Their work did not end when the sun went down. Within the military-style hierarchy of the Lodge, local staff ate in rotation in the elephant camp canteen and slept in quarters by the river. Naturalists and guest relations (such as me, at the time) stayed in rooms across the nullah but were expected to eat with the guests in the thatched rotunda, waiting until the circular tables of eight were filled, then slipping into an empty chair beside whoever looked the most interesting.
Our mostly male macho naturalists were the mainstay of the wildlife operations, and some of them lasted for many years. Their names echo down the decades, balancing with bravado behind the elephant howdahs, the high calibre cadre includes KK Gurung, Hashim Tyabji, Ashish Chandola, Manvijay Singh, Balaram Thapa, Devendra Basnet, Wangdi Gyamcho, Yam Gurung, Dinesh Thapa, Karan Rana, Devi Gurung, Suhail Gupta, Bhim Gurung, Dominique Ishmael, Pushpa Maskey, Kamal Rai, Surendra Rai, Mitra Paudel, Dhan Bahadur Tamang, Ramjan Chaudhary, Chandra Thapa, Dushyant Singh, Adam Barlow, John Roberts, Kalu Ram Tamang, Sukram Kumal, Pradeep Rana and more.
Rahul Brijnath, the charismatic nephew of Billy Arjun Singh, Dudwa tiger champion, worked all through the 1980s. He remembers being sent off to start up a new camp: “It was the making of me, but I was amazed that you and Jim trusted me to do it. I was 23 years old, arrived on a local bus, looked around at the empty clearing, took a deep breath, and set about the business of creating a luxury wildlife camp.”
Rahul now runs a global travel business with his English wife from their home in Devon. Others graduated away from tourism into conservation, academia, research or filmmaking. None will forget those years in the Nepal jungles which so strongly shaped their lives and careers.
Over the years many jungle romances ended in tears but a surprising number blossomed into marriage, including my visiting sister who still lives in the wilds of India. The list of Tiger Tops’ liaisons is long but to name a few: Mash married Narece, Toby married Laxmi, Bhim married Sandhya, Adam married Cristina, Pushpa married Dominique, Nick married Beant, and Jeff married Christina.
Jim Edwards, our big boss, used to proudly quote Prime Minister Indira Gandhi: “Why does India have to look to Nepal to see how to achieve responsible wildlife tourism?” That all changed in 2012 when the Nepal government closed the lease concessions for reasons that still remain unclear, in one blow removing the ability for Nepali operators to successfully deliver high quality wildlife attractions to high paying punters.
Today thetables are turned and Indian national parks boast an impressive array of elegant lodges, tented camps, restored forts, palaces and havelis glamorously adapted for visitors, although Nepal still has the edge when it comes to walking safaris, effective protected area management and the control of poaching.
The ultimate irony and loss for Nepal tourism is that many of these Indian boutique properties and wildlife operations celebrated throughout the subcontinent are today run by our very own naturalists who cut their teeth in the incomparable jungles of Chitwan and Bardia.