- Environment & Community
Landing on their feet
There are growing numbers of India's graceful tigers, renewed lion habitats in Africa and united efforts to bring the elusive leopards of Sri Lanka back from the brink. Delve into these labours of love that prove conservation of the world's big cats is down to more than just feline-famous luck.
According to Japanese legend, it was the wave that caught the man's attention – an unlikely gesture to come from cat. Intrigued, he walked towards it, only to narrowly be missed by lightning striking the exact spot he'd been stood. Since then, the iconic lucky kitty (or maneki-neko) has been a dear tale in the island nation’s folklore. They’re not alone in their fondness for our whiskered friends either. From the Norse goddess Freya’s chariot pullers gifted to her by Thor, to symbols of divinity and protection for the Ancient Egyptians, felines have been intrinsically linked to humans for millennia, whether it be for their god-like qualities or simple companionship.
While domesticated cats may be a familiar sight in UK gardens, elsewhere their larger cousins reign. They may be bigger, but the symbiotic relationship is still pivotal. Where these apex predators roam, ecosystems are balanced, controlling species populations and keeping the food chain firmly linked. Now, after years of persecution, the race is on across India, Sri Lanka and the African continent to turn the tides and protect these all-important animals. But while it’s the permanent boots on the ground that keep these initiatives flourishing, travellers also play a vital role – and it’s as easy as hopping aboard a jeep.
A national treasure
An amber glint behind grass, soft shoulders hiding a fierce might, movements as fluid as a stream; it’s little wonder why India bestowed the title of national animal onto its precious Bengal tigers. A symbol of grace, agility and power, the pure strength of these big cats is palpable even when gazing wide-eyed from the safe confines of a safari jeep. It’s a stark contrast to the guide explaining that since the end of the 19th century, these creatures have been vulnerable to threats like poaching and habitat damage. All is not lost though.
Celebrating its 50th year in 2023, the country’s ‘Project Tiger’ has turned the fates of their beloved Bengals around. Nine designated reserves have become 53, and good intentions have grown into a current population of over 3,000 and counting. Now home to approximately 75% of the world’s tigers, the chances of catching a glimpse of one in India’s wildernesses are pretty good, especially when staying in a base where they’re practically on the doorstep.
Sitting pretty a mere 30 minutes from Ranthambore National Park (one of the original nine reserves), the lovingly restored palatial refuge of Six Senses Fort Barwara makes heading out to see the conservation work effortless. In-the-know naturalists lead the way on game drives, armed with facts about the tigers and how the park preservation has helped not only their striped neighbours but other flora and fauna too. Later, back within the hotel’s 700-year-old walls, a new yet not dissimilar chapter emerges. Staying here helps to fund the hotel’s rewilding project which is leading a nature metamorphosis in the surrounding area. Aiding the project’s ongoing legacy while simultaneously creating one of their own.
Great minds think alike
Across the Indian Ocean another legacy was born and has since expanded to fund 150 projects in 28 countries. Some 13 years ago, dynamic duo Dereck and Beverly Joubert, both National Geographic Explorers, started the Big Cats Initiative – an organisation aiming to protect wild felines and their ecosystems primarily in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Kenya. The group’s work is multi-faceted, but two core threads focus on land and locals. First, acquiring and safeguarding areas once used for hunting to allow big cats like lions and cheetahs to breathe freely. And second, spending time shaping communities with workshops on how to balance living with these animals via the Great Plains Academy.
However, Dereck believes “the biggest threat isn’t hunters, poachers or poison makers – it is our own complacency, the lazy hope that someone else is taking care of the great beasts of Africa.” So, the foundation created a group of properties to showcase their efforts and immerse guests into the wilderness they’re working to protect. One of which is Relais & Châteaux’s first accredited property in Botswana Zarafa Camp; a 1920s-style safari dreamland languishing on the banks of the Zibadianja Lagoon, in Selinda Reserve. From here, ailurophiles donning shades of khaki head out into the varied terrains, passing zebra and wildebeest as casually as you would sheep on a moor, in search of Africa’s most renowned big cats. Small groups make these safaris an intimate affair, as if seeing the initiative’s work first hand is a privilege reserved just for the camp’s guests.
While they’re playing the long game, conservation efforts have already resulted in a healthy population of predators. So as rangers wax lyrical about the initiative and local lion prides, eyes are best kept trained on the open panoramas – there’s a really good chance of a private performance of their hunting prowess in action.
Restoring a rarity
Sharing the lush environment of Sri Lanka’s esteemed hunter, the leopard, conjures up a similar air of closeness in the curve of the country’s teardrop. These elusive animals are rapidly declining not only through habitat loss but commercial hunting for furs and traditional medicines. They’re becoming even harder to find, with the current wild population sitting at around 800 and the numbers are still decreasing.
This makes the Leopard Research Centre’s already crucial work in Yala National Park even more vital. Resplendent Ceylon’s Wild Coast Tented Lodge teamed up with Dilmah Conservation in 2020 to create the centre as the island’s first private conservancy. This five-researcher strong non-profit works in harmony with the government to introduce visitors to their core objectives – to fund, facilitate and support projects surrounding its namesake. A passion for the work goes right to the top, with Malik J. Fernando, Resplendent Ceylon’s Managing Director saying, “I am happy that [we] took the lead to create a private protected area supported by scientific research, a new conservation model that could be scaled to protect our natural assets and support the work of government agencies”.
Visiting the centre itself opens up a world of knowledge, providing insights into the habitat relished by both lodge guests and leopards and putting into perspective the impact of the behind-the-scenes activities in a way game drives can’t. From their extensive research, which has developed a process to identify individual leopards, to their community work educating the younger generations about them. So, when you’re curled up beneath the domed ceiling of a tented suite taking in the sunset soundtrack of the outside wilds, know that with continued support, the shadowy silhouette that has just slinked into the undergrowth will continue to do so in precious protected peace.
While taking part in initiatives around the globe will leave a satisfied cat-got-the-cream smirk in the short term, the lasting effect is one savoured and appreciated for years. It is the belief of some that cats symbolise rebirth and regeneration, so to help these beautiful creatures thrive once more seems entirely fitting.