The Jawai region is home to one of the highest concentrations of leopards on earth, and outfits like Suján Jawai are doing their bit to ensure the animal’s future is here.
Over the nine years since the establishment of Camp Suján Jawai, its team of managers and staff has worked hard to boost tiger numbers, primarily by replanting former farmland with native scrub and grasses, to restore habitat and create wildlife corridors.
As a result of this relocation, the number of adult Jawai tigers has increased to 29 (up from 17 six years earlier), and they roam a protected area of about 70 square kilometres.
Camp efforts are key when you think about the broader context: A 2016 study in National Geographic It found that tiger populations are much more threatened than previously thought, given that they now occupy only 25 percent to 37 percent of their historical land range.
The regeneration also saw a 525 percent increase in terrestrial birds, and it is now home to more than 30 species of mammals, including hyenas, antelopes, Asian wildcats and Indian gray wolves.
Suján Jawai is one of three luxury safari camps in Rajasthan founded by Jaisal Singh, a conservationist and entrepreneur whose family has been in conservation for five generations. His wife, artist Anjali Singh, is also heavily involved in the layout and design throughout the camp.
Due to Relais & The Chateaux property dates back nearly a decade, and the COVID-19 lockdowns have given Suján the opportunity to modernize the campground and turn it into a year-round destination.
We’re among the first guests to try out the upgrade, which basically saw all 10 guest tents made more durable – they now have solid walls and doors to withstand the monsoon rains. Added a new private two-bedroom campground, Eden At Jawai, which has its own lounge and dining tents, as well as a private pool, butler and dedicated chef.
My “Rock” suite is a study in elegant simplicity. The solid walls are covered in white quilted cotton and decorated with a black and white tiger print. A black woven jute rug covers the floor, while crimson scattering throws and pillows inspired by bright red rapari turbans provide a pop of color.
Everything, I’m told, is made in-house under Anjali’s supervision, from the chairs and side tables, to the textiles and artwork. There is a rain shower and a large bathtub in the bathroom. Step through the sliding glass doors on deck, and you’ll discover a writing desk with pens and paper, and a bag full of watercolors, that must be inspiration. At some point, it might be.
But for now, I’m ready for that sunset.
I follow bush trails lined with head-high post-monsoon grasses to a duo of open-sided tents, home to bar and dining tents—more elaborate versions of my guest suite that open onto a central patio and pool.
With an ice-cold gin and tonic from the well-stocked bar in hand, I stroll through the billowing white curtains to the patio. As the sun sets behind the Aravalli Hills, one of India’s oldest mountain ranges, a staff member carefully places flickering lanterns around the patio, hanging them in the surrounding neem trees.
We soon meet Yusuf Ansari, Sujan’s vice president and director of wildlife experiences, wearing a belted safari jacket and a well-twisted mustache as well as his polished British accent.
We gather around a long table under the stars, for a traditional Rajasthani dinner made mostly from food grown in the organic kitchen gardens of Jawai, and on neighboring farms. Over the meal, Ansari – who describes himself as a ‘Mowgli’ who grew up in Ranthambore National Park – tells us more about the restoration work underway here.
Guests at Suján Jawai automatically make a “conservation contribution” in the form of $25 (US$37) per person per night that is funneled into conservation activities, such as replanting native herbs and herbs, opening caves and den sites that have been blocked off by farmers, and hiring Field guides to patrol for hunters.
Suján has also created several community development initiatives, including funding five schools and starting a free mobile medical unit. Aside from supporting people, these services “make protecting wildlife habitats and species an economic incentive for local communities,” says Ansari.
In other words, the more jobs the Suján provide to the community, and the more services they provide, the more investment they have in protecting the region’s precious flora and fauna.
Early the next morning, we set out in a custom safari jeep to see the results of these efforts; The crescent moon and stars are still bright in the sky.
As we crash along the dirt roads, Ansari points out the forest, explaining that it took two years of backtracking before life started to return. “Less than a decade ago, this was all under the plow, you’ve never seen a cheetah here,” he says, raising his voice over a chorus of insects, a sure sign of a thriving ecosystem.
When the sun rises, we pass a small white temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Along with the 300 temples and shrines like it dotted around the Gawai region, they are key to their preservation. “The tiger is not a sacred animal in Hinduism – but because it is always around these temples and shrines, the locals associate it with sacredness, so the leopards get a layer of protection,” Ansari explains.
The loss of a goat or sheep is therefore seen as an offering to the gods and the community does not take revenge, a perspective that has helped the tiger population thrive.
This respectful relationship between man and wildlife means that you see things here that you don’t see anywhere else. “Science tells us that cheetahs are isolated, but in 2015 we had 16 individuals living on the same hill, with four adults sharing the cubs,” Ansari says as we continue driving along a winding sandy river bed.
This has not been documented in any scientific study of leopards anywhere else. There is no rational biological explanation for this, except that cheetahs have learned to get along, realizing that, “We have a village down below, there is no hope of survival if we don’t get along. Why don’t we create little patches on this hill, and be nice to each other?”
As if on signal, a message crackles over the radio that there is a tiger nearby. We zoomed in on the Ferrari Safari up the hill. Behind us is the Jawai Bridge, or Dam, which was constructed in 1946 to supply water to Jodhpur. It is now a safe haven for migratory birds, including cranes from Siberia and flamingos from the western deserts.
But the real show is ahead: two Fenella cubs basking in the sun, barely giving us a second look.
It’s a much smaller thing, though, that brings home the benefits of conservation. At one point I looked down beside the pocket to see an ash-crested sparrow about seven centimeters high, leaning towards its nest of eggs hidden in a tuft of grass, sprouting from a crack in the granite.
I point to Ansari, who pauses before responding. “This one clump of grass provides all that support for life. If you multiply that in all of this,” he said, stretching his arms wide to take in the landscape before us, “it’s an enormous potential for regeneration.”
The writer has traveled from Qantas and Banyan Tours.
Need to know
- Sujan Joy | There are six Tented Rock suites, the Family Felidae suite, Eden at Jawai (their private camp), and the Royal Panthera suite, each with private decks overlooking the wilderness. Prices start at $1,200 in summer (May to September), $1,760 in high season (October to December, January to April), and $1,910 in the holiday season (December 21 to January 4).
- Inclusions | Meals, laundry, wifi, and 2 wilderness drives per day. Drinks, spa treatments and extra activities (horse riding, bike safaris, bullock cart rides, yoga) are extra cost. See thesujanlife.com.
- fly there | Qantas flies nonstop from Sydney to Bengaluru four times a week, then connects to Jodhpur through code partner IndiGo. Suján Jawai is a three-hour drive from Jodhpur. See qantas.com
- touring | Banyan Tours is a bespoke luxury India travel company that plans and operates India tours see banyantours.com.