change anyone’s mind because she herself has first ha... more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kavya Saxena is a 19 year old economics student from the infamous Delhi university (yes, cut offs) As a student of the ‘dismal science’, she balances the boredom assumed to go along with her subject by writing about anything and everything that catches her fancy. She naively likes to believe that the pen ( or the keyboard) can change anyone’s mind because she herself has first ha... more

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