Indian Wildlife is synonymous with the Tiger, and the Tiger safaris are synonymous with Bandhavgarh. It was a fine morning of April 1995, and I sat with the Head Mahout Kuttappan on his Elephant. He took me on the slopes of Bandhavgarh hill near Shesh Shaiyya (the reclining 32 feet statue of Lord Vishnu) to see the enchanting and popular Tigress ‘Sita’ with her cubs. How deftly the huge pachyderm went down the steep slopes made me a bit anxious not for myself, but for the fact that the Tigress and her young cubs should not be disturbed by our advent. Kuttappan is the most experienced Mahout in Bandhavgarh.
It seemed that Sita recognized his baritone voice, and she did not show any signs of restlessness. Infact, she sat majestically on a rock looking at the valley in front like a princess of her Kingdom. The cubs played all around her, and I watched like a mute spectator. Occasionally she looked back and gave me an acceptance nod. My love for Bandhavgarh was cemented.
Next day while on a Jeep safari, I was lucky to see the dominating male of Tala, a.k.a. Charger. He was called by this name as on some occasions he mock charged couple of vehicles. The respect for the Tiger took seed in my heart, and my journey in wildlife tourism started right then. No internet, no online permit bookings, no rush to book safaris, Tala was a quaint village, and Bandhavgarh and unknown national park. Even the Tour Operators in India had not heard of Bandhavgarh National Park. It was now that I first thought of educating the world on this beautiful Tiger Reserve of India. Whole idea was to improve economy of the place, and generate employment for the local community.
In year 2001, I organised the first ever Tiger Photographic Safari for 60 amateur photographers, and held an exhibition in New Delhi of the photographs clicked. The winners got a reward, and part of the proceeds went into doing good for the Forest guards of Bandhavgarh. Reason why this photographic safari was arranged was simple. Images speak louder than words. So when the world would see the kind of Tiger sightings that were happening in Bandhavgarh the awareness about the destination would happen, thus improving the money flow in the region.
The visitors gradually started to visit Bandhavgarh and to fulfil their needs it was important to have some good infrastructure. I got one of my local friends who belonged to Rewa, a small town in couple of hours driving distance to build a good functional resort in the area. And then the flow of some key International Tour operators began. Joseph Van Os Safaris, Viktor Emmanuel of VENT Tours, and some legends like Peter Matthiesen (Snow Leopard fame), Robert Bateman (a Canadian naturalist and a world renowned Artist) visited Bandhavgarh. The word spread and more International tourists started to talk highly about the Tiger safaris in Bandhavgarh to all their friends worldwide.
Now, it was important to regulate tourism, and the forest department set up routes, and demarcated zones to reduce the tourism footprint, and evenly distribute the same. This was the turning point for the tourism. After Sita, and Charger, the baton of Tiger sightings shifted to Banka, and finally it was B2 the son of Charger and Mohini who took the Tiger sightings and reputation of Bandhavgarh to another level altogether. This spurt of Tiger sightings in Bandhavgarh laid the foundation for Tiger tourism in the first decade of the 21st century. He became the most sighted Tiger ever in the history of Indian Wildlife. A study conducted by an organisation suggested that the revenue generated by B2 for Bandhavgarh ran into millions. This definitely gave tremendous boost to the local economy. Finally, when B2 breathed his last, it was then the turn of Bamera to take charge of tourism.
Village Tala transformed in front of my eyes. From the times when it was even tough to talk on phones to my family in New Delhi, to a time when mobile and broadband connectivity have become a common norm it seems the world has changed around Bandhavgarh. But one thing that has been constant for Bandhavgarh has been the excellent Tiger sightings. There has been mushrooming of many lodges, resorts and Hotels in Bandhavgarh over last couple of decades, but the Forest department has adapted well to changing tourism needs and have laid very strict norms for getting safari permits. This has controlled the tourism footprints, and now Bandhavgarh has become a park for only serious wildlife and Tiger lovers.
Our team in Bandhavgarh comprises of some enthusiastic, and skilled guides, and drivers. Most of them were born and brought up in Bandhavgarh national park even before it became a Tiger reserve. Hence their knowledge of the Tiger trails, local flora, fauna and traditions is unparalleled.
In the year 2005 & 2006, we were chosen as the preferred Wildlife Operator for Bandhavgarh by BBC. This recognition was not for us, but for the Tigers of Bandhavgarh, as without their consistent sightings this was not possible. It was a great moment of pride for us. Today, we cater to all Tiger and wildlife lovers.
Sharad Kumar Vats