All the talk is about tigers. How many there are. Where we might see them. How likely that is. “Tigers cross road here,” enthuses Ganesh, our driver, as, in the dusty early evening, we head through the Indian countryside to Kanha National Park.
Deep in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, Kanha is often credited as the inspiration for The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated collection of animal fables (starring Shere Khan, the tiger).
The book may still be read by Indian schoolchildren, but it’s better known to many westerners these days through films – the 1967 Walt Disney classic or the acclaimed follow-up released back in April. A third version, with a cast including Benedict Cumberbatch and Cate Blanchett, is scheduled for release in 2018. It’s a cinematic jungle out there.
Now call me a nit-picker, but Kipling never actually visited the Kanha area. He based his jungle descriptions on other people’s books, photographs and what friends told him about it. Who cares? Kanha, with its 750 square miles of grassland and dense forests of sal trees and bamboo, can be excused for making the most of the association.
At Kanha, my wife and I are staying at Banjaar Tola, a luxury “tented camp” run by Taj Safaris. Our suite, with its treetop-level verandah overlooking a river, has bamboo floors, a sturdy canvas roof and walls, and décor modelled on tribal art. And it has electric blankets. With superb food, this is camping we understand.
Most guests come for – yes - the tigers. Kanha may have as many of 80 of them, but nationally the statistics are grim. At the turn of the century, India had around 100,000 tigers. Thanks to trigger-happy Brits and maharajahs, it was down to 32,000 by the late 1940s. And now, poachers have reduced the tiger population to an estimated 2,200.
“For 25 years there were no laws against shooting tigers, so the common man went into hunting,” says Nagendra Singh Hada, Taj Safaris’ general manager over lunch. “But the tiger is one of the best creations God has gifted us.”
We spend much of the next two days on “game drives” – open-jeep safaris – with Sadhvi Singh, a dazzlingly well-informed 24-year-old naturalist. We have a one-in-three chance of seeing a tiger, she tells us, and there were two sightings early morning.
We nod encouragingly, but come clean. We’re not tiger-twitchers, we’re interested in birds and there are 200 or more species living here.
As she drives us round the park’s roads and rough tracks, Sadhvi points out rare swamp deer strolling with stately indifference to us, and a jungle cat staring out of the long grass – “even rarer than a tiger... When we drive along here, always something is watching, watching – tigers, