Can you do a ‘Jungle Book’ safari in India?

03 July 2016 - 02:00 By Elizabeth Sleith
The incredibly life-like cast of the 2016 update of 'The Jungle Book'.
The incredibly life-like cast of the 2016 update of 'The Jungle Book'.
Image: Disney

If you want to lay eyes on the real creatures that inspired the beloved characters in the Kipling stories and Disney films, you'd best head to Madhya Pradesh, writes Elizabeth Sleith

This year marks the 80th since the death of Rudyard Kipling - and the release of a spellbinding update of the 1967 Disney animation classic, The Jungle Book, based on his tales about the "man-cub" Mowgli and his animal pals.

Amazingly, this latest film was made entirely in a Los Angeles warehouse.


But, its computer-generated imagery is so realistic, talking animals and all, that it certainly makes one feel transported to the jungles of India, never mind that the snake sounds suspiciously like Scarlett Johansson.

When it comes to animal spotting, though, how does the real-life jungle stack up?

Who preceded the likes of Baloo the bear and Akela the wolf - and can their descendants be spotted in the land that inspired them?

Kipling set the stories in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where Mowgli is reared by a pack of wolves in "Seeonee hills".

Today, the town of Seoni is by no means a jungle, though it's said that when the book came out, the area was one big forest.

Today, the best safari options in the state are its nine national parks, particularly Kanha and Pench, which are connected by a fast-depleting forest corridor.

But which creatures can still be found there - and which ones never were?

SHERE KHAN - The tiger

The villain of the stories, Shere Khan is intent on killing the "man-cub" Mowlgli, convinced that he and his kind spell doom for the animal kingdom. It's rather heartbreaking to point out today that the guy had a point.

100 years ago, India had more than 100,000 Bengal tigers. In 2014, the official count was 2,226, these being scattered across 49 national reserves. Tourists' best chances of spotting one are in the parks of Madhya Pradesh, which include Bandhavgarh National Park, Pench, Satpura and Kanha, which was India's first tiger reserve.

The Pench-Kanha corridor is a ribbon of forest connecting the two parks, from which local communities have been resettled as part of an effort to conserve the tigers' habitat and allow populations to expand.

Conservationists, though, say they remain confined to shrinking forest islands as farms and cities perpetually expand.

By some accounts, rescue efforts appear to be working. India's environmental minister claimed in March that the population had risen to about 2,500 since the last official count.




KING LOUIE - The orangutan/Gigantopithecus

There was no ape king in the Kipling stories and Disney went rogue when it introduced this pyromaniacal jazz-swinger into the first film and thus the forests of India - orangutans are only found in Borneo and Sumatra.

As a crafty way to rescue one of the original film's most beloved characters, the CGI team in 2016 turned Louie into a Gigantopithecus, a massive ape genus that once lived in forests throughout southern China, Southeast Asia and India.

Science knows little about what they really looked like but they were most likely similar to a modern orangutan - just 2.7m-tall.



BALOO - The bear

In 1967, Mowgli's bumbling bestie resembled an American grizzly, though the Indian version is a sloth bear, which are smaller, shaggier and black - and widespread across India. Satpura National Park, west of Pench, is a haven for sloth bears.

Do note, though, that this guy is notoriously hot-tempered - while walking safaris in Satpura are possible (there are no tigers here), your "bear necessities" on such excursions will be a guide and a very big stick.




BAGHEERA - The panther

The black panther is, in fact, a rare melanistic form of leopard, Asia's second-largest cat. Leopards are widespread across India but black ones are found only in the south, not in Jungle Book country.



AKELA - The wolf

The Indian wolf is smaller than its northern cousin - used in both Disney versions - and is not found in the big packs described in Mowgli's tales. They are a rare sight in central India.