Forbes : Inside Tiger Tops: The First Ethical Elephant Camp In Nepal
Tiger Tops has been a pioneering force in responsible tourism ever since its establishment in the southern jungles of Nepal in 1964.
Today, the high-end safari company is dedicated to conservation in the region (check out their work with vultures and tigers here), providing travelers with the first ethical elephant experience in the nation.
At Tharu Lodge, in Chitwan National Park, there’s no shortage of elephant activities for the adventurous traveler—our personal favorite being elephant sundowners.
We caught up with Tiger Tops Director Jack Edwards, who at 31 is now the second generation to run the family-owned business, which has two outposts in southern Nepal: Tharu Lodge, in Chitwan, and Karnali Lodge in Bardiya National Park. We discussed responsible tourism, conservation, and the inspiration behind the first ethical elephant experience in the country. Read on, and prepare to start planning your next trip.
How did your family originally get involved with Tiger Tops, and Nepal in general? I understand you were raised in the jungle, would love to hear the backstory.
Dreaming of seeing more of the world, my father Jim drove overland from Stockholm with the aim of reaching Melbourne Australia for a Saab marketing initiative. When he reached Delhi, he met Prince Basundhara of Nepal, who invited Jim to the kingdom in May of 1962. Captivated by the beauty of the country, Jim decided this was where he wanted to live.
In 1964, Jim, a keen adventurer, teamed up with American anthropologist turned wildlife ecologist, Charles (Chuck) McDougal and started the first wildlife tourism company, Nepal Wildlife Adventure, to operate jungle treks, fishing, and hunting expeditions.
A few years later, Jim heard of Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge, a small hunting camp in the southern jungles that was failing. Jim and Chuck bought the company in 1971, ceasing all hunting activities and turning it into the famous conservation tourism model that we see today. He continued to live in Nepal until his death in 2009. He raised four children here, of which I am the youngest. I was raised both in Kathmandu and the jungle, later being sent to boarding school in the UK to further my education.
After your father acquired Tiger Tops, he turned it from hunting to a game-viewing lodge. What is the history of the lodge?
The conservation tourism model that my father created was hugely popular with travelers with a sense of adventure. Tourism in Nepal was a very new concept since the country was only open to foreign visitors as late as the early 1950s, which added to the allure. Throw in exotic animals, treehouse living, and an authentic jungle experience; this combination meant the company grew significantly in the 70s and 80s. In that time, two other lodges were built by Jim, namely Tharu Lodge and Karnali Lodge. These are the two current locations that we work from today, and we still abide by the strict sustainability focus that was created over the years by Jim and Chuck.
My father continued to expand the business into other areas of adventure tourism by acquiring Mountain Travel Nepal (Nepal’s first trekking company) and starting Himalayan River Exploration (Asia’s first white water rafting company). He was then asked by the Indian government to build their first wildlife camps in various national parks across the country. His vision and pioneering spirit were truly remarkable.
What was the safari experience like during those days?
In the early days following the conversion from hunting to viewing, the same methods used for hunting were used to spot animals. This included corralling game with elephants, the building of hides, and baiting of buffalos to lure big cats.
As our knowledge grew and attitudes changed, we refined the way we conducted safaris. Up until 2016, elephant safaris we the preferred method of spotting game, and these safaris were the most popular activity with our guests.
Within the country, I hope that Tiger Tops can continue to help protect our wild spaces and provide authentic and unforgettable experiences for our guests for many years to come.
Where were you working before Tiger Tops, and what brought you back to Nepal? Had you always had the desire to work in the family business?
I always knew I would return to Nepal one day and be involved in conservation tourism one way or another. However, I decided whilst studying Zoology at Edinburgh University that I wanted to experience something completely different before returning to the family business.
I went to work in finance, culminating in spending 5 years working for Rothschild Bank in Singapore. It was an incredible experience working for such a historic and reputable family business. However, I was not passionate about the industry itself, and I longed to return to Nepal. I was offered this opportunity in 2017 when I returned and started working for Tiger Tops.
Growing up around elephants, did you have an idea you’d want to dedicate yourself to promoting their welfare and ethical tourism?
Growing up surrounded by elephants seemed so normal to me at the time. Obviously, on reflection, my childhood was rather unique. The welfare of our herd was always a priority, and I believe we had (and continue to have) the healthiest herd of captive elephants in the country.
