I first met Varun many years ago when he, way ahead of the game, had set up a company to promote extraordinary guides of India, true experts who believed in showcasing the real India along side their speciaist fields. Then, by some quirk of fate, I ended up working along side him for a large Delhi DMC. He was head of wildlife whilst I was head of product and experiences. It is safe to say, I have learnt more from Varun about both these aspects of travel to India than from any other person I have met. He is quiet, unassuming, with phenomenal knowledge and a level of patience that I can only aspire to! Having said that, his true passion is wildlife, the slightest opportunity would see him heading off to Corbett National Park for the weeked, if there wasn’t time to venture further afield.
1. Who are you you are (naturally!)
I am Varun Narain Mathur – passionate about wildlife & wildlife photography and head of a wildlife travel brand – JungleSutra Wildlife & Experiential Journeys.
2. What inspired you to create/join your business?
I always was looking to make wildlife my profession. Not having a bachelor’s degree in biology, I was unable to get into an academic course to become a wildlife researcher and biologist. Creative Travel was launching this brand to showcase the diversity of wildlife in India and was looking for someone who is passionate about the subject and the job gave me a global platform to showcase our incredible natural heritage to the world.
- An anecdote which epitomizes your India?
A melting pot of people, cultures, landscapes, wilderness, politics, religion, history, traditions, cricket, movies, festivals and everything you love about the world coexisting with chaos of everything you hate about it – all in the same place. This co-existence and tolerance is what gives us hope and the ability to stay positive about the change we want to bring about.
- One thing that you can’t live without?
Nature escapes. I have these craving and urges to get out of the city into our vast jungles.
- One thing that you hate?
I don’t hate anything – but there are many things that frustrate me. One of the many are instances where someone praises your skillset and says that they want to learn from you and would like you to take out time, but whenever you do so they do not have the time for you. Why in gods name would you make that statement if there is no intent in the first place?
- If you could change one thing about India what would it be?
Control population – I feel it’s the root cause of all our problems no matter what they are small or big. A sixth of the world’s population in less than 3% of the land is a crazy amount of pressure on all levels.
- Who is your greatest inspiration?
There have been many inspirations that have fuelled my passion for wildlife, I would like to not name one but a team of people. In 2014 (turning point in my life from a wildlife perspective) I worked with Rare India and was marketing 6 wildlife lodge. I think all the lodge owners and teams were my greatest inspiration be it about wildlife, conservation, conducting wildlife travel, wildlife research and much more. Whereas Joanna & Raghu of Sarai at Toria along with Belinda Wright were the guiding forces having such a strong background in conservation and wildlife research, I feel the boys that ran Forsyth Lodge became my greatest teachers, my buddies and my trainers. Even today I would go to them if I have any questions and love exploring the forests with them – there is so much to learn. Of course I wish I could have spent time and learnt from their inspiration – Hashim Tyabji – who I think who be really great since the boys talk so highly about him. I love that he is always thinking out of the box and is the first mover in so many of our wildlife escapes. I feel he has changed the way we explore for which I think he should be mentioned here.
- What is your favourite quote?
There are a couple which have always resounded well with me:
- Law of the Jungle Poem – Rudyard Kipling
NOW this is the Law of the Jungle — as old and as true as the sky; And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die. As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk the Law runneth forward and back — For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.
- Jim Corbett – A tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage and that when he is exterminated – as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support – India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna. (True even today)
- I have noticed huge changes in India over the last few years but what is the biggest change you have noticed in India over the last 10 years?
The biggest change in India I feel was brought about by two things Mobile Phones and Digital Photography.
Mobile phones and social media that comes along with it has given eyes and voice to people who did not know how to raise a voice against the destruction and malpractices.
Digital Photography has encouraged more & more Indians to explore their own country – especially wildlife parks. Today more Indian tourists visit the parks than foreigners. This is something which is not true in African countries. When the local population appreciates its wildlife, you are sure they will work towards protecting it.
- What do you think are the biggest challenges India faces over the next ten years?
The biggest challenge in my mind is the ever growing population and their pressure over the resources. These resources can be coal from coal mine, iron & steel, forest produce, land-use, security of crop or anything else on similar lines – we are always infringing on land demarcated for wildlife for our greed. If we can’t control our population, we can’t find a long term solution for man-animal conflict and for conservation.
- Which is the destination at the top of your bucket list?
I have a bucket list for species and the places to find them keep changing based on the information I get. Currently my biggest goal is to photograph all of the 15 wildcats of India with key focus on clouded leopard, Lynx, Pallas Cat and the Caracal.
- What is the one place you visited that you have NO desire to return to?
In the wild I would return to any of the places as there is always something new to see, however, I was disgusted by my recent experience at Gir and Nagarhole National Parks. It is not the wildlife but the experience that has evolved for the guest is not very nice.
In Gir I found Asiatic lions being herded like cattle by forest department and the safari experience with Jungle Lodge in Nagarhole (unfortunately they have a monopoly over safaris in the park) is less than ideal – you have to stay at Jungle Lodges in order to get a seat in a jeep else you go in a canter / bus. Also, there is no option for an exclusive jeep. All this combined by poor quality drivers and guides.
13. Book or Movie?
A book – nothing beats your own imagination.
14. Just for fun! I am doing a survey to find India’s most popular breakfast, what is yours?
Fried Eggs with Toast and a glass of milk. When traveling to UK you can add bacon and sausages 😉
15. In retrospect, what is the one thing you wish you could have told your 20 year-old self?
Study hard to become a wildlife researcher/forest officer to be able to spend more time in the field and to be able to impact the system from the inside. Tourism needs to be seen by the forest department as a positive for conservation and we do need more uniformity in how we showcase our wildlife in order for wildlife tourism to thrive beyond the popular destinations.
You can find Varun’s wonderful wildlife photography on Wild Panoramas.