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The Real Jungle Book: Experience India’s Wildlife Safaris

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The story of Mowgli, a boy living among animals in the Indian forest, remains as vivid and appealing today as it was when Rudyard Kipling included it in The Jungle Book – a series of short stories written by Kipling and published in 1894. Mowgli’s adventures have been told time and again in animated films, cartoons and more recently in a live action movie which you quite possibly watched during the lockdown. And while the universal tale of friendship, belonging, and community remains true and valid today, sadly the environments that Kipling would have known and enjoyed over 100 years ago are today under threat as a result of human actions and of course climate change. That being said, India is to be applauded for many of its conservation efforts not least of which is the establishment of National Parks. The first park, known today as the Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, was established in 1936 and today, India’s National Parks number 104, with plans to take this number to over 170 by including other protected areas and wildlife reserves in the National Park lists. For fans of Kipling and the Jungle Book stories however, head to the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and the Pench Tiger Reserve or Pench National Park where you will be able to spot the real-wildlife versions of The Jungle Book gang that inspired Kipling all those years ago.

The Royal Bengal Tiger is recognized as the National Animal of India. Madhya Pradesh has the highest number of Bengal Tigers in all of India, with 526 at last count, living in the wild. With an estimated wild population in the whole country of 2,976 tigers it is easy to see why the Pench Tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh is one of the best places in India to see these big cats in their natural environment. It is often said of Madhya Pradesh that in any other state you are lucky if you see a tiger, but in Madhya Pradesh you are unlucky if you don’t see one.

While it is fantastic to hear of India’s conservation efforts and their protection of both the tigers and their natural environments with the establishment of the National Parks and the tiger reserves. It is perhaps a sobering thought when one considers that the 2,976 tigers living in the wild in India today do in fact make up 75% of the world’s total wild tiger population. And yet in Kipling’s day, barely 100years ago, there were an estimated 40,000 tigers living in the wild across the Indian subcontinent. Tiger counts include all animals older than 18months old. But India’s efforts with the establishment of conservation initiatives such as Project Tiger and the creation of Tiger Reserves have been successful, and the tiger population is slowly increasing. The population of tigers fell to as low as just 1,800 tigers in 1972, and today, thanks to the hard work of the teams behind the reserves and parks, the tiger population is approaching 3,000 tigers in the wild.

The Kanha National Park, or Kanha Tiger Reserve, is located across the Central Highlands of Southeast Madhya Pradesh and is the state’s largest wildlife sanctuary and National Park. Established as a forest reserve back in Kipling’s day, 1879, the area was made a National Park in 1955. Along with Pench it is considered as one of the areas in Madhya Pradesh that inspired Kipling’s Jungle Book. With an area covering over 1,900 sq. km it is India’s 10th largest conservation area and is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna. It is also part of Project Tiger where tiger reserves are designated within conservation areas and National Parks in to provide extra protection to the local tiger populations from human activity and disturbance. This beautiful area of forest and lightly wooded grassland with many rivers and streams supports an amazing variety of wildlife. While on safari in the park you are likely to encounter the now endangered Barasingha Deer, Barking Deer, Spotted Deer, the Gaur which is one of the largest of all the bovines, Golden-backed Jackal, Jungle Cat, Common Langur, Sloth Bear, Wild Boar, Dhole or Asian Wild Dog, and the elusive Leopard and of course the Bengal Tigers. There is also a rich collection of 300 bird species including colourful Bee Eaters, Hornbills, Kingfishers, Steppe Eagles and Crested Serpent Eagles, and Lesser Adjutant Cranes to name but a few.

The Bagh Kanha Jungle Resort, located in the beautiful Maikal Hills in the Central Highlands of Madhya Pradesh and one of the regions that inspired Rudyard Kipling for The Jungle Book, is one of our 2 favourite places to stay when looking to go on safari in the Kanha National Park. This relaxing forest 24-room retreat is located just 15 minutes away by car from the Mukki Gate of the Kanha National Park. The team organize safaris into the park accompanied by expert naturalists to help guests spot the wildlife and share the stories of the flora and the fauna they encounter along the way. The owner of the resort is also a keen ornithologist, and he couldn’t have picked a better place to call home with the rich abundance of bird life on his doorstep being one of the best places in India for bird watching. In addition to the wildlife safaris, visitors will also have the opportunity to learn about the life and culture of Central Asia’s indigenous tribes that live alongside and in harmony with nature and call this region home too.

And the gorgeously intimate and very private Flame of the Forest Safari Lodge is our other favourite home from home for visits and safaris to Kanha National Park. Set within 10acres of private forest and facing the Banjar River, Flame of the Forest was built sustainably, from the ground up by local people employing traditional methods and local materials. With just 4 cottages, each positioned to ensure privacy and river views for all the guests, the style and feel of the lodge is very warm and homely. Guided safaris to Kanha start your day. And end your day dining with the team and your fellow guests on the freshest local produce. When not on safari, practice yoga or take guided excursions to local villages and markets to learn about the lifestyles of the people and communities that have long called Kanha home.

Rajasthan, bordering Madhya Pradesh’s northwestern edge, is also home to wonderful wildlife reserves and some incredible big cat encounters. The Ranthambore National Park, one of the country’s most celebrated wildlife reserves, is where you can catch a glimpse of the Royal Bengal Tiger. The park is located in Rajasthan at the eastern end of Aravalli Range, and when on safaris here in the early morning or just before sunset visitors are almost guaranteed sightings of the park’s wild Bengal Tigers. Home to a rich diversity of wildlife including Leopards, Sloth Bears, Macaques, Common Langurs, Nilgai, Indian Gazelles, Wild Boars, Jackals, Samber and Marsh Mugger Crocodiles, and over 320 species of migrant and resident birds. The ideal place to stay when going on safari to Ranthambore has to be the majestic Talabgaon Castle. A grand family home for more than 150years, the family have now opened their home to guests as a wonderful heritage boutique hotel. With 26 rooms and suites, swimming pool, beautiful gardens, bar and restaurant within the cool and ornate architecture of this Rajasthan fort, guests are immersed within the family history of the Rajput nobles. Ensure you allow time for a safari into Rajasthan’s Thar Desert which the family arrange for you by camel – a highlight of a stay at Talabgaon Castle. The family and castle are very much a part of the local community and guests will get to experience all facets of local life along with opportunities for safaris to the wildlife of Ranthambore.

Last but not least let’s not forget the Leopards. Tigers are not the only big cats worth seeking while on safari or wildlife holidays in India. The wonderful Rawla Bisalpur Heritage Boutique Hotel in Jawai-Bandh, Rajasthan is perfectly located for the best leopard spotting (please excuse the pun) in India. The Jawai Leopards live on the nearby Aravalli Hills, on which the Rawla Bisalpur has nestled for the last 400 years or so. Living side by side with the leopards, the family of Rawla Bisalpur have long enjoyed the pleasure of their graceful feline neighbours. The Jawai Leopard as it has become known is a common sight here and lives amongst a variety of other wildlife and birdlife. In fact twitchers staying at Rawla Bisalpur are blessed too with the nearby Jawai Lake, Rajasthan’s biggest reservoir, which is home to over 100 species of birds.

Kipling really put India’s wonderfully rich and abundant nature on the map with his Jungle Book stories all those years ago. His muses, the Pench and Kanha National Parks, are yours to enjoy on a Secret Retreats wildlife holiday thanks to all the hard work of the local people in setting up the wildlife sanctuaries helping to ensure generations to come can still bring Kipling’s stories to life on their visits to Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

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