Manav Khanduja of Pugdundee Safaris in India on the Importance of Locals in Conservation and Ecotourism

Published 21/05/2020
Manav Khanduja interview

Manav Khanduja interview

At a time of environmental destruction worldwide, conservation and sustainability are the need of the hour – especially in tourism, whose unsustainability has been made brutally apparent by the coronavirus pandemic. Thankfully, examples of good practice in tourism are increasing. One ecotourism venture which is achieving the triple bottom line of sustainability is Pugdundee Safaris in India; a tour operator dedicated to the conservation of forests and wildlife and at the same time, to providing memorable ecotourism experiences to travellers.

The company’s director, Manav Khanduja, in this interview, stresses the importance of locals in Pugdundee Safaris’ mission to protect and safeguard forests – and how they go about it. Manav also explains the measures taken at Pugdundee regarding the coronavirus pandemic, to stay resilient and to keep the employee spirit high.

Manav, your commitment to sustainability and conservation is evident through your work at Pugdundee Safaris. What inspired you to pursue environmental law and dedicate your career to conservation and responsible travel?

I grew up in a small town in the countryside, in the lap of nature which naturally translated into a lifelong attachment with nature. Then a chance visit to Corbett National Park at the age of twelve left an indelible mark. Thus followed the desire to be one with wildlife and quench the thirst to learn more about wildlife.

Pursuing environmental law was more of an impulsive decision though. The Internet was in its nascent stage, so learning and information about wildlife and conservation were relatively limited. This course promised to take one behind the scenes of conservation, and it delivered.

This built a foundation for life-long learning and opened up many opportunities, including assisting in fieldwork with projects related to Great Indian Bustard in Rajasthan and Bengal Florican in Dudhwa National Park.

How did you and your team develop Pugdundee Safaris to become India’s leading responsible safari company?

At Pugdundee, we are committed to guest satisfaction, being socially responsible, and taking care of the fragile environment we operate in. We believe the right balance of these and a life-long commitment to the same has helped us grow and sustain the business.

Involving the local communities in our sustainable conservation journey has been one of the key pillars of our ecotourism model.

Which aspects of running the business sustainably do you find the most challenging? And how do you overcome those challenges?

Wildlife and ecotourism is a passion and I am fortunate to be able to enjoy every bit of it. Nothing is taxing and there is no day without a spring in the feet.

But in all fairness to your question, challenges are part of one’s life journey, and someone rightly said, “Challenges are what make life interesting and overcoming them is what makes them meaningful.”

Keeping a good balance between guest expectations and sustainability is a challenge we face regularly. After all, every guest is different, so the challenges are novel. From questions like why we don’t have television, to such limited hours of dining, to no room service, to a limited menu, etc.

We have realised that keeping our communication channels open helps in handling situations like these easily. Briefing the guests and sharing relevant information starts at the time of bookings, reiterated in guest vouchers, the guests again briefed during check-in at the lodges, which is further followed by brochures, pamphlets, and messages shared in our lodge premises.

The current coronavirus pandemic has been hitting the travel industry hard these past few weeks. How does it affect your business?

Businesses have been hit worldwide, especially the tourism and aviation industry. The low point for us is that these were our peak months when we do about 50% of our business. Wildlife tourism is seasonal in India and every year parks are closed during the monsoon between 1st July to 30th September. It seems we will now only open in October 2020 and we are hoping for work to pick up again by March 2021.

The road ahead may be challenging, yet not one that we won’t conquer. It is going to be a long fight against the debilitating virus. Getting our treasured guests back to us will be a slow winding process.

We have decided to take the majority of our team members along with us, with changes in payouts for everyone. We don’t wish to leave out any member of Team Pugdundee in these trying times.

The majority of the team is drawn from villages around our lodges. And this decision is so much in sync with their needs, as lack of payouts to them could even put conservation efforts at peril.

We are confident we will all rise like the phoenix and evolve through this situation, and the crisis will be behind us eventually. And as long as we all stick together and support each other as a global community, this too shall pass. We are in this together!

How are you utilizing the current downtime caused by the pandemic at Pugdundee?

The unprecedented lockdown and no guests in our lodges during the peak season have had a diverse impact on the team.  The biggest challenge is to keep the team in remote areas motivated and positive during these tough times.

Across all lodges a novel routine has been developed which focuses on Lantana removal, developing interactive butterfly gardens, maintenance work, and the day ends with sports and entertainment – movie time!

Lantana weed over the years has come up as a big challenge in protected and non-protected areas, pushing indigenous species back. We hope to eradicate it from our large estates and also in our neighbourhood during this period.

The naturalist team is focusing on creating interesting content for our blogs, based on their personal experiences.

We have also been preparing literature for our guests, and our marketing efforts are ongoing as we work on website upgrades and keeping in regular touch with our guests through our social media content.

