By Shashank Birla
The chill and the darkness, is still a vivid memory, as I bundled into the jeep wearing four layers of clothing. The sun wasn't quite out yet and it was just the soft light of dawn that illuminated the forest as our driver stopped the car and pointed to a set of fresh pugmarks, on a dew-soaked streambed by the side of the track. Pumped up on Jim Corbett's tales, I asked if the pugmark maker might be a man-eater? The driver grinned mysteriously, saying that one never knows in the jungle. As we moved ahead, with my mind still racing, we rounded a bend that opened up to a massive grassland. A chaur bathed in golden light and mist! And in that golden grass, seemingly moving branches would reveal themselves to be the impressive antlers of a chital stag in his prime. It may not seem like much, perhaps. No big cat. No exciting action. But I knew that day I could never stay far away from this, the innervating, fresh air, the soft brush of sunlight and that feeling of never knowing what awaits on the next corner.
I never imagined that this childhood experience and memory, of that biting cold of an early morning safari in the misty winter of the Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, would lead me to doing the same thing month-on-month, and transforming my passion into a business that would become my main source of income.
We live in a day and age where passion, a mantra espoused by authors, motivational speakers, business leaders and influencers of an ever-expanding digital world, continues to reshape our world view. From my limited years on this planet, never before have we had as many opportunities to transform what we deeply desire to become our livelihood as well. I knew I wanted to pursue my passion, with all my heart, without a shred of doubt. That was, until my journey began.
I may have been bitten by the wildlife bug at an age before I even started forming memories. Wildlife documentaries, a treasure trove of encyclopedias provided by an indulgent uncle are some of my earliest memories. Since my college days, I always wanted to, but was never fully convinced of, pursuing a career in wildlife. From whatever I’d heard, it was a difficult path to forge a financially sustainable future. Even so, I pursued short-term courses, volunteering and internship opportunities that allowed me to develop my natural history knowledge, photography and cinematography. Professionally, I continued to pursue marketing roles in various organisations until I was 29.
My family, especially my wife, Deepi, supported, coaxed and partnered with me into forming a plan for my foray into wildlife. In mid-2017, we started creating the building blocks of a wildlife tourism outfit. In March 2018, we launched Wilderlust Expeditions, announcing the first two tours in April, hoping to provide the ultimate safari experience. These initial tours promptly failed, with not a single booking!
In hindsight, I severely underestimated the whirlwind world of safari permits and their scarce supply in India’s premier national parks and tiger reserves. I underestimated how much all the overheads would add up such as hiring external expertise or bookings at luxury lodges. My research had come up short against the many practical realities of hotel bookings and their terms and conditions. But perhaps what I struggled with most was finding suitable clients who would be interested in such an experience. Even friends who had evinced support before the launch were not convinced to join when I shared the details of these tours.
We went back to the drawing board and took a good, hard look at the safari experience we had curated. We started cutting out the frills. What additional benefits could I offer? Good-quality photographs of the wildlife people would see on safari – a digital photo album. Viewing wildlife clearly, big and small – quality roof-prism binoculars for each guest. A way for guests to share their exciting time in the wild with their friends and family – a safari movie! And the essentials, value-for-money safari lodges with air-conditioned rooms and comfortable beds, clean washrooms and tasty, homely food. Slowly, the elements began coming together and I began marketing anew. In May 2018, I was finally able to get participants for our first tour to the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve. In June 2018, we did our second one at Kanha with the family of the guests from our first tour. Their feedback of the experience was overwhelming and very encouraging. But then, over the next several months, no new bookings…
I struggled and burned away money on digital marketing over the next few months. We received queries, but not a single conversion. Optimising the digital communication experience was the key and we worked relentlessly on it. Over the next few months, we were able to get bookings for some tours sporadically but it was only from April 2019 that our communication experience grew more refined and we gained some consistency in managing to book tours back-to-back. We slowly began building momentum and our progression has been steady thus far.
However, this is the period I became increasingly aware of systemic issues that lead to operational problems on our tours. The limited availability of jeep safari permits continued to be a highly stressful affair. Most guests coming on safari are not aware these need to be booked well in advance, with the result that late bookings would have us running from pillar to post for an elusive permit. The permits which are released by various state forest departments online, often get snapped up quickly, especially on long weekends and holidays. Booking a permit on the day you arrive or slightly before is not an activity I would personally recommend for most popular tiger reserves.
To complicate matters, limited online reading and ‘helpful’ information from family and friends meant guests would arrive with certain pre-conceived notions on where and how safaris should be done. To avoid such scenarios, we made a safari orientation an absolute must during the start of every experience before any safari was undertaken, to provide the correct information and also to clear any queries that might arise while on safari.
With regard to the local partners including drivers, guides, safari lodges, transport providers, I was luckier. I met with some wonderful folks who guided me well and added tremendously to my knowledge of safari operations as well as of wildlife behaviour. We are associated with them to this day, having developed a bond of trust and a passion to ensure a great guest experience.
That being said, we did have a few hiccups too. Drivers not turning up at the designated time, hotels not honouring the booking terms. Spending time and interacting with fellow tour operators and on-ground partners, I understood that this malaise afflicted the entire supply chain and was not limited to any one facet, including tour operators themselves. Every month or so, I see at least two to three new organisations popping up on my social media feed. Because of the sector’s unorganised nature, it can be a tricky space for a prospective traveller to navigate.
Another aspect of our Indian safaris as a tourist, is the focus on sighting the tiger and it being the mark of “successful” tour. Many well-informed nature and wildlife enthusiasts have cultivated a holistic view of the safari experience in our tiger reserves, enjoying everything the forest has to offer and not focusing so much on the tiger. It is logical to suggest that we should orient guests more to cultivating such an attitude. And while it is true, I only partly agree with it. I do not think we should underestimate the draw and the atmosphere that is created to view a big cat in the wild while on safari in India. The wonderful tracking skills employed by the local guides and drivers as they trace and age pug-marks, their keen sense of hearing alarm calls of various wildlife, and their deep knowledge of the animal’s territory and behaviour is something absolutely magical to observe. It is my earnest belief the spine-tingling excitement this tracking experience offers is something that makes a safari in India’s tiger reserves truly unique, and we should never shy away from treasuring and highlighting it. We can enjoy all the jungle has to offer, while also immersing ourselves in all that is special on the trail of a tiger! This approach has its risks given the nature of wildlife sightings, but I genuinely believe it elevates the level of engagement on the experience.
A tigress and her cub photographed in the Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan. Home to 86 tigers, it is one of India’s most popular destinations for visitors keen to see the big cat, attracting over four lakh tourists every year. Photo: Shashank Birla
Starting Wilderlust Expeditions showed me what tourism can accomplish for conservation. One can argue some of our country’s most popular tiger reserves might also be among the best Protected Areas. Tourism revenues help forest departments scale the protection infrastructure and better equip the foot soldiers of these Edens. I have seen insurance schemes, necessary rations, soft loans made possible for the forest department staff from the revenue received from the gate permit fees and the sale of various tourism-related products and services. Employment grows in more ways than one, with natural history training programmes for the guides and soft skills training for the hotel staff. Vocations of all manner have a demand – carpenters, plumbers, electricians all silently working towards the steadily developing tourism infrastructure around these reserves. A host of businesses develop too, catering to this demand that would never have existed otherwise. The difference is palpable. There is a financial tangibility and the promise of livelihoods for those living around our country’s diverse wilderness and thus, the creation of a strong stake in protecting it. I can confidently share that I see this stake personified in the thousands of conversations I have had with those staying in the vicinity of these reserves.
The tourism model isn’t perfect, far from it. We still have several issues that genuinely need deeper consideration. Waste management, for one. The existing infrastructure and stringent enforcement of rules regarding the use and disposal of plastic have certainly helped. It will need our constant vigilance to ensure the habitat remains pristine while catering to tourism footfalls. The policies, execution and monitoring of the safaris is something I may not be able to opine in full here, but suffice it to say, need robust discussion and debate among all stakeholders on what is the best way forward to ensuring a smooth, stress-free visitor experience while balancing the needs, safety and security of wildlife.
A herd of elephants cool off in a waterbody in the Kaziranga National Park, Assam. Post the pandemic, a larger number of domestic visitors have begun exploring India’s wilds in search of pristine habitats and unique experiences. Photo: Shashank Birla
When the pandemic hit in 2020, we were completely blindsided and it was nothing less than a devastating tidal wave for the tourism community. Every member of the fledgling wildlife tourism community was forced to fend for themselves. Yet, it was heartening to see how many united in helping each other. Through providing financial and medical assistance to those on the ground, extensive discussions on the execution of tourism in a post COVID world, the wildlife tourism community held strong. Most importantly, it led to a rare mobilisation of us wildlife tour operators, and my earnest hope is that we can build on this.
As the so-called ‘revenge tourism’ phenomenon came through, with international restrictions still in place, our national parks and tiger reserves saw domestic visitors eager to get their first breath of jungle air. As a community, I believe few of us can express in words the deep relief and hope we felt at this time.
This hope is something we nurture to this day. But will we be able to have more people identify and nurture the positive connection between tourism and conservation in a country where more often than not, the two are painted as opposed to each other? I’ll be here, trying. One guest at a time.