Guests arrive to the KAAV Safari Lodge in southern India with an appetite for a jungle adventure. Sujith Surendran makes sure they depart satiated and with a deeper understanding of the animals of his country — including the work being done to improve their lives.
A guide and naturalist at KAAV, Surendran is also a soft-spoken animal-rights activist who has spent years rescuing sloth bears from oppressive conditions often caused by human interaction.
“I feel by coming here I can at least put some of my conservation thoughts to my guests and we’ll see what happens,” Surendran says about the reason he decided to leave his role at the world’s second-leading sloth-bear rescue centre to join an eco-tourism business that attracts global travelers who may not always understand the challenges many animals in India face. “I can inject some education into my guests and that maybe can get them thinking about the animals.”
Surendran joined KAAV in 2018 and leads safari tours into Nagarhole National Park in the state of Karnataka. The park is 245 square miles (634 square kilometres) — roughly the size of the Hawaiian island of Molokai — and is part of Rajiv Gandhi National Park, which runs east into Tamil Nadu’s Mudumalai Forest and south into Kerala’s Silent Valley National Park. Together, the combined green spaces cover 965 square miles (2,500 square kilometres) and is home to an abundance of wildlife and native flora and fauna that creates the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.
Nagarhole contains 110 bengal tigers, a number that represents a nearly 30 percent increase from a 2014 census.
“If you save tigers you save everything else in the forest,” Surendran points out. “They are the kings of these forests, and they ensure there is order.”
The tigers are natural conservation managers, culling the jungle of deer populations that feast on the plants and grasses smaller creatures need to both survive and keep the ecosystem in harmony. It’s the tigers that visitors to KAAV are most eager to see but even if you miss out on a sighting — as my tour did — you still experience the beauty and wonders of Nagarhole.
The park’s annual spring elephant migration is the largest in the world, featuring a congregation of more than 1,200 pachyderms on the shores of the Kabini River. Peacocks are among the 300-plus species of birds in Nagarhole. Pop culture fans will be intrigued to see if they can glimpse the park’s sole black panther, who prowls the forest as if it was Wakanda and is not spooked by humans. Surendran nabbed a photo of the panther lunging out from behind a tree with mouth agape and teeth in a snarl. He says the sightings of the animal occur about twice per month.
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Along with an increase in the tiger population, wildlife management initiatives in Karnataka have created a safari program that limits interactions with animals. A maximum of 18 vehicles at a time are allowed into the 23-square-mile (60-square-kilometre) area that is reserved for safari game drives. Those 18 vehicles are split into two zones. The ones designated for Zone A cannot enter Zone B, and vice versa.
“One of the things that will not happen here which happens on safaris in northern India is you don’t see 50 vehicles around one tiger,” Surendran notes. “We want to not interfere with the animals.”
The government-run Jungle Lodges, which has accommodations at the park entrance, manages oversight of the park. Private companies such as KAAV must schedule their drives through Jungle Lodges.
While Jungle Lodges is a sprawling resort property, KAAV is refreshingly intimate. Built in 2011 by an architect from Kerala, the property is mindful of its environmental footprint, a key for attracting conservationists such as Surendran. Set amid banyan, jasmine, and bamboo trees, KAAV has four rooms, each with comfortable king beds and exquisite bathrooms, and two marvellously appointed tents. No more than 16 guests are allowed on the property per night.
The food program is a highlight as the kitchen team creates sensational meals featuring local ingredients. Fresh river fish, a range of curries, delectable dal (a thick gravy made from lentils), and Indian breads are items you will savour between game drives at Nagarhole.
The park, whose name means Cobra River because the Kabini waterway flows like a snake through it, is approximately 135 miles (220 kilometres) from Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka, and less than 55 miles (90 kilometres) from Mysore, the popular destination known for its palaces and a pace that is easy-going compared to other cities in the country. KAAV is a standout for several reasons: the boutique quality of its accommodations, the passion of its staff, and the feeling that they are making a difference, and so are you by choosing an ethical travel experience that excludes visits to zoos and those South Asian elephant camps notorious for mistreating animals.
“Some places are still like the olden days,” Surendran says about why animals continue to be exploited in some communities in India. “But there’s a reason for that and you have to let these people know why we need to change. That’s why I have gone into these villages and along with others we try to let them know. We don’t talk to the adults. It’s better to talk to the kids because they have a hold on the parents. So we go into the schools and give our seminars.”
His talks led to at least one dramatic moment when a boy, after hearing Surendran discuss animal rights, called the authorities. “He told a forest guard to stop his father, who was going into the park to snare animals in the wild,” Surendran says with a smile, knowing his education had made an impact. “And they arrested the father. I don’t think he was very happy with his son.”
MORE ABOUT KAAV SAFARI LODGE
Location: Malalli Cross, PO, Kabini, N Belathur, Karnataka (see map below)
Rates: The tents cost 18,300 Indian rupees (approximately $255 USD) per night; each of the four rooms costs 17,600 INR ($245 USD) per night. The rates include meals and non-alcoholic beverages. Safari drives and other activities are an additional charge. Children are not allowed as guests.
The Name: According to Surendran, KAAV is a reference to a spiritual place that many homes in India maintain in a backyard or green space for prayers or ceremonies.
This article is the first in an ongoing series on travel to India by Managing Editor Adrian Brijbassi, who was recently a visiting journalist of the state of Karnataka.