Not The Jungle Book
In preparation for the twice postponed (because of Covid) trip to India Elaine and I had long planned, I read Kipling's The Jungle Book (Vols 1 & 2). Never read Kipling before, I have to admit. My reading was prompted because the location of the Mowgli stories in the book is precisely where we were headed: the forests of Madhya Pradesh in central India. Actually Kipling had never been there; though born in India, he was shipped back to England by his parents at the age of six to go to school, then returned to Northern India in his early 20s. He relied heavily on folk tales repeated by his father. It has to be said that, for all its merits and demerits (it's quite uneven but has some wonderful writing in parts), it is not a particularly accurate guide to the flora and fauna of Madhya Pradesh.
It is of course quite unlike the Disney film. If you've seen that, or dare I say read the book, which is quite out of fashion, you will recognise some names of species. Baloo the bear, for instance: Baloo (Bhalu) is the Hindi name for the Sloth Bear, Bagheera is supposed to mean Leopard but actually is something like "Little Tiger" and Shere Khan translates loosely as King Tiger. Here's a short video I shot of a nine-month Baloo running across our path to reunite with its mother and sibling.
These bears, we were told, pose the most danger to local villagers – more so even than the Leopard, because their sight is poor and there is always the risk of their coming upon humans unexpectedly. Like most bears, they are omnivorous, but are particularly fond of termites, which they suck in through the considerable gap between their front teeth.
Mowgli himself is supposed to take his name from a frog, but this seems to have been made up by Kipling. We did encounter the frog in our cabin during our stay on the outskirts of Satpura National Park. To be specific: an Indian Tree Frog. It was visiting our bathroom. We managed to capture it in a plastic bag and reintroduce it humanely to the wild.
Our location for the week we were there (flanked by days in Delhi) was truly fabulous. Our cabin was part of Reni Pani Jungle Lodge, a well-run facility with restaurant, swimming pool, library (the only location with limited wifi), where our every need was met. One rule, however, was that as soon as night fell we were not allowed to move freely outside our cabin or the main buildings, but needed to be accompanied by a member of staff with a torch. This was because of possible danger from wildlife, specifically the Leopard. (We had had this experience before on our safari trip in Zambia six years ago.) And one evening we did indeed hear an alarm call from one of the Chital, a small, delicate species resembling our Fallow Deer, indicating the presence of a Leopard nearby.
We had arrived there via internal flight, Delhi–Bhopal, followed by a three-hour car trip. We had been apprehensive because previous Naturetrek tour reports had mentioned bad roads, but the roads were fine and the ride was smooth, apart from having to dodge the inevitable cows that have priority everywhere, even on dual-carriageway roads. There were also monkeys – Langurs and Rhesus Macaques – on the road!
We had daily four-to-five-hour drives into the National Park, alternating between four morning drives and two evening ones, a nice balance. We were driven in an open-sided jeep by Jesan, the Indian guide assigned to us, whose knowledge of the local wildlife and passion for communicating that knowledge to us was outstanding. (Also an English Literature graduate, so he knew Kipling and quoted Wordsworth to us.) Half an hour's drive took us to the edge of the Tawa Reservoir, where we dismounted and boarded small ferries to take us across the water to the entrance to the National Park itself. Here we transferred to a similar Satpura National Park vehicle with a local driver and naturalist in the front seats – Jesan remaining with us as guide because the local employees had little English.
Our morning safaris started in darkness at 6.00am, dawn beginning to
break as we crossed the misty water. We were provided with blankets for
the cold (and even with hot-water bottles on the later trips as the
temperature was dropping) but the return was in bright sunshine and we
were welcomed back to Reni Pani with refreshing wet towels and glasses
of iced tea. In the middle of each safari we stopped for a picnic
breakfast and a comfort break. The two afternoon safaris started in
sunshine at 2:00pm with the sun setting before we returned, and on those
occasions the welcome involved hot towels and hot masala tea.
It had been impressed on us that, despite the fact the National Park is also called Satpura Tiger Reserve, we should not expect to see Tigers, as they are shy and unhabituated to human beings here, unlike in other reserves in India. However, Jesan reported there had been an alert that one had been spotted on our first day, so he had some hopes and the guides were keeping their eyes and ears open for signs and alarm calls from prey animals.
Satpura is covered by mixed deciduous forest and is decidedly hilly, the trails winding up and down as well as side to side, occasionally dipping into a small ford over a stream. Teak predominates in part of the forest; other significant trees pointed out were Mango, Tamarind, Satinwood, Crocodile Bark Tree, Gooseberry Tree and the extraordinary Ghost Tree which sheds its papery bark twice a year.
Among the herbivores we observed in profusion were: Chital or Spotted Deer; the larger Sambal deer (a favourite prey of the Tiger); Nilgai or Bluebuck, the largest Asian antelope, the males being blue-grey in colour; and Gaur, also a favoured Tiger prey. We were told the Gaur is the ancestor of the now extinct Aurochs, the wild cattle that once roamed Europe. Seeing them was like watching a prehistoric cave painting come to life. They are the largest bovid species occurring today. Mature males are almost black, the females and younger males brown. We had a very close view of a herd, with juvenile males locking horns in play fight. Jesan told us these combats are designed to establish dominance relationships and avoid real fights; which, if they do occur, run the risk of death or serious injury.
We were also keen to see the famous Indian Giant Squirrel, and were not disappointed, with two excellent sightings of these richly coloured, long-tailed rodents in the trees.
We caught a glimpse of a Leopard one morning, stalking the undergrowth about a hundred metres from our jeep and momentarily climbing a tree to have a good look at us before descending and moving on. We also saw Wild Pigs and a juvenile Mugger Crocodile.
We had been hoping to spot Indian Wild Dogs or Dhole, but were unlucky in this.
There were birds in profusion: the ubiquitous Peafowl of course, but also Grey Junglefowl (the ancestors of our chickens), Quail, several species of Woodpecker, Indian Grey Hornbill, several brilliant species of Kingfisher, at least three species of green Parakeet, Nightjar, Black Kite, Crested Serpent Eagle, Grey and Purple and Pond Heron, Golden Oriole, Drongo, Indian Robin (no red breast). Jesan pointed out a Great Tit and we said "Boring! seen that before."
Here are pictures of a Woolly-necked Stork and of a Treepie trying to get into a cocoon for breakfast. (Thanks to Jesan for these pics.)
But what of the Tiger? We had a report that a female had been observed with two cubs in the vicinity (the animal had been given the name Firebreak Female because of where she was spotted). But despite observing clear, fresh prints in the mud at the side of the path, and once hearing repeated alarm calls from the Langurs in the trees, we didn’t see anything for two days.
Then suddenly, on our fourth day trip, it happened. We had stopped momentarily to observe a Wood Spider, in the middle of its immense web slung between two trees, overpowering and killing a butterfly – the most action we had seen that day. The jeep started up again and moved up a hill. As we breasted the top, the female park employee in the driver’s seat suddenly called to the driver to stop immediately. And there she was: a beautiful five-year-old female Tiger lying asleep right in our path – we had come perilously close to running her over!
After two days of hushed stops listening for sounds and combing the undergrowth for sightings, this encounter was almost comical in its suddenness. The Tiger was no more than five metres from the front of our vehicle. And she was not going to have her sleep disturbed. If we made a sound, her ears would prick up, and once or twice she actually opened her eyes and looked at us then went back to sleep. Once she turned over with her paws in the air like a kitten then settled on her other side.
We couldn’t get past, and there was no sign she was going to get up. So after about 20 minutes, our driver decided to back the jeep down the slope until he could find a place to turn round, and we said goodbye to Firebreak Female. Where were her cubs? Were they safe? We didn’t know.
By common consent, this was the highlight of our trip.
PS: Since returning to the UK, we heard from Jesan, our guide, that Firebreak Female had been spotted several times with her cubs.