Ethical animal tourism is a new phenomenon, so I can’t say that this was always something in our minds. We had working elephants that served a purpose (to take guests on safari), but the welfare of these working elephants was always a top priority. I have so many fond memories of growing up in the jungle with our elephants – too many to list, in fact. Being able to spend so much time surrounded by nature and wildlife is something I relish to this day.
Were you always so passionate about conservation and sustainability?
Conservation and sustainability are the lifeblood of our business. They were both instilled into me at such a young age. Through being taught constantly save water, learning about organic farming, and reduction of waste to working with the elephants, assisting our tiger trackers and naturalists in the jungle, my exposure to these concepts was continuous right throughout my childhood. Even today, we are constantly looking to innovate on these fronts. Our company wouldn’t exist without the foundation of what we call responsible tourism.
I have so many fond memories of growing up in the jungle with our elephants. Being able to spend so much time surrounded by nature and wildlife is something I relish to this day.
What was the thought process behind the development of the ethical elephant program?
Whilst I feel our treatment of our herd has always been top of class, the understanding of elephant husbandry across the continent is still very poor. A consciousness around welfare and the way we used our elephants resulted in the company changing our approach. Our philosophy now is to provide the most natural life for our elephants and giving them the highest welfare standards possible, whilst providing our guests with an unforgettable elephant encounter.
As such, in 2015, we decided to stop all elephant-back safaris due to the stress it caused our herd to encounter dangerous wildlife in an unnatural way. Instead, we concentrated on providing our guests with a more immersive experience that imposed far less of a burden on our elephants. In addition, we decided to drastically improve the stabling conditions by building large, spacious corrals over 18 acres of our property for our herd to roam, socialize, and relax.
We aim to give our guests the most personal and meaningful experience with our elephants and allow them to connect with the elephants in a more profound but unobtrusive way. This is still so new for us and is continuing to develop. But, we are very satisfied with the way our guests have reacted to the changes, and excited for what the future holds.
We are particularly proud of the fact that World Animal Protection lists Tiger Tops as the only operation in Nepal and one of only thirteen operations in the whole of Asia that meet their strict welfare criteria.
Have other groups or organizations reached out to you about duplicating your ethical elephant model?
Yes, we have had a number of other elephant owners visit our property to replicate our model. We are very happy that there is a positive shift in the attitudes of elephant owners and their approach to welfare/husbandry standards.
We aim to give our guests the most personal and meaningful experience with our elephants and allow them to connect with the elephants in a more profound but unobtrusive way.
Some would argue that there is no such thing as an ethical animal experience when they’re working or in captivity; however, you mentioned that working elephants tend to live longer than other elephants. Why do you think that is?
In the future, we all hope that there can be a large healthy population of wild elephants in the region. However, as it stands, wild elephant populations in this part of the world are severely under threat. We believe that a captive population is essential for a strong and varied gene pool and can be used for future re-wilding initiatives and seen in certain countries around the world with other species (though this is very far off at the moment here in Nepal). Many captive elephants here in Nepal are in a unique situation, where they are exposed to their natural habitat on a daily basis, and even interact with the wild population. (The two calves born on-site at Tiger Tops were both fathered by wild bulls).
For the time being, we are focusing on providing our captive elephants with the highest possible welfare standards. By creating an interactive but less invasive experience for people who have a keen interest in elephants, we have created a sustainable model where we can generate the required revenue to meet the significant costs of looking after our herd. A study in Indonesia showed that amongst captive elephants, those that were required to do high levels of physical exercise were far healthier than those in sanctuaries.
Whilst we are not condoning the use of elephants for strenuous physical labor such as logging, often, the so-called ‘sanctuaries’ have very poor living conditions for elephants. In the wild, Asian elephants walk an average of 10 miles per day and are active for over 20 hours. By keeping our elephants active, and as close to their natural environment as possible, we believe our herd are some of the healthiest and happiest in Nepal.
Tiger Tops doesn’t allow visitors to ride elephants, but their handlers do. Can you talk a bit about the tradition of the mahouts in the region?
Our mahouts continue to ride our elephants for safety reasons. Our elephants and our guests interact at certain points throughout the day on fodder collections trips, our walking safaris, and down at the river. Our extremely experienced mahouts are there to reassure our elephants and react appropriately when encountering wild game and other potentially hazardous scenarios.
We have some of the most experienced mahouts in Asia. The average tenure of our mahouts at Tiger Tops is over 15 years, with some working for us for over 35 years, often with the same elephant. The job comes with a very high level of respect from the Hindu communities as elephants and the elephant god Ganesh are revered by Hindus. This is a profession that is steeped in history and tradition, and we are proud to be supporting our team of 30 mahouts.
Our guests get to witness elephants grazing in the grassland, going on walks through the forest, and socializing in the Narayani river.
Growing up in the jungle, elephants were part of your daily life. Is that the experience you’re looking to give to your guests at Tharu? Do you think that immersion sets Tiger Tops apart from other elephant camps travelers could potentially visit in the region?
We are looking to give our guests an unforgettable, immersive, and educational encounter with elephants whilst providing our elephants with a high quality of life. Whilst there are some other great operations in Asia, I feel what sets us apart from the vast majority of camps is that our experiences occur for the most part in the elephant’s natural environment. Our lodge borders the jungles of Chitwan, and our experiences all occur in this environment. Our guests get to witness elephants grazing in the grassland, going on walks through the forest, and socializing in the Narayani river.
How do you maintain the balance between providing experiences that are exciting for guests while still being healthy and safe for the wildlife?
It is a process that has taken us four years to get to where we are and is still ever-evolving. We were in the business of providing elephant-back safaris for 50 years. We were the pioneers of elephant safaris in the early 70s, and from what I understood, it took many years to come up with the right formula. We were also the first operation in Nepal to cease safaris and are again pioneering a new immersive experience. Finding the right balance will take time, but we are definitely on the right path.
Our guests get to witness elephants grazing in the grassland, going on walks through the forest, and socializing in the Narayani river.
Can you share the experts that you consulted in the conservation field?
We have worked with dozens of conservation-focused entities or individuals in the past. WWF, Smithsonian, ZSL, Jane Goodall, Himalayan Tiger Foundation, International Trust for Nature Conservation, the National Trust for Nature Conservation, to name a few.
Additionally, we have worked with some of the most highly respected elephant experts with experience in veterinary sciences, behavioral experts, welfare, husbandry, training, and even an elephant physiotherapist, to name a few.
I know that you have elephant researchers currently working with you in Nepal. What research they are conducting?
There is so little known about captive elephants and how to handle, treat, and look after them correctly. This is compounded by an enormous amount of misinformation being disseminated through animal rights organizations and social media channels that the general public has a very warped understanding of the reality. As such, we have decided to invite some of the leading elephant scientists around the world to help understand our herd better and form the basis of our approach through scientific fact.
Currently, we have Hong Kong University professor, Cambridge University graduate, and Fulbright scholar, Dr. Hannah Mumby, at our Tharu Lodge to undertake some very interesting behavioral related studies on our herd.
Additionally, there’s a school on the property for local children. Do you educate students about the importance of protecting wildlife?
The brainchild of Ursula Rosenburg of Swiss Air and the founder of Tiger Tops, Jim Edwards, the Tiger Tops Swiss Air Preschool enrolls disadvantaged children from various ethnic communities (Mushahar, Bote, Tharu, Kammi, Damai, Gurung, Kamal, etc.). Students are selected on the basis of their financial and nutritional needs with the aim of preparing them for their journey through the Nepalese government schooling system. This free head start gives them the skills and confidence they need to carry on with their education throughout primary and secondary schools. The children’s’ ages range between four and ten-years-old.
Tiger Tops Tharu Lodge supports the program through fundraising, administrative and logistical support and by providing conservation and nature-based education programs throughout the year. Running for the last 23 years, we are extremely proud of what has been achieved at the school, the longevity of the initiative, and the positive effects it has had on the community.
What do you hope to be the legacy of Tiger Tops in Nepal tourism and elephant conservation at large?
We are entering a transitional period of travel where the focus on sustainability and traveling responsibly is becoming so important. Tiger Tops has been preaching this ethos for the last 50 years, and we are thrilled that the concept is taking off across Nepal and the continent. Within the country, I hope we can continue to help protect our wild spaces and provide authentic and unforgettable experiences for our guests for many years to come. We are pioneers in this country, and I hope that we can continue to help innovate for the tourism industry here going forward. I also hope many more companies adopt the same sustainability-focused approach.
With regards to our elephants, I hope that our new model of working with captive elephants can be a standard-bearer for other elephant owners in the country who are skeptical about making the transition to a more welfare focused approach.
Read the full article here: Inside Tiger Tops: The First Ethical Elephant Camp In Nepal