On a recent trip to the Satpura National Park, Madhya Pradesh, I experienced the rare delight of not having to rush out of the park at 6pm, ending the evening safari just as the tigers became active. For we were in the buffer area, an extension of the park.
With Aly Rashid, naturalist and owner of Bori Safari Lodge, at the helm, we had entered the Bhim Kund Gate, explored the gently undulating, mixed deciduous forest, and encountered an astonishingly beautiful, lithe, pink-nosed (and hence youthful) leopard who regarded us with curious eyes as she meandered between the trees and disappeared like a wraith of smoke.
And now, as the sun slipped down, the calls of agitated roosting birds gave way to the surround sound of crickets. Before long, the stars began to spangle the clearest of skies. Rashid switched off the headlights for us to enjoy the pure, unalloyed darkness. To stay on in the exquisite wilderness and experience the thrill of the night felt like a deep privilege.
A trio of tigers, a mother and two grown cubs, emerged from a grassy thicket straight into our soft spotlight. Completely unperturbed, they focused on a herd of buffalo. Ashish Uklei, the guide who sat next to me, bristled with pride. He was from a village just beyond the park boundary; this was his park and these were his tigers. We enjoyed the sighting and the nocturnal feel of the forest for a while, and, as we set off to return to our lodge, he said, “Chaliye, abh aapko bhalu dikhate hain (Come, now let’s show you a sloth bear).”
Sure enough, before long, the spotlight revealed a pair of orange eyes—the bear was digging up termites with ferocity and unleashing the heavenly scent of wild basil. The night safari had us in its thrall.
R.P. Singh, a former chief conservator forest, Satpura, who was with us, explained that naturalists and lodge owners had been consulted in setting the charter for the forest, which became a Project Tiger reserve in 2000. They suggested visitors be given an up-close feel of the jungle so they could make a more meaningful connection with its pristine environment, birds and animals. In Satpura, one can pick from a smorgasbord of day and night jeep safaris, guided walks in the jungle (in dedicated areas, with safety precautions in place), elephant-back safaris, as well as motorboat safaris along the Denwa river with birding as the main focus—all in the buffer areas.
These experiences tie into the zeitgeist of modern India, a nation hooked to wilderness experiences. Seeing a tiger in the wild has become the holy grail. Groups of families and friends, romancing couples, budding wildlife lovers and keen photographers are heading to the hills, jungles, grasslands and wetlands to enjoy the incredibly rich biodiversity and charismatic megafauna. Rewarded once, they head to a plethora of other places. Besides, the sanctuaries and reserves are an antidote to the polluted, crowded and noisy cities they come from. With the nation becoming wealthier, disposable incomes rising and beautiful lodges opening on the outskirts of forests, heading out on safari is the adventure everyone is hankering after.
The reality, however, is that the demand for jeep safaris is far greater than the supply. Most Project Tiger reserves allow tourism in 20% of the area, while the core is preserved as the inviolate inner sanctum. Within the tourism area, only a certain number of jeeps and canters are allowed, and many people arrive at lodges to find they don’t have any access to the jungle, or can go on a very limited number of safaris.
This is where the opening of buffer areas to additional safaris has proved to be a win-win situation. The additional jeep safaris add to the revenue that goes towards maintaining the forest and paying the salaries of the guards and rangers, and more people can enjoy what they came for.
Upon my return home, I spoke to Nagpur, Maharashtra-based Poonam Dhanwatey, co-founder and trustee of the Tiger Research and Conservation Trust. “Buffer tourism,” she says, “can only take place where there are viable forests with good wildlife. Tadoba-Andhari National Park (in Maharashtra), for instance, has 60 tigers in the core and 60-70 in its 15 buffer zones. This is where the experiment was first launched and it has been wildly successful.”
Pench National Park (Madhya Pradesh) has followed suit, with buffer drives and walking safaris. Ranthambore’s zones 6-10 in Rajasthan are now open during the monsoon. Half-day and full-day safaris are offered at eye-watering prices (from ₹37,000-69,000 per jeep for Indians) and are snapped up.
The villagers who live in areas adjoining the buffer zones, such as Uklei of Satpura, have been employed as guides, jeep drivers, forest guards, cooks, housekeepers and a host of other roles. They take great pride in seeing their surroundings being sought after and are appreciating the wildlife, which has gone from being a nuisance in the fields to being a huge draw. Poaching has reduced dramatically in the last couple of decades, says Dhanwatey. A live tiger, people realise, can be monetised over and over again. The locals refrain from poaching even the small stuff for the pot, understanding that those creatures sustain the food chain that secures their new livelihood.
The Tadoba-Andhari buffer safaris have become so popular that it is now possible for diehard nature lovers to stay overnight in some of the machans (lookout towers, where you are dropped off at 6pm and picked up at 6am) and special rooms set up above patrolling camps. The latter are more comfortable than the machans, for they have walls and come with a double bed, a toilet and a kettle. Boating safaris on the Irai dam, with an emphasis on birding, and a biking path on the periphery of the national park, have become additional attractions. Now there is talk of regulated safaris beyond the buffer.
All this bodes well for the expansion of forests, preservation of biodiversity, sequestration of carbon and monsoonal rainwater. India’s spectacular flora and fauna is finally being appreciated by its 400-million-strong middle class—and this is just the beginning.
Geetika Jain shares notable notions from around the world. She can be followed on Instagram @geetikaforest