Social sustainability is one of the keys to achieving sustainable tourism. How do you approach this at Pugdundee Safaris?

At Pugdundee we have divided sustainability into 5 Cs, and social sustainability is the foundation for all these Cs.

  • Customer – Customers by their visit are not only contributing to the lodge and the multiplier effects around all services but are also allowing us to introduce them to wildlife and conservation. As a responsible wildlife enterprise, we cash on this opportunity of having the guest with us for more than three days on average and ensure that we send them home as ambassadors for wildlife and conservation.
  • Conservation – Conservation of resources, the wildlife habitat around us, and social conservation are critical. At Pugdundee Safaris we maintain a balance, so we can lead by example.
  • Community – Our strength comes from our team. More than 70% of the team are from nearby villages. Many youngsters have grown with us to become managers and supervisors, inspiring a brigade of fellow villagers. Training, capacity building, and inclusiveness in decision-making are an integral part of this process.

    I strongly believe in the inclusiveness of local communities that inhabit the areas around our lodges. Involving the local communities in our sustainable conservation journey has been one of the key pillars of our ecotourism model. We currently work closely with village schools, panchayats, and local events.

  • Construction – We not only believe in choosing local and green material for construction, but our lodges are built using maximum local manpower. This ensures they become part of the family, long before guests start coming. Many construction workers graduate and join the main team of the lodge when it gets functional. This allows us the social license to operate, as local people are part of the process of any transformation and change, from the beginning.
  • Commitment – Our firm commitment to nature and people is a driving force and influences our decision-making. Four years back we committed to phasing out single-use plastic from our operations, and we have successfully managed to achieve the same. We have removed several products like bottled water, TetraPak packaging, small plastic containers for toiletries, etc., and thus saved over several hundreds of single-use plastic items. We are proud to now be 100% single-use plastic-free.

How do you monitor the impact of your business sustainability practices?

It is difficult to monitor the exact impact, but we have developed a broad framework – and the results have been very exciting. Some of the highlights are:

  • Lower cost of operations – Using local and greener products surely have its economic benefits. It significantly reduces the cost of operations and purchases.
  • Great for the environment – Less waste, more recycling and composting, low on carbon footprint – those are just some of the significant markers.
  • Higher guest satisfaction – Guests travelling to nature and wildlife reserves highly appreciate the differences created by the organisation. When we removed bottled water, we had anticipated a lot of resistance from guests. Much to our surprise, we haven’t had any guest asking for bottled water or other products which have been phased out. We have strengthened our communication for the same during check-ins and also in-house literature kept in the rooms. In fact, our guests seem to love this and are found appreciating these measures.
  • Higher repeat guests – With these changes, we have seen our repeat guests increasing, as they share the same philosophy. They all wish to travel and want to do so without the guilt, but the feel-good factor of contributing to sustainable living, even while travelling.
  • Lower turnover of staff and a happier team – Capacity building, inclusiveness, and involvement with their villages have made a remarkable difference in how our staff perceives the organisation. We feel fortunate to have changed their perceptions and they see in us an integral part of their lives.
  • Regular internal and external audits – agencies like TOFT- Tour Operators for Tigers help us to ensure that we are moving in the right direction.

With close to 12 years of experience with Pugdundee, how has your understanding of sustainability changed since you first got involved?

Initially, sustainability for me was limited to eco-friendly construction and about keeping our estates green with local species. Sustainability to me today is an ongoing process and a way of life. It’s about the choices we make every day.

People, climate change, and fight against single-use plastic are the issues that are closest to my heart.

Locals who have depended on the forests for generations and still dwell there, form the core of Pugdundee and we hope to get more and more of them involved with us. Working with villagers and local schools is an inherent part of our culture today. And it gives us an immense sense of satisfaction that we can make a difference.

Climate change is a reality and the dangers are lurking fairly close. We surely don’t need more forest fires, unprecedented floods, or freak weather to take the point home.

What we all need is to address the industry we are in and do our part. We may not be able to stop climate change but surely can help delay it.

We can make better choices in the hospitality industry like choosing natural forests over exotic gardens even in city hotels, turning more and more local, by promoting our local farm to table fare, which has so many options, and giving the exotic fare a miss. And of course reducing waste, which is ending in our landfills and minimising wastage in all areas.

If you had to pick one – which would you name as your most rewarding experience so far, linked to your work with Pugdundee?

India’s biggest challenge remains employment, and we regularly see an influx of millions of people coming to cities looking for work opportunities and ending in slums and shanties. The great migration during the COVID lock-down was a sad testament to it.

It is immensely rewarding to go to the back of beyond areas of my country and to create honourable work opportunities there. I am privileged to have this opportunity and to be able to make a difference in the lives of the locals.

Thank you, Manav.

Connect with Manav Khanduja on LinkedIn. Find out more about Pugdundee Safaris on Facebook.

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