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August 27, 2014

A Short history of Kabini - Early on

JLR would not have taken the shape it has now, if not for an invitation for Mr. Gundu Rao, the then Tourism Minister of Karnataka to visit Nepal for the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Conference in the year 1978. His accommodation was arranged at the Tiger Tops Jungle Lodges, a world - renowned wildlife resort in Chitawan National Park. The Minister was impressed by tourist operations in that country and the seed for a matchless idea was laid. It was apparent that the forests of Nagarhole were as wildlife rich, if not as diverse as the forests of Chitwan. Karnataka as a state had some of the most pristine forests and a high concentration of large mammals in India. If Nepal for its small size and limited forests could manage tourism professionally, it should be quite feasible for Karnataka to begin an initiative along similar lines. This set off a series of questions in his mind and he decided that Karnataka should host the best wildlife lodges in the world.

Genesis of JLR

The minister came back and initiated a process that was to be the single most influential tourism initiative in India during those days. He wrote to Tiger Tops, inviting them to start a similar venture in Nagarahole, Karnataka. A year later, a joint venture was agreed upon between the Government of Karnataka and Tiger Tops, and so was born ‘Jungle Lodges and Resorts’ in the year 1980. Tiger Tops delegated three people, Jim Edwards, Captain Gurung and Colonel Wakefield to go to Karnataka and set up the new initiative. Tiger Tops being a leading expert in the field of tourism contributed to the technical aspects of the project while all local support was provided by the Karnataka State Government. Finance came from the Karnataka Financial Corporation and Government of Karnataka as a loan. The shares were jointly held by Tiger Tops and Government of Karnataka.

Initially, Mastigudi, located inside the park, was selected as the site for operations, but later on, due to a number of reasons, it was shifted to its present location at Kharapura in the year 1982. The initial impression amongst the planners was that the site is beyond repair. But some strong resolve ensured that reconstruction started on a war footing and the buildings were soon restored to their original facade. John Sandy, a renowned engineer was the Chief Architect. Two new buildings were constructed with a capacity for 14 rooms. In 1984, Kabini River Lodge was put on the map and a new chapter on tourism had just begun.

Innumerable deadlines had to be met during the first few months. The challenge was met head on and soon progress was seen. Safari roads had to be planned, the wild grass was to be pruned, staff hired, tents had to pitched in, guests to be attracted and all this, while being kilometers away from the nearest town. Provisions had to be hauled in by public transport as invariably, there was a continuous shortage of fluid money.

The team faced untold hardships. Colonel Wakefield, for example had to stay in a tent for almost two years, as construction was still going on. It was never easy. There was local discontent to cope with as there was distrust about outsiders setting up camp in their area. However, during those days, as Colonel Wakefield recalled, JLR won a major battle with a unanimous resolution that excluding few necessary roles, the staff would be from within the local villages. Interview dates were announced and this set in motion a ripple effect, developing into an increased trust perception for JLR. From being seen as adversaries, they were accepted into the community, a trait that continues to this date.

Several people were roped in to train the staff. One was conducting English language classes, someone working on etiquettes and another discussing the wildlife of Nagarhole. Christina Martin from the USA trained the staff on housekeeping and cooking skill, John Sandy the architect ensured that the ethos of the old world remained. Guest Relation Officers made certain that the simple village staff matched up with the best when it came to hospitality.

Kabini was ready to welcome guests and bookings started trickling in. Tiger Tops took up the responsibility of marketing and Kabini with its abundant wildlife soon became known the world over. Guests began pouring in and there was a sudden increase in overseas bookings too. Kabini gained acceptance in the international fora of tourism. Dedicated foreign groups stayed for weeks at a time, providing much required income during those difficult days.