The Storytellers of Kabini

The family-owned Red Earth Resorts are using tourism to educate and make people aware about conservation and the need to preserve India’s depleting forestland and wildlife.

We’re driving through the serpentine trails of the Nagarhole National Park in Karnataka. We can hear the rustled scurrying of its inhabitants and hoping they’ll show themselves to us — they oblige. We spot three elephants in a small clearing and we’re transfixed. Further down the path, a family of deer grazes on the wild grass and langurs perform aerial acrobatics to the music of a winter breeze as it creates a psithurism orchestra in the trees they live in. If you’re lucky, and look hard, very hard, you’ll see eyes lurking in the core of the shrubbery. The Maharaja of the jungle watches his kingdom — Rudyard Kipling called him Shere Khan. 

“Tiger, tiger burning bright.” (Photo: Aditya Ravi)
“Tiger, tiger burning bright.” (Photo: Aditya Raman)

The folklore of the jungles of India is as ancient as our Vedas. The heroes of India’s greatest epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana were exiled to the forest and made their home there. They found their moksha in these verdant lands. Unhappily, modern Indians have become disconnected with our land and soil and these neglected jungles and wildlife are fast disappearing with the appearance of luxury hotels and irresponsible tourism. 

The people at Red Earth Resorts have taken it upon themselves to change this careless, reckless attitude and integrate wildlife tourism with conservation. I met the matriarch of Red Earth, Rachel Ravi, when I was scouting for locations to do shoots for SanātanaYoga. She kindly invited us to their property in Kabini. It lies on the periphery of the Nagarhole National Park and on the banks of the Kabini River in Karnataka. I went there with the intention of a yoga shoot but after meeting Rachel and her family, the journalist in me couldn’t resist telling their story and sharing everything that this family does for the conservation of India’s forestlands.

A langur mama and her baby. (Photo: Aditya Ravi)
A langur mama and her baby. (Photo: Aditya Raman)

“I grew up in the forests. Three generations of my family have devoted their lives to nature. It started with my father, then my husband and me, and now our children. My father was in the Indian army so that gave us access to the deepest core of the forests across India. The sights and smells of the jungle are a part of me. I cannot imagine life outside the jungle,” explains Rachel. Her husband, Ravi, who she knows since she was 11 years old, shares her passion for wildlife. “There is a part of me that is uncontrollable and untameable, and Ravi understands that. He respects it. We’re a very close-knit family and we ensured our children learned to love and respect nature as much as we do,” says Rachel.

“Ravi comes from a plantation background and we spent many years of our early married life in Papua New Guinea. My children grew up on that Island and so they’ve known the wild, tribal life since they were toddlers. But as the children were growing up, we thought of moving back to India to give them a modern, academic education. At the time, we thought we were doing what was best for them. We moved to Bangalore and enrolled them in an international school but they just couldn’t fit in. My older son, Aditya, was too much of a wild child and couldn’t relate to city life or city kids. My younger son, Ved, has always been artistically inclined (he’s an actor in London) and couldn’t understand a curriculum-based education. After a few years in Bangalore, we realised we need to return to nature and were just not built for city life,” recalls Rachel.

At the time, her older son, Aditya, was 17 and decided he wanted a career in hospitality. This gave them the opportunity to return to the wild. “My earliest memory of happiness is exploring the highlands of Papua New Guinea on foot. Even in Karnataka, I explore the forest on foot and come face-to-face with elephants and various animals, and it’s how I want to spend the rest of my life; in nature with animals,” says Aditya, who manages the Red Earth properties in Wayanad, Kerala, and Kabini, Karnataka. He possesses his mother’s charming disposition and warmth — qualities that work perfectly for a host. His big-heartedness and love for hosting and entertaining is evident when you spend an evening with him at Kabini. He regales guests with tales of the jungle and his adventures in wildlife photography, which is his second love after the forest.

A tusker navigates his turf. (Photo: Aditya Ravi)
A tusker navigates his turf. (Photo: Aditya Raman)

Their relentless, devoted passion for wildlife resulted in the founding of Red Earth and the entire family knew their resorts would have to be an ode to nature. “We have four Red Earth properties in India — Wayanad (Kerala), Tadoba (Maharashtra), Gokarna (Karnataka) and Kabini (Karnataka). All our properties have been built in synchrony with nature, especially the property at Kabini. All 20 cottages at Kabini have been built using the rammed earth technique which is natural and porous so it keeps the space warm in winter and cool in the summer. The roofs are made with two layers of bamboo matting and 9-inch thick elephant grass. In fact, this form of skilled green building is a dying art form and we’re trying to sustain and revive local skills with our properties,” shares Rachel.

Reiterating her conviction, Ravi explains how they’ve used the Red Earth properties to create job opportunities for the local communities and the village folk who live around the forest. “We try, as far as possible, to empower the local communities that live in and around the forests. For example, our property in Tadoba is run by the Gond tribe that is indigenous to the area. By educating and empowering the local people to earn a living, we can also tackle the major problem of poaching. People poach because it’s easy money. When they have an alternative source of livelihood, the poaching will stop. The government should find ways of giving these tribes an alternative source of income and the poaching will automatically stop,” advises Ravi.

A tiger looking for the perfect tree bark to give its claws a natural pedicure. (Photo: Aditya Ravi)
A tiger looks for the perfect tree to give its claws a natural pedicure. (Photo: Aditya Raman)

Aditya agrees with his father and feels that the policymakers of our country are making decisions and policies without any ground experience. “The people who make the forest laws in our country haven’t even been to the forest. They need to take responsibility and understand the forest and her people to make the right policies and decisions. I have explored the jungle on foot. I track animals on foot and I have felt one with the forest,” says Aditya. “This is the reason I have an in-depth insight into what works and what doesn’t. The government needs to have a more hands-on, experienced-based policy-making approach to wildlife and forest conservation.”

 Saaya, the only black panther in Nagarhole National Park. (Photo: Aditya Ravi)
Saaya, the only black panther in Nagarhole National Park. (Photo: Aditya Raman)

Rachel feels that tourism can actually help if approached in the right way. “I feel that the government should actually open up the core area of the forests to safaris. Use the safaris as patrolling vehicles. We simply do not have the manpower to watch over such large tracts of land. Animals are not afraid of tourist jeeps. If they were, we wouldn’t have so many sightings. Tourism can be integrated into conservation. Another important and essential thing the government should do is put a complete ban on allowing commercial activities inside the forest. The good thing about Karnataka is that all commercial establishments are only allowed outside the forest and we’re very strict about noise and music. Do not disturb the forest. Unfortunately, corrupt luxury resorts and properties are muscling their way inside the forest areas and disturb nature with loud music and badly behaved guests. When you encroach on the land meant for animals, you take away their home. There has to be a complete ban on this if we want our jungles and wildlife to flourish,” says Rachel.

It’s up to the younger generation to make this change and Aditya is a pioneer of this conservation movement. “I try to educate and sensitise the guests at all our properties to the magnificence and importance of the wild. While we do conduct safaris, the experience of exploring these places on foot and being eye-to-eye with an elephant or tiger is incomparable. The forest isn’t just the wild cats. She is alive. She is an entity and must be loved, nurtured and understood in her entirety. Even the trees are important. If you observe closely, you might see claw marks on the barks of a tree. This is how tigers maintain their claws. When they hunt and kill, the flesh is stuck between their claws and they clean it with the trees. So every part of the forest is interdependent, and all if it has to be protected,” convinces Aditya.

For more information or to stay at Red Earth properties, visit https://www.redearth.in/

January 18, 2021
Photo (lead image) Simon Meier

Leave a Reply