Saad Bin Jung is a familiar name to those who have followed first class cricket in India over the years, or even because of his relation to the late Nawab of Pataudi, Mansoor Ali Khan. But another dimension that is perhaps not so well-known is his long sojourn in the bush. A passion for the wild is in his genes, but he chose to pursue this actively 25 years ago. In that time, he has become a crusader for wildlife conservation and eco-tourism in India.
Starting from Bushbetta in Bandipur to an angling camp in Mekhedathu, Saad finally decided to set up a one-of-a-kind wildlife camp on the banks of the Kabini backwaters, and that was how The Bison came into being.
Saad has also written a book, ‘Wild tales from the Wild’, on wildlife conservation, and started personalised trips to Africa not too long ago.
While this feature brings you a glimpse of the wild and explores The Bison, its focus is also on highlighting the aspects that affect eco-tourism in India. In the hope that awareness and understanding brings about positive change and enables us to leave a legacy that future generations would be able to enjoy and appreciate.
I grew up in Hyderabad and did the normal routine of going to HPS and Nizam College. Like many an HPS boy before, and I daresay after me, I married a beautiful girl from Saint Anne’s. I was born into cricket and lived cricket till an illness made me give up the game and I took to my only other passion, wildlife and conservation.
Coming from the royal family of Bhopal, Pataudi and the Paigah’s of Hyderabad, this shift was a natural transition as we grew up in the private jungles of the family and lived in palaces in the heart of these forests. I was ill from 1981 to 83 and took to conservation in 1986. My love for elephants took me to Bandipur, where my wife and I worked hard at establishing eco-tourism as an integral tool for conservation. We have been in the bush ever since.
The Bison is our third venture. We started at Bush Betta-Bandipur and then established the angling camp on the Cauvery River. The Bison at Kabini is the third camp.
We started to work in the jungles of Karnataka, to understand the many conflicts that existed then. We realised that the man-animal conflict was but a consequence of a much larger conflict that has plagued India since independence— the local man vs authority conflict.
Not having access to basic amenities like shelter, food and clothing, leave alone proper health and education, the local people had, over a period of time, for their own reasons, come to believe that the officials were only interested in making money and not in doing any good for the local community. They had lost faith and trust in governance. The officials, on the other hand, believed that the locals were nothing but poachers and smugglers.
Over a period of time, this led to a complete erosion of trust between the two and as a consequence the much needed dialogue between the two stopped. Sangeeta and I chose to recreate trust with the locals in order to re-establish this lost dialogue.
We found that this building of trust takes nearly 8-10 years, and it is only then that the local people stop looking at you as quasi-Government and accept you as one of their own.
With trust in place, we could then address the issue of caste, female infanticide, dowry deaths, poaching and smuggling, to name a few. Only after clearing the Mangala valley and the Cauvery valley near Sangam of these ills did we move to the Kabini area.
At Kabini, we found that unlike the people of Mangala and the Cauvery valley near Sangam who were steeped in poverty, people here were rich beyond belief, yet very similar problems existed. We established The Bison to understand the needs of the valley and its people and find implementable solutions. We started work here in 1997 and have gradually earned the respect and love of the people of this area.
Sangeeta and I believed that only through dialogue would we be able to bring the two (locals and officials) together and only through dialogue would we be able to address the many conflicts.
The Early Years
The camp started in 1997 as a small shed with one tent. It formed part of Veerappan’s region. It also forms part of an area where elephants, leopards, sloth bears and wild boar roam free. It took time to get permissions and the approach road done, and once the permissions were in place the camp took its own time to achieve perfection.
The staff had never worked before and training took two years. Many a travel agent threatened that unless we took trained hotel staff from the city they wouldn’t work with us. We refused to taint our grounds with people who had been trained by hoteliers and not by us. We refused to allow commercialism to creep into the camp. We stuck to our guns and though the camp was ready in every aspect we delayed opening the camp to the public.
In 2009, we declared it open. Today, we have deluxe tents, machan tents, suites and a pool. The service is from the heart. The food is great.
Shaaz Jung is managing the camp. Together with Mahadeva, he forms the safari wing. Shambu and Ramesh take care of the activities, whilst our own Kuruba Swamy takes care of the service. Ajay and Mimeen man the kitchen and Dod Swamy and Kumar take housekeeping to another level. One of the village headmen does the laundry and together, the family offers one of the most unique experiences in the Indian bush.
The Bison is a tented camp that was erected on the banks of the Kabini backwaters. It is the only camp in the area from where one can see wildlife whilst having tea in bed.
The tents stop insects and creepy-crawlies, but allow the sounds of the nearby forest to infiltrate the canvas and one can actually feel the fabric tremble when an elephant is nearby or a tiger roars.
The activities at camp are so exciting that ‘The Bison’ is probably one of the few camps in the country where the guests prefer to stay at camp rather than drive out on safari.
The camp only uses local tribal people trained to perfection and this gives it a mystical aura of its own.
The naturalists at camp are known for their cat-tracking abilities and Shaaz Jung has taken on the nickname “Leopard Man”. The tents and the common areas are designed on African lines.
Little details speak of the care taken in designing and maintaining the camp. It’s probably the only camp of its kind in India and all our guests have one thing to say in common, we have the best showers and toilets!
The Bison has its own clientele. The service and facilities at camp have ensured one thing— that we remain unaffected by the class divide and therefore get people from all walks of life. The Bison guest is a wildlifer, soft-spoken and respectful of the camp, the surroundings, staff and other guests. Above all, guests respect the wilderness around and in their own little way contribute to the conservation efforts of the camp.
Eco-tourism is an often used term but least understood by the industry. Most people involved in this industry use the uniqueness to increase their ARR. For most resort owners it’s about the money. I have yet to meet people who believe that working in these places should be for reasons of conservation above everything else.
Worse still, the Government refuses to accept that it has failed the people of these remote areas and has lost respect and trust with the local people. As a result, they believe the worst of the local people and the policies they make are flawed and hardly ever consider ground level realities.
Whilst many senior officials view passion driven people like us as crucial tools in the management of these far-flung areas and forests, every now and then, along comes an official who worries that we could expose his failures and therefore tries to make our life difficult in order to get rid of us from the area. Sadly, where we have succeeded with the local people we have failed with these few officials and the conflict between the locals and officials continues to expand at a terrifying rate wherever they are in power.
The man-animal conflict is a consequence of this conflict and I personally do not see any solution in sight unless the officials decide to change their approach to private enterprise and to the local people. Unless that is done, I don’t see India saving her tiger.
The Bison is known for its activities. We have managed to fine tune our activities and facilities to such an extent that today we run one of the purest wilderness experiences in India.
Safaris, boat safaris, bird walks, trekking, camping, coracling, angling, visits to tribal villages, bush dinners, sun downers and picnic lunches are just some of the activities.
Read the full feature on Prismma Magazine