Shafik Meghji uncovers the Indian landscape that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s classic tale – and picks out five other destinations where you can find the characters’ real-life counterparts.
The national parks of eastern Madhya Pradesh are often described as “Kiplingesque”. This landscape of creeper-clad forests, expansive savannah, grassy hills, and meandering streams simply teems with wildlife: monkeys, pythons, sloth bears, wild boar, swamp deer, wild dogs, leopards, porcupines, gaur (the world’s largest wild cattle), and – of course – majestic Royal Bengal tigers.
Rudyard Kipling, who was born in Bombay (now Mumbai) and spent his formative years in India, never actually visited this central Indian region, but drew heavily on the accounts of several British travellers who had for The Jungle Book. At the time he was writing, eastern Madhya Pradesh was a vast viceregal hunting ground, where prominent British army officers and civil servants sought out trophies – particularly tiger heads – to display at home. The first national park in the state – Kanha – was only created in 1955.
Today, it’s easy to imagine “man-cub” Mowgli, Baloo the bear, Bagheera the panther and the rest of the gang stalking through Madhya Pradesh’s reserves. However, Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba in the new film) is by far the biggest draw for tourists: you have a better chance of spotting a tiger in the wild in one of the state’s parks – particularly in Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Pench – than anywhere else on Earth.
Madhya Pradesh’s premier park is Kanha, which spans some 940 square kilometres and is home to an estimated 40-45 tigers. Lodges just outside the park – including the excellent Shergarh Tented Camp – run jeep safaris (known locally as “game drives”) at sunrise and in the early afternoon, with guides scouring the ground for “pug marks” (tiger footprints) and listening out for the agitated alarm calls that signal that a big cat is close by.
Nothing, though, quite prepares you for your first sight of a tiger in the wild.
Whether it is a brief glimpse of gold and black in the undergrowth or an extended viewing of a big cat in the open, it feels like an incredible privilege.
Image by Allan Hopkins on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
If you’re after your own Jungle Book adventure this year, head to one of these wild and wonderful landscapes:
Track Bagheera in Kenya
Leopards are notoriously difficult to spot in the wild. Melanistic leopards – better known as black panthers – are even more elusive. But with time, patience and a large dose of luck, you may be able to find the cat upon which the sleek Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) was based in the Matthews Range, an undulating 150km-long series of forested hills in central Kenya that is also home to lions, elephants, buffalos and rhinos.
Meet King Louie in Sumatra, Indonesia
Although he didn’t actually appear in Rudyard Kipling’s book, King Louie the orang-utan was one of the most memorable characters in the 1967 Disney film adaptation. If you want to meet a real-life “king of the swingers” (voiced by Christopher Walken in the new film), head to Gunung Leuser National Park on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Here you can trek through the dense, riverine rainforest, whose trees are filled with orang-utans, as well as gibbons and macaques.
Search for Baloo in Nepal
Voiced by Bill Murray in the new film, Baloo is one of the most beloved characters in The Jungle Book, with a cuddly, comical image. Yet the sloth bear, the animal upon which Baloo is based, can actually be quite aggressive. It is possible to view them safely, however, right across the Subcontinent, notably in the Terai region of southern Nepal. The country’s two most famous wildlife reserves, Chitwan and Bardia, both have significant numbers of these shaggy-furred, largely nocturnal creatures, who feast on fruit, termites and honeybees.
Spot Kaa in Kruger National Park, South Africa
Indian rock pythons like Kaa, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, can grow to up to three metres in length. Their African cousins, however, are even bigger: some exceed six metres. One of the best places to spot these giant constrictors is Kruger National Park, South Africa’s largest and most famous reserve. Encompassing savannah, bushland, tropical forests and mountains, the park is also home to some 150 species of mammals and over 500 species of birds.
Find Akela in Yellowstone National Park, USA
America’s first national park, spanning almost 9000 square kilometres, Yellowstone is home to the cousins of Akela, the wise leader of the wolf pack that adopts Mowgli, voiced by Breaking Bad star Giancarlo Esposito in the new film. Grey wolves were hunted and poisoned to the point of extinction in the park in the 1920s, but they were reintroduced in 1995 and now number more than a hundred. Wolf-watching trips have become increasingly popular and sightings are common.
Shafik Meghji co-authors The Rough Guide to India and The Rough Guide to Nepal. He blogs at www.unmappedroutes.com and tweets @ShafikMeghji. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.