A.V. Jim Edwards: 1935 - 2009

Features Issue 90 Jul, 2010
Text by Marcus Cotton And Lisa Choegyal / Photo: Tiger Mountain

Jim Edwards, who died recently in Kathmandu, was one of the pioneers of tourism in Nepal, along with his friends Boris Lissanevitch and Colonel Jimmy Roberts. A far-sighted man, gifted with luck and charisma, Jim had the vision to see the future for conservation-based wildlife tourism in the Himlayan mountains and jungles that he loved, long before the concept of “ecotourism” came into being.

A.V. Jim Edwards was born November 24, 1935 in Hampshire, England, before moving to Jersey in the Channel Islands when he was 13 after the early death of his mother. His father, ‘Slim’ Edwards, served in the RAF during the Second World War and spent much of his life at sea. In his teenage years, Jim was an adventurous youth and enjoyed sailing and swimming as well as representing Jersey with his friend Charles Maine in badminton. His first job was as a delivery boy for a St Helier butcher and an illicit pound of sausages often found its way onto the Edwards’ table! After a brief spell in Jersey, he did national service with the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment and then joined Lloyds Bank in Tonbridge Wells before being transferred to Sweden, a posting he found more convivial. Dreaming of seeing more of the world, and always the adventurer, Jim drove overland on a Saab car promotion through Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian sub-continent before arriving in Nepal in May 1962. Enraptured by the splendours of the country, he decided this was where he wanted to live. Travel further afield was put on hold and he spent a year exploring the Terai jungles, hunting, and fishing, largely in the remote Karnali region in far west Nepal. Jim also worked around this time with the new USAID Mission in Kathmandu, managing logistics.

In 1964, Jim teamed up with American anthropologist turned wildlife ecologist, Dr Charles (Chuck) McDougal and started the first wildlife tourism company, Nepal Wildlife Adventure, to operate jungle treks, fishing and hunting expeditions. It was the beginning of a long and distinguished career in the travel industry. In 1969, with his mind set on learning more about the travel trade, Jim enrolled in the Pan American World Airways Management Training Course, in New York. In his absence, Chuck McDougal continued to run Nepal Wildlife Adventure.  Jim, in return, was able to send many clients to their company from the US and Europe. Finishing his course, he worked for Pan Am in Sales, Marketing, and Public Relations in New York City for three years.

In Kathmandu, there was a small community of foreigners who all knew each other. On a tip-off from Boris Lissanevitch, Nepal’s pioneer hotelier, Jim heard of Tiger Tops a small camp in the Chitwan rhino reserve that was in need of improved management. Elected a fellow of the prestigious Explorer’s Club in New York in 1967, Jim met the owners of Tiger Tops, Texan millionaires and big game hunters, Herb Klein and Toddy Lee Wynne. At their request, in 1971, Jim and Chuck McDougal took over the Tiger Tops Jungle Lodge that the Texans had built in the 1960s as a wildlife tourism enterprise in Chitwan where they had enjoyed hunting safaris. With Chuck’s hard work on the wildlife, his brother, John Edwards, on the operational side, and Jim’s marketing and business flair, they turned Tiger Tops into a famous conservation tourism model. Jim used his contacts in Pan Am and the World Wildlife Fund to help lobby the Nepal government to turn Chitwan into a National Park and it was gazetted in 1973. In 1974, Jim teamed up with Colonel Jimmy Roberts, the pioneer of Himalayan trekking who had started Mountain Travel, the first trekking company in the world. Thus was formed Tiger Mountain, very much Jim’s group of adventure travel companies throughout Nepal and India. Over the 1970s and 1980s, the group of companies included partnerships with lodges in Madhya Pradesh, Kashmir, and Karnataka in India, expanded camps in Nepal and activities in Sri Lanka. Tiger Mountain pioneered tourism in Ladakh and organised early tours in Bhutan and Tibet. A chance meeting with explorer, Colonel John Blashford-Snell, led to pioneering descents of Nepal’s Trishuli River, resulting in the establishment of Himalayan River Exploration, the first river running company in South Asia. Jim’s last major project was the establishment of a permanent lodge on Prince Charles’s “Royal Trek” route operated by Mountain Travel in 1980. Jim’s eldest son, Kristjan, supervised the project. Sir Edmund Hillary opened Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge in 1998.

Seeing the effective manner in which tourism, carefully and sensitively managed, could be a positive force for conservation, Jim and his colleagues formed the International Trust for Nature Conservation, a UK registered charity with a mandate to support conservation initiatives around the world. ITNC has supported various conservation projects in Nepal and India. Jim is widely recognised for his immense contribution to Nepal’s tourism industry, setting standards of adventure tourism that are admired all over Asia. At a time when Nepalese corporate management was in its infancy, Jim’s constant concern was to provide opportunity to many Nepalese, often with limited education, and to set the standards for caring and inclusive management that remains the hallmark of Tiger Mountain today. It was a matter of great pride to Jim that Indira Gandhi once asked, “Why do we [in India] have to look to Nepal to learn how to manage wildlife tourism lodges?”

For his contribution to Nepal’s tourism industry, Jim Edwards was the recipient of many awards and accolades. Jim founded the World Elephant Polo Association in 1981 with James Manclark and ran the annual World Championships at Meghauli, Chitwan. Elephant polo attracted many celebrities and further promoted Tiger Tops as well as raising funds for many charities. It was  a tribute to his sense of humour, marketing acumen, and enjoyment of a fine party.

A man of immense charm and love of life, Jim could bowl people over with his inspirational energy, hospitality, self-deprecating sense of humour and monumental generosity. Jim defied stereotypes, yet sought an element of conformity, and was immensely pleased to be made an honorary member of the Sirmoor Club, the regimental association of 2nd Gurkhas and member of the St Moritz Tobogganing Club. He was iconoclastic and did not suffer fools easily. Indeed his anger, when roused, was famed for its fulminating qualities! Yet, normally, he subsided just as quickly. Jim had a sharp eye for a finely turned ankle, and enjoyed the company of women. In 1970, he married Icelandic beauty, Fjola Bender. Then in 1978, he met Belinda Fuchs at Tiger Tops, a zoologist from Switzerland, and they were married in 1983. In later years, he lived happily with his devoted companion Tia Rongsen from Nagaland. Jim had four children who were a source of great pride and comfort to him: two by his marriage with Fjola, Kristjan, and Anna Tara; and two sons by his marriage to Belinda, Timothy, and Jack.

Jim was passionate about the jungle and enjoying wild places with friends. He fished regularly on several rivers in Iceland, where he suffered the first of two strokes in 2004 while fishing with his sons, Timothy and Jack. His courage and tenacity in regaining mobility won him wide respect. Sadly, in January 2009 he suffered a second major stroke whilst mahseer fishing in Karnataka. A paradoxical man, Jim challenged and inspired all those with whom he came in contact. Life was never dull when Jim was around. He enriched the lives of many from all over the world and provided support for many Nepalis at home and abroad as part of his lifelong love and commitment to Nepal and her people. We mourn his passing but in Virgil’s words – meminisse juvabimus – we shall delight in remembering.