We had been inside the forest for less than an hour when the stories started flying. A tiger here; a tigress with two cubs there; a fresh killing somewhere else. Passing jeeps conveyed messages about big cat sightings, but there was no way of knowing whether any of it was true.
We were in the Kanha Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, the central Indian province known for its plentiful big cat population. Kanha, established in 1955, is one of India's oldest wildlife zones and has a reputation for being among the country’s best-managed forests. Over the last decade, it brought the barasingha (a species of swamp deer) back from the brink of extinction in one of India’s most successful wildlife conservation efforts.
But the reserve’s main claim to fame is that it served as the setting for Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 childhood classic The Jungle Book, a novel about a boy raised by wild wolves.
It is believed that Kipling never visited Kanha, but was fascinated by the writings of British travellers who visited the region. Given that he wrote these tales of the Indian forest sitting in faraway Vermont, surrounded by snow, the book’s rich descriptions are a testament to his storytelling skills.
It took an overnight train ride from Delhi to Jabalpur, followed by a three-hour drive, to get to Kanha. But I was excited to be in Kipling’s territory. I remembered reading, and later watching The Jungle Book and being enthralled by the scenes where the animals seemed to be allies.
However, as an adult, I was less interested in the story’s good guys. I’d come in search of the fearsome and vilified Shere Khan, the tiger and king of this jungle – and I had a good chance of seeing him. According to the December 2014 census, the park is home to 78 tigers, the highest number among the state’s five major tiger reserves – and up from 60 in 2010.
It was still dark at 6 am when we drove into the forest, stopping at the gates to join up with an official forest guide. As we shivered in the chill of the morning mist, the park slowly came to life in front of our eyes.
The striking landscape of lush meadows and grasslands was interspersed with pockets of dense forest and dotted with crystal clear streams A couple of chital (spotted deer) crossed the winding path in front of us, their gait graceful and unhurried. A herd of gaur (Indian bison) stood grazing by the side, raising their heads insouciantly as we drove past. Grey langurs (monkeys) lined the path in what I imagined was their daily morning ritual of people watching.
Driving through a tunnel created by the towering bamboo and sal (a local deciduous tree), our guide explained that during Kipling’s time – in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries – the forests of Madhya Pradesh were one long corridor of wilderness over thousands of kilometres, reaching all the way into the neighbouring Indian state of Maharashtra.
This perhaps explains why Pench Tiger Reserve, 140km to the south, also vies for the title of Jungle Book territory, while Satpura National Park, 300km to the west, is a core habitat for the utterly delightful sloth bear (Baloo from the stories), with a few also found in Kanha.
Interestingly, Bagheera – the cunning and caring black panther of The Jungle Book – is no longer found anywhere in the region; they’re now only seen in the country’s southern tropical forests. I also kept remembering Kaa, the villainous snake of The Jungle Book, infamous for hypnotising his foes. But like panthers, snakes also seemed to have vanished from Kanha. Or perhaps, they chose to stay hidden from the daily flurry of human activity.
We drove on, looking for pugmarks – the footprints of tigers – some of them still fresh from all the nocturnal movement. At one point, our driver pulled up to the side of the path, holding up a warning finger for silence.
The action started as a series of feeble alarm calls by the sambar deer grazing in the thicket, a cue soon picked up by the langurs hanging low on the trees. As if drawn by the cacophony, several other Jeeps drew up at the spot. And all at once, the area was abuzz with anticipation. “Shush!” our guide said, straining to interpret the alarm calls that were reaching a crescendo.
In a blur of stripes, a tigress appeared out of the thicket onto the path just ahead of our vehicle. For a few seconds, there was a stunned silence, disturbed only by the whir and click of a dozen cameras trying to capture her majesty. Before I could recover my breath, a cub bounded up behind the tigress, and, in a few frightened leaps, crossed the path. The mother seemed in no hurry, though, taking her time to amble along, stretching her tawny body lazily, almost performing to the appreciative audience.
It seemed that Shere Khan’s descendants rule over this forest even today. And if the good news about their rising numbers is anything to go by, the only difference is that tigers are now admired and protected, rather than feared and hunted.
A spotted owlet screeched from its hole in the tree, signalling the end of the show. We had seen the tiger at close quarters, fulfilling the reason for this safari. It was time for us to move on and pay attention to the other fauna.
We stopped to take in the abundance of birdlife, ignored in our earlier quest for the cat. Paradise flycatchers, white-throated kingfishers and rocket-tailed drongos perched on trees, massive serpent eagles soared low and an Indian roller took flight, its bright blue plumage sparkling in the sky. We also came across the famed barasingha, their multi-tined antlers reaching out high above them.
I had just begun to doze off in the late-morning warmth when our guide shouted, “Leopard!”
There, hidden amid the brown foliage of the bushes, and staring straight at us, was the other big cat found in this forest – a spotted leopard. Rare and difficult, this leopard sighting was a delightful bonus. But unlike the tiger, this one was no entertainer, retreating in a flash upon hearing our voices.
In so many ways, much of Kanha remained unchanged since Kipling’s days. It still belongs to my old animal friends from the book.