Private game reserves cannot exist in India. The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 prevents any individual or organisation from claiming private land as a fenced game reserve for commercial purposes, much unlike Africa. Our wildlife resides in protected reserves under the State and Central government forest departments’ supervision. Being a nation that takes pride in conserving its wild in the wild way; the concept of private organisations owning a whole reserve is a far-flung reality, and perhaps a better way of conservation. Pertinent to our remote rural socio-economic conditions, forested luxury can be a game changer for the conservation of protected forests in the future, starting now.
In Africa, a private game reserve hosts multiple lodges, spread over vast areas within national parks that house everything and beyond the big games like lions, leopards, wild buffaloes, antelopes, elephants, zebras, giraffes and offer exclusive access to guests. In India, this is not possible. But there is another way.
The jungles can grow back and expand, to allow for effective dispersal and movement of territorial animals like the tiger, if allowed to be. A new generation of conservation-inclined hoteliers are driving passion projects to bring equivalent luxury in the wild, serious about preserving the nature around their properties in India. While the opulence calls for tasteful luxury, the real richness is found in the tranquillity of these forested lodges.
Uzma Irfan, founder of Sublime Wilderness Odyssey and Sublime, and director of corporate communications, Prestige Group, believes that it is important to immerse yourself in the splendour of nature while contributing to its preservation. “We believe in redefining luxury in wildlife experiences with an unwavering commitment to sustainability. By selecting eco-friendly accommodations, implementing low-impact travel practices, and supporting local conservation initiatives, we ensure our guests experience the epitome of luxury without compromising the delicate ecosystems we explore,” she says on the subject.
Welcoming the environment within
In 1711, the Bathera family received the 50 square-kilometre Jagir of Chunda Shikar Oudi, for leading Mewar's army to victory. Once a hunting ground, this threatened land has now evolved into an ecosystem, preserving natural habitats and becoming home to wild animals. Led by Veeram Dev Singh Krishnawat, managing director at the Chunda Group, the estate spanning 150 hectares including the 'Mahadev Sagar,' a freshwater lake has transformed and now thrives as a sanctuary for diverse flora and fauna.
The newly-opened property offers eight lavishly designed suites, each capable of accommodating three persons. The villas on the other hand spans a massive 5000 square-feet, offering elegant balconies with breathtaking views of the lake and hills, a private dining area, and a refreshing swimming pool, accommodating up to six individuals.
Recreating the African dream, luxury hotels and boutique offerings in the remote wildernesses of India have a chance to attract both domestic and international travellers, who appreciate raw nature.
Experienced naturalist couple Ratna Singh and Wasim Kakkulangara envisioned creating a naturally wild experience when they took over the 55-acre property in the buffer areas of Kanha Tiger Reserve. Saccharum Safari as it is now known after the native grass, is a fruit of two years of toil and undoing a lot of things. The couple decided to rid the property of concrete and restore natural order by building mud houses. Guests can walk along a trail within the forest inside the property limits to find a leopard's den site, a month-old scat (dung) of a tiger and hear stories of animals walking here freely at night.
In Bandhavgarh, tented camps have become the hottest new entrant, with the opening of The Untamed, a 10-tent property offering an African-style experience of living in raw wilderness. Due to its proximity to a fenced buffer forest, not surprisingly, finding pugmarks within the property in the morning is a daily affair that the manager Yashwant Shekhawat undertakes as a serious task. Checking the camera traps that he convinced The Ultimate Travelling Camp (TUTC) to put up helps him trace the pathways the animals take and inform the staff and guests accordingly. Needless to explain, such properties are neither for the faint-hearted nor for the reckless.
The ‘pool’ factor
Seen those videos of African elephants joining guests at the swimming pool for a drink? At Saccharum, a swim at the infinity pool may be a blessing in the afternoon as animals gather for a drink at the adjacent natural watering hole, at a safe height. At Bori Safari Lodge in Satpura too, the pool overlooks a watering hole that provides respite to visiting animals. While these natural watering holes are managed and maintained year-round, some are naturally replenished. At Brij Lakshman Sagar in Pali, the serpentine lake (Lakshman Sagar) occupies much of the landscape and offers a much-needed refuge to birds and visiting mammals. Each mud and stone cottage offers a vantage point of the water body from its private plunge pools.
Interestingly at Tipai by Wildlife Luxuries, which uses no chemicals for the natural pools at their villas, summertime plays out to be a natural invitation for wild animals to take a dip too. A Royal Bengal tigress visited and sat in one of their pools for hours earlier this year. The design inspiration to make the outdoors usable in tropical heat is notable in the newer constructions of resorts, using hardy and often local materials to withstand the extreme weather.
The idea of leaving the wilderness verdant, untouched and unhindered is catching up among new-age hoteliers. Krishnawat exercised his wish to preserve, conserve and help the ecosystem around the property to flourish. His efforts have resulted in free movement of leopards around the property without human disturbance. Something that the people behind Pugdundee Safaris have been encouraging for over a decade at their distinguished offerings across the central Indian forests. While the movement is free for wild animals, it is often the guests who need to be reminded of their surroundings to exercise self-caution. Professional guidance, respect for the surroundings & guidelines and general alertness are virtues that a visitor can gain much from.
With luxury, the opportunity to curate unique experiences becomes a must-have. In Pench National Park, nestled within 33 acres of forested land is Saj In The Forest. The property bridges the gap between uber luxury and affordable luxury with a conscious choice of staying close to nature. Where hotels are springing up to accommodate the weekend and wedding crowds, Saj is a refreshing take to experience unobstructed nature. The backwater safari experience at a secret location is the star among its curations for the immersive traveller.
Similarly, horseback safaris around the buffer forests of Satpura and walking safaris in different locations around the park has added a unique charm to the offerings by Jehan Numa Group, the only luxury operator in the region.
Nature walk and walking safari at Satpura
Maintaining nature’s raw outlook has become the fore in conservation-oriented luxury lodges. Places that were intrinsically forests, until colonialism, wars and excessive hunting wiped them off their inhabitants, are making a luscious comeback. At Lakshman Sagar, again an erstwhile hunting lodge for royal descendants, the olden trap doors to trick game into a corner is a reminder of the royal and bloody history. With a mindful approach to the future, forested luxury could be the answer to sustainable tourism in ecologically rich yet fragile regions.