Pench National Park: The Jungle From THE JUNGLE BOOK

Sid goes looking for Shere Khan.

Disney’s live-action remake of The Jungle Book sticks to the general plot of its animated predecessor (you can read Devin’s review here), and the animated film in turn tells the same story as the book, with a few minor differences. Each is more streamlined than the last, shaving away the edges in order to keep a tight focus on Mowgli, and every iteration of Rudyard Kipling’s story explores humanity’s relationship with nature in a very direct way. It inserts a human character into the jungle setting, and even its striped antagonist, the ferocious, majestic Shere Khan, is driven by his encounter with nature’s most unforgiving predator. Kipling’s first Jungle Book novel was published as a series between 1893 and ’94, but what would his tale be about were it written today, over a hundred years later?

We humans are a destructive force, but our creativity can be used for good. That’s the lessons I always took from the 1967 classic as a child, but the question of our relationship to nature has had a constantly shifting answer for as long as we’ve been civilized. Over the last few centuries, industrialization and encroachment on forested land has led to widespread displacement of ecosystems, and perhaps worst of all, our penchant for hunting and collecting animal parts has rendered entire species extinct. When India gained independence from the British in 1947, our tiger population was somewhere in the vicinity of twenty-five thousand. At the turn of the millennium, it was a down to a mere twenty-five hundred. Our national parks have done a good job bringing that number up in the last decade (the tiger is our national animal, after all) and one of the places responsible for the increase in wildlife protection is Pench National Park. It was also the setting for Kipling’s original story, and a few weeks ago, I got to experience it for myself.

Kipling never visited Pench in person, but as a child of Mumbai (then Bombay), learning about the surrounding forests would’ve been unavoidable. The wildlife reserve wouldn’t be established until a century after his books were written, but the forest stands on the state borders of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, and has for a long time. Everything from the wildlife to the geography factors in to Kipling’s story, including the Pench river, which sweeps Mowgli away, and the Seoni district on the forest’s outskirts, from which the Seeonee wolves get their name.

The names in the story have simple meanings in Hindi. Raksha means protection, Akela means solitary, and Shere, Baloo (bhaaloo) and Bagheera mean tiger, bear and black panther respectively. On the way to the national park, a three hour drive from the nearest city, you can find many of the names re-purposed in order to sell the Jungle Book experience. Bagheera’s Retreat, Mougli’s Paradise, Mowgli’s Den and even Kipling’s Court are all real motels and restaurants a few miles outside the park. The resort I stayed at was called Baghvan, ‘bagh’ meaning tiger and ‘van’ meaning jungle. On first glance it looked like Bhagvaan, meaning God, which was kind of fitting. For a city dweller such as myself, a trip out in the wild, being cut off from the rest of the world, has a serene, pseudo-religious feeling, even if half of it is spent at a nice hotel.

It’s a stone’s throw away from the park, and upon entering, all dozen or so heads of staff gather by the gate and greet you by waving both hands. Not just once, but every time you come back from the reserve! It’s a gesture that indicates hospitality, which is essentially second nature to the Baghvan staff, and given that there’s only forty of them for the mere twelve cottages, it feels less like a hotel and more like a close-knit community. The property also feels like it was dropped right in the middle of an actual jungle (which it essentially was), with a lobby and dining area connected to forested pathways lit by lanterns leading you to your lodgings. There are no walls separating the resort from the wildlife, and if you’re lucky enough, you’ll catch a fleeting glimpse of the Langur (pictured above) that you heard trotting along your roof the previous evening. Or, if you’re as lucky as I was, you’ll run into an entire family of them on your way to lunch.

As explained by the head butler (less Alfred and more just a really polite dude who asks you what’s up), some of the animals make their way in to the resort, and even hang out on the roofs of the cottages. Each dwelling has an enclosed bedroom connected to a bathroom by a wooden bridge, along with an open-air shower if you feel comfortable enough. There’s a second shower inside, its drainage system consisting of wooden planks, although I’m not even sure its windows had curtains. That’s never really a problem though. The cottages are situated in a way that makes sure your only audience is nature. The rooms are fully furnished (except for televisions and wi-fi, and there’s no network out there except by the lobby) although the cottages appear almost rudimentary from the outside. The balconies are made from unvarnished wood, equipped with swings that look like they leapt out of an ancient Indian palace, and if you’re looking to sleep out amongst the elements, you even have the option of taking a narrow staircase up to your own private tree house.

The dinner area is a clearing lit only by lanterns, as they dangle from the vines of a humungous banyan tree, though I’m fairly certain they were all battery operated. The whole place is this incredible blend of ancient and modern, natural and artificial, and while it’s not quite ‘the great outdoors,’ it’s definitely selling you an upscale version of it. The resort isn’t the entire experience of course. If anything, it’s the reprieve between trips into the actual reserve, where the public is allowed to venture in (guided, and never on foot) between six and ten in the morning, and then again between three and seven. I went on five of these safaris during my three day stay, each in the hopes of glimpsing an elusive bagh, and despite a combined fifteen hours of driving around, I would’ve covered half the park at best.

Tigers are solitary animals, and there’s no way to spot them from a distance like you would a pack of lions. They’re also nocturnal hunters, so unless it’s especially hot and they need a drink of water, sightings tend to be rare. It also rained while I was visiting, meaning there wouldn’t be as much need for them to move around since the wet soil keeps them cool. The best way to track a tiger is by following the danger calls of other animals, so our guide Shreenivasan (Shree for short) would stop the jeep every few miles in order to have a listen. This also doubled as an opportunity to silently take in the sounds of the jungle and its vast array of colourful birds. Closing your eyes in the middle of a tiger park is a weird mix of risky and serene, but unless you hear a Langur making a coughing noise to warn their kin, chances are you’re in the clear. We heard plenty of coughs and followed plenty of potential tigers on those first three days, but with only forty of them at Pench, not seeing any at first was hardly a surprise. Still, it didn’t mean we couldn’t marvel at other species friendly to Mowgli. The Nilgai, the spotted deer, the four-horned antelope, the Sambar, and even the Wild Dogs that were the basis for his wolf pack.

One unexpected thing The Jungle Book gets right is the animals’ communal nature. Most watering holes are surrounded by both Langurs and Spotted Deer, sitting in no particular order, living harmoniously and even warning each other of a tiger’s arrival. The Langurs tend to be picky eaters, and if they taste something they don’t like, they promptly drop it on the ground. The deer don’t have the luxury of being able to climb trees, so when the Langurs discard the odd fruit or flower, they joyfully except the scraps. The spotted deer tend to be the friendliest of the jungle’s inhabitants, and it isn’t rare to see them mingling with peacocks and peahens either, but it certainly is a beautiful sight.

While the Deer tend to meander before re-mingling at the end of the day, the Langurs usually stick together in tight groups, sitting on logs three-at-a-time for balance and even taking care of each other’s kids once in a while. Seeing them out in the wild is like watching a part of yourself, untouched by technology and the weight of the modern world, though perhaps the most familiar reflection is that of surprise. They still aren’t used to human vehicles, and whenever we’d pass by them at a close distance, the momentary awe on their faces was worth a thousand words.

If the Langurs are coughing often enough, news of a tiger sighting travels fast, and while you usually feel like you have the whole jungle to yourself, there are times when twelve, even fifteen jeeps would gather at a particular spot and wait in complete silence. Some would spend fifteen minutes there and move on, others would wait hours, with their 600mm Canon lenses aimed at a clearing. We had no luck on days one, two and three, though upon returning to Baghvan on the third day, we learned that another couple had seen a mother tiger, sleeping between two rocks in the distance. They waited for her to wake up so they could gaze upon the majestic creature (this tiger happened to be one of the largest in the world) but they were forced out by park officials as soon as they entered hour five. While the couple only saw part of her torso, it seemed like there was a chance we’d catch a glimpse on our final day!

We arrived at the gate just before dawn on day four, and the line to get in was longer than usual. Thirty odd cars, backed all the way up to the farm right by the resort. A new inspector had been called in to patrol the gate, and he was checking everyone’s IDs more strictly than his predecessor. We weren’t quite sure what was happening, until a jeep full of officials passed us by and headed straight in to the park. We soon got word that this group had come in from a national park in a neighboring state, and they’d been driving all night. As it turns out, the tiger spotted the previous day hadn’t been sleeping.

She’d been killed, likely by poison.

The dreamlike escape into nature had suddenly turned very real, and very political. Guides were on strike until authorities could ensure the presence of park officials at the autopsy, and a heavy feeling had begun to creep through the air. Our guide Shree, who had just finished telling us about his lifelong passion for animals, was now stunned silent, holding back tears. The number of tigers at Pench had just dropped to thirty-nine, and her two cubs were nowhere to be found. The strict measures against poaching would’ve made it impossible for this to be about fur, and that’s really the only scenario I could think of. However, the situation at Pench was a lot more complicated than I’d imagined.

Of the ten rural villages located in the park, nine of them are on the peripheries. The tenth is Fulzari, located somewhere in the middle and believed to be the one featured in Kipling’s novel. The park officials of both Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh tend to go around Government bureaucracy for the good of their shared reserve, but one thing they can’t do without the Government’s approval is displace indigenous populations. Fulzari predates the park itself, so it’s their land as much as it is the animals’, and it’s unlikely they’d have killed a tiger just for fun. If there’s any blame to go around, it would have to fall on the bizarre situation, which is complicated from every angle.

For the park to function, officials need to let in paying tourists. It’s how the lights stay on, and it’s how the people protecting the endangered tigers can be compensated. For tourists to be able to visit, you need infrastructure. Roads. Rest stops. Emergency stations. The park covers three hundred square miles, so setting all this up is no easy feat. Some areas have to be cordoned off for construction if the park is to remain equipped to handle tourists, but the construction sometimes leads to tigers shifting territories, moving them closer and closer to the villages. I don’t know what the education is like in these villages, but they sure as heck know tigers. They’re animals that can feed off one kill for days on end, and while they’re away, the villagers poison the carcass. It’s an unfortunate outcome stemming from a combination of red tape, animal preservation and self-preservation, but I’d be lying if I said the villagers weren’t ingenuous.

All this brought me back to my original question: what would The Jungle Book have been about today? The illusion of a peaceful co-existence defines the surrounding resorts, which sell an artificial immersion into nature, but the clash between humans and animals in the jungle is right were it was during Kipling’s time. And while the preservation of animal life has yielded positive results in the past decade (India’s tiger population has almost doubled), that same preservation has come with the downside of re-creating the circumstances of the story, forcing humans and tigers into contact. It’s strange, but without ever having visited, Kipling was right on the money. Generally speaking, people have the ability to move elsewhere and to take measures to protect our animal friends, but Pench still remains a microcosm of our relationship to nature all those years ago. For better or worse, The Jungle Book still exists.

Note: While I didn’t see Shere Khan for myself, I came pretty close: