For most everyone on the planet right now, normal life has been curtailed in ways both banal and profound due to coronavirus. For the planet itself, however, life goes on. The wildernesses, the vast species that live within them, and the communities that rely on both for livelihoods—all the exigencies of their protection have not gone away. In many ways, right now may be a more urgent time than ever in the world of conservation and cultural preservation, since many existing projects are currently operating without any tourism dollars to support them.
The dedicated founders behind each of these four continue to pour passion and resources into their missions—with or without present guests to help sustain them. Each is a place within its region where cares for the land, its indigenous cultures, and thoughtful hospitality dovetail in innovative, and important, ways. They’re all deserving of our attention, now and when travel ultimately resumes.
Championing Indigenous Art at Australia’s Heart
James and Hayley Baillie know more than most about the resilience and inherent beauty of the land and its inhabitants: Southern Ocean Lodge, their 21-suite flagship resort on Kangaroo Island, burned to the ground in January’s bushfires. It makes sense, then, that at Longitude 131—an eco-minded, luxury camp in the shadow of Uluru in Australia’s outback—the region’s indigenous communities are at the heart of the founders’ mission.
Hayley Baillie has personally cultivated collaborations with four aboriginal communities in both the Northern Territory and South Australia’s Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. The primary such relationship, with Emabella Arts Community, takes various forms: special commissions for the camp’s interior design (among them a collection of several hundred spinifex-design ceramic tiles, produced by an Emabella womens’ collective aged 18 to 89); a standing three-year contract role for a ceramicist who mentors Emabella artisans toward the goal of total economic sustainability; and quarterly artist-in-residence programs. Interested visitors can visit with the community through a day-long 4WD journey that’s a true lesson in living close to the land.
“The objective–and running result to date,” the Baillies say, “is to allow the community’s artists to establish economic independence whilst conserving their art and culture, and [have] the resources to continue to share the skills and stories with their families. It demonstrates an economically viable future based on their cultural heritage and talent.”
A Wilder Scottish Highlands
The highlands of Scotland are among Europe’s more recognisable landscapes, redolent with both aesthetic and cultural beauty. But in truth, it’s a spurious natural beauty, many of the land’s familiar tones and shapes the result of centuries of farming, deforestation, and the introductions of invasive species.
Anders and Anne Holch Povlsen, Danish billionaires who are now the largest private landowners in Scotland where they live full-time, have made the ecological rehabilitation of the area their work. It’s called Wildland, and the unique hospitality component they’ve incorporated does as much to educate and restore as it does provide a tremendous escape into nature. With properties from the coast of Sutherland to the Cairngorms, the owners take the rehabilitation of the built environment as seriously as they do the natural one: the property’s castles and estate manors, village houses, bothies, and two inns have been restored to rustic-minimalism with exteriors that look much as they would have one or two hundred years ago. The accommodations run on solar or hydro power, or a combination, and a few currently in development will be off the grid entirely.
The time scales of the land rehabilitation will extend far beyond our lifetimes; it can take decades for nature to regain a foothold (a ‘200-year-vision’ is much referred to across the project). But the long view is the best view—and one this land’s custodians hope will again someday be lush with the juniper, birch, and majestic Caledonian pines that flourished here a millennium ago.
The Tiger (and Leopard) King of Rajasthan, India
Endangered wildlife has been one of the more urgent issues for the travel industry in this time of pandemic. Specifically, poaching: when humans are sheltering in place, who protects the animals? In Rajasthan, few can speak to this issue with more authority than Jaisal Singh. Singh’s parents and uncle, some of the foremost tiger experts in the world, helped map the territory that in 1979 became Ranthambore National Park. Twenty years ago, Singh opened Sher Bagh, the first true luxury tented safari camp in this part of Rajasthan. Today his company, Suján, comprises two further camps, The Serai and Jawai, and a royal palace-turned-hotel in Jaipur (he also co-operates a camp in Kenya, Mara North Conservancy).
Suján has shown India what hospitality with conservation at its core can look like. Three signal tenets—to protect wildlife, land biodiversity, and local communities and heritage—are part of every Suján property. At Jawai Leopard Camp, his team has gathered extensive data on 55 leopards in Jawai’s elusive population. But he has also managed to rewild significant land here—no small triumph in a resolutely agrarian area. By slowly amassing agrarian land (some via generous lease agreements that provide income year round to local landowners), Sujan Jawai is generating contiguous wildlife corridors for many species, but especially the iconic leopard. Singh has also created a mobile healthcare unit for six villages at the perimeter of Jawai’s land (much of which has been temporarily loaned to the local government in the effort to stem the spread of COVID-19 in Pali).
Ranthambore’s tigers are part of Singh’s personal history. He has partnered with and is the primary donor to two of the park’s key anti-poaching community initiatives, TigerWatch and the Village Wildlife Volunteers Programme (VWV’s). With smart phones provided to them by Sujan, the 50-some VWV’s monitor not just animal movements but suspicious human ones, too—potential poachers and loggers who threaten the animals or their vastly denuded habitat. It’s a collaboration between private enterprise, NGOs, and a state forest ministry that’s unique in India, and is becoming a model for parks across the country.
Jaguars in Argentina See that Legendary Conservationist’s Legacy Will Never Be Outpaced
In Corrientes Province, in the northeast corner of Argentina, the land, and the nearly-extinct animals that once freely roamed across it, have long been at the center of the work done by the Conservation Land Trust—also known as Tompkins Conservation. Created by American retail magnates Kristine and the late Doug Tompkins in the early 1990s, to date the trust has protected (and in some cases, as here in northern Argentina, completely rewilded) more than 1.3 billion ares of land, contributing to the expansion or creation of more than a dozen national parks in Chile and Argentina.
In Corrientes, built on islands several miles apart in the 3-million-plus-acre Iberá wetland, are two of the Tompkins’s estancias: Rincon del Socorro, and Estancia San Alonso. Having achieved extraordinary goals since 1991 for reintroduction and population increases of rare endemic wildlife—giant anteaters and pampas deer among them—the Tompkins began to turn over management to the national parks system. Importantly, every rewilded acre also sequesters carbon—crucial, on the continent experiencing some of the planet’s most extensive deforestation.
Right now, the megafauna focus here is on jaguar, which had become entirely extinct in this part of Argentina. The pioneering Jaguar Reintroduction Project, at Estancia San Alonso, is an incredible surveyed ecosystem, habituating animals raised in captivity or imported from other countries to live and hunt in the wild. The first two truly wild jaguar to be born in Corrientes in more than 70 years will celebrate their second birthday in a few weeks; tiny lives, representing enormous hope and vision.
Maria Shollenbarger is the longtime travel editor at the Financial Times’ How To Spend It magazine. She also writes for Travel + Leisure, The Australian’s WISH magazine, and the FTWeekend. She lives in London and Italy.