Katie Bhujwala tells Kamalan Journeys the story of Shergarh, the home of the Tiger in Kanha.
Many people tell you India will change your life. The idea is intriguing and is what enticed me to venture on a year-long journey through the country, twelve years ago. Although I hadn’t quite envisaged what lay ahead…
I had been travelling through India for a few months before I reached Kanha Tiger Reserve in central India, and took up a volunteering post of helping out with the day-to-day running of a renowned wildlife lodge. I arrived with little experience, zero local knowledge and a great deal of gratitude for the opportunity that had come before me. I was excited to be working alongside people whose ethnicity was rooted in tribal practices I had heard about in anthropology classes, and that my very first excursions into the forest were under the careful guidance of those who had worked for many years in conservation.
When I first met my to-be husband, Jehan, he had retreated from the city-comforts of his Mumbai home, and was planning a nice adventure for himself out in the wild, camped up under a wooden gazebo with an oil lamp and adopted mongrel for company! Jehan is a self-trained naturalist and entrepreneur. He spent his boyhood exploring India’s wild habitats with nature clubs, and later-teens on monsoon snake missions with like-minded friends.While it had always been his intention to pursue a life in the outdoors, it was a series of fateful events that lead him to acquire land in Kanha and hatch a plan to create a wildlife camp. Jehan convinced me that his camp was missing a ‘female touch’, so after my volunteering post was through, I offered to stay on with him for a while. We were supposed to be working on a fun little project together, but in fact we were creating a home, and little did we know, two delightful children to join us!
Our camp is called Shergarh. It means ‘Home of the Tiger’, and home is exactly what it is to us, and many of the guests that come and stay. When Jehan bought the land it was covered with thousands of eucalyptus trees; an exotic species grown in many parts of India for paper. Eucalyptus saps too much ground-water and prevents the growth of other surrounding plants, so our first mission was to remove tracts of the eucalyptus (utilising the timber in construction, furnishings and as firewood) and restore a natural wilderness. Stunted saplings of native mango, jamun and wild fig quickly flourished and now attract colonies of fruit bats and breeding egrets; a jungle cat raises her kittens in our grassland; jackals have made a den; a family of chequered keelback snakes live under the bridge (somewhat habituated to my son’s inherited snake-catching fascination!); the trees are now large enough to support giant wood spiders in their enormous webs, and throughout the year we’ll be visited by over 80 different types of birds and 40 types of butterflies. It is a long-term – but satisfying – commitment and we have already been blessed with the ultimate reward of having a 5 year old male tiger stroll up our stream-bed and takecover in the tall grass in the Shergarh grounds.
Trying to operate an efficient, smooth-running camp that incorporates responsible and sustainable ethics is a very romantic concept that is really tough to execute in a remote location with all the bureaucratic impositions and a highly-restrictive Forest Department to deal with! For us it’s been really important to provide 100% support to our community in terms of employment, skills and services. Many of our staff first came to us as casual labour during the building of the camp, and over the years have been trained with skills and today form the core of our team at Shergarh. Through trial and error we have learned that the key to success (sanity) is keeping things simple and rustic; just as life is, here in Kanha. We are very proud of the way our team has grown in confidence and solidarity over the past ten years, developing skills while staying true to who they are, and seeing the financial benefits without having to leave their beautiful rice fields and sacred forests.
Times are changing in India’s tiger reserves. The tiger is probably under more threat and international scrutiny than any other endangered species, and it’s easy to see why. Tigers have an indescribable magnetism, their solitary nature, their graceful arrogance, the way they appear right before you and then silently melt into the forest. You simply feel spell-bound when you are in the presence of a tiger. To lose them would be unimaginable. Poaching- for body parts that can be compounded into traditional Chinese medicine and skin that can be adorned as a status symbol – is one of the greatest threats that the tiger faces, along with the fragmentation and loss of habitat in what is fast becoming the world’s most populous country. The Government of India faces an enormous task in showing the world that among its leaps in the field of medicine, technology, nuclear and space programs, and a burgeoning population of a billion odd people, it can also save its most precious natural heritage. Sighting a tiger in the wild remains a highly privileged experience. As long as the tiger is alive, the forests will be in perfect balance – that is their magic.
As our young children grow here, so does the camp evolve into an informal, family-run setting, where our guests feel at home yet know they are in experienced hands. Our staff, many of whom helped us build the camp, feel supported and our community trusts us. We have strived to strike a balance between providing enough homely comforts without being insensitive to our community and staying true to the natural environment. Much of this is owed to having been gifted two beautiful children to raise out here. The values that we have endeavored to instill within our children, coupled with their own innocent wisdom, has had an intrinsic impact on the way our camp philosophy has developed… utmost sincerity in everything you do, keeping things simple, being kind to absolutely everything that is alive, accepting fate, practicing what you preach…
Bringing up two children is for any parent the most exhilarating and challenging experience, and little had prepared me for taking on this privilege in another culture and so remote. In India it is very difficult to enjoy the benefits of an outdoor, rural lifestyle along with access to good medical facilities and education – the choice means huge sacrifices. So far we have been able to marry the two by home-schooling our children with the help of hired tutors ….Our children now aged 9 and 6 know the forests around Kanha as their home. They grow up blissfully unaware that they are surrounded by some of the few remaining people in this world that still have such an enchantingly rich connection with Mother Nature.