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Project Management, Jungle-Style

It was Rudyard Kipling who popularized the idiom “law of the jungle” back in 1894, and ever since I was a kid falling asleep to passages of Jungle Book, I’ve been fascinated by everything jungle. Another popular expression, “It’s a jungle out there,” is also how I would describe my career as a PM, where I spent most of my time within the concrete jungle of corporate life. However, earlier this year I was fortunate enough to travel to a real jungle, and for a short while, I was based @ Tiger Tops Karnali Lodge, Bardia National Forest, Nepal. My professional interests during this trip fell into two camps: 1) how the local tourism industry handles jungle-related projects, and 2) how forests manage themselves, thank you very much.

Within the tourism sector worldwide, most establishments can be classified as SMEs with less than 500 employees, but near the periphery of any national park, jungle, or forest, that number is more like 150 people, tops. Mom and Pops dominate this sector, at least in regards to employment. These small employee numbers may limit revenue streams, but tend to open up other important areas of business, such as community-connectivity, ground-zero partnerships, and better customer service with bestquality provided for whatever is being delivered.

Jigs @ Main Lodge, Tiger Tops Karnali

 

Tiger Tops is a sterling example of such a Mom and Pop business, as it employs less than 140 staff members across several resorts and is one of the most successful runners of jungle lodges in the country—in addition to being a place to spot wild tigers! Tiger Tops Karnali was started in 1964 by two Texans as a tiger-hunting camp, and now the lodge is leading Nepal in ethical and responsible tourism. Through the efforts of the then buyer/adventurer, Jim Edwards, many projects were spun off to help create the country’s tourism industry as it stands today.

Pradyot Rana (Lead PM & Naturalist) with Family at entrance to Bardia National Forest, Nepal

 

An Interview with Pradyot Rana

Needless to say, when I wasn’t out iPhone-hunting for tigers, rhinos, wild boar, blue bucks, and other wildlife during my stay at the lodge, I had the chance to interview the nationally-renowned naturalist and lead PM, Pradyot Rana. Here’s what he had to say:

Q. At Tiger Tops, do you have any have efforts that you would classify as a project? If so, please describe…

A. Yes, many. We have renovation, expansion, and improvement projects that involve physical infrastructure as well as environmental impact-improvement efforts. Of late, we have been focusing on renewable energy and deep recycling of all of our lodge activities.

Q. For projects at Tiger Tops, do you have designated Project Managers?

A. Yes. That would be me, as well as each lodge manager. No one here has any formal training as a project manager—like I’ve heard you say before, we are all accidental project managers, but I am interested in learning Microsoft Project and more about the formal discipline of being a PM.

 

Q. For Tiger Tops projects, what software or apps do you use to manage projects, if any?

A. At best, we use Excel to add up sums and whatnot, but nothing in the way of commercial software specific to project management.

Q. For Tiger Tops projects, what hardware or devices do you use to manage projects, if any?

A. Ha! We have PCs and most staff have mobile phones, but we don’t use any of those to really manage projects. We use lots of white boards (no paper either)!

Q. With regard to the Tiger Tops workforce, what is the estimated time-on-the-job for all employees (in years)?

A. Most staff have been here for decades—some 30+ years, and one just celebrated his 50th! We have a very low turnover.

Camp Kitchen with jungle-fresh eggs

 

Q. How would you describe your workforce in terms of job classifications?

A. I’d divide it up this way:

  • 30% General Laborers
  • 60% Technically skilled workers
  • 10% Management or Supervisory staff

Q. How do you normally plan projects at Tiger Tops? Please describe the process in your own words…

A. Projects come down from the Board of Directors to myself, and then get passed on to the Lodge Managers (who are de facto PMs). Then, it’s my responsibility to make sure things happen.

Q. At project inception, what is your highest priority?

A. Our highest priority is to live up to our ethos of conservation and preserving the environment. We work in a very fragile ecosystem, and we have to make sure that whatever we do, does no harm to the forest, wildlife, or the people living on the periphery. It’s a delicate balance…

Laxmi & Mahout, Tiger Tops Karnali Lodge

 

Q. During project rollout, describe the most common issues.

A. Finding skilled labor in Nepal is probably the biggest issue, and getting the work done on time is also problematic. Culturally, folks here have a different conception of time vs. workers in the west. Life moves more slowly in the jungle, especially for the people who live and work in the surrounding areas.

Tharu Cultural Show, Tiger Tops Karnali

 

Q. At project close, describe how you evaluate success?

A. Well that’s a tough question, but I would say that if we have improved the lives of the animals in the forest, and helped the people living on the periphery, we have succeeded. Of course, we have a bottom line, and that’s part of the balance.

Q. What is your next upcoming project, and why you are excited about it?

A. At our lodge in Chitwan, we have a project that will bring tourists and the elephants that live there closer together, in an ethical way. That means that there is no riding, no bathing, no elephants painting pictures as they do in Thailand, but just a camp where people can observe elephant behavior without impeding on their natural ways.

Q. Describe what you consider your most successful project, and why.

A. Working with the local community and captive elephants, we are providing better treatment of elderly elephants in our area—some of which are 70 years old or more! We also stopped one of our more historic services, elephant riding into the jungle, in favor of just walking along with the elephants, and that feels better.

Q. Describe what you consider your most challenging project, and why.

A. Well, we had to move one entire lodge from the interior of the jungle, to the exterior (as mandated by the government). While that was tough, we managed a solution in the end that is working out very well today for all involved—especially the wildlife.

 

If Rudyard Kipling were a PM…

On the other side of the forest fence, project management is handled much like at the lodge. Nature’s projects (if left alone) are executed according to jungle law, where schedules are seasonal and fixed, and new projects don’t require a lot of interventions to happily grow and prosper. For example, in the jungle, new growth is handled organically – literally – where new species of flora and fauna thrive with little to no attention paid to them (that is, unless humans get involved).

Nothing is wasted on the forest floor. Dead Sal trees fall and decompose amid 6-foot tall termite mounds, only to rise again. Hundreds of bird species roost amongst the branches of Sisoo, Teak, and Acacia trees, providing cover and helping the spread of seed, as well as controlling insect populations. Every animal seems to have an interconnected purpose: the sloth bear keeps termites in check, wild boars scarf up fungi and other forest detritus, tigers keep the boar population in check, and elephants dig for water and create watering holes for other animals to find. In short, jungle resources are self-perpetuating and abundant, if left to their natural ways.

Jungle clearing, Bardia National Park, Nepal

Back at the lodge, during the wee hours and after the New Year’s party, I experienced firsthand how the jungle works; as I was a lone man standing in a small clearing surrounded by miles of canopy, and I experienced a pulsating undulation of fresh air – right in my face– I was feeling the breath of billions of leaves; I could see, feel, and smell the lungs of the earth working…

 

In Kipling’s most famous of jungle laws, he states:

“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.”

When thought about for a moment, this law is antithetical to today’s perception of the jungle, where “every man for himself,” “survival of the fittest,” and/or “kill or be killed” are all thought to come from jungle. The reality is that these concepts are most prevalent within the “concrete” type of jungle.

If Kipling were a project manager, he would most likely be looking to harmonize the natural connections between tasks, instead of trying to make a competitive advantage out of them. I believe PM Kipling would run his projects using more nature-based methodologies to increase productivity, improve teamwork, and maintain a sustainable ROI.

Rudyard’s management style would be less Scrum, and more Mowgli (who in Kipling’s later books returns to the human realm with a superhuman understanding of the natural world). Mowgli learns to understand how mere mortals can work in harmony with nature—as well as amongst themselves.

Path leaving the jungle, Tiger Tops Karnali Nepal

 

[For more info on Tiger Tops Lodges, see this Jan 2020 Forbes article: Inside Tiger Tops: The First Ethical Elephant Camp In Nepal]

 

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8 Comments
  1. Excellent article. Very good point about the interconnectivity of systems. Thank you.

    Reply
  2. Many thanks. Very interesting and a nice concept of a Jungle P Management. Thanks.

    Reply
  3. Great article. I could learn lot about nature, jungle and project management from this.

    Reply
  4. Jigs, very refreshing perspective! Keep them coming!
    Eric

    Reply
  5. Jigs Gaton

    @Patricia Edwards: thx so much for the comment, and yes, connectivity is important, especially now 🙂

    Reply
  6. Jigs Gaton

    @ SERGEY VOLCHKOV: thx for reading!

    Reply
  7. Jigs Gaton

    @ VISHNU MAHADESHWAR: awesome, glad you found this useful.

    Reply
  8. Jigs Gaton

    @ Eric Uyttewaal: thx eric, if you like this one, your really gunna like the next one! Coming in Aug and Sept and Oct for a webinar 🙂

    Reply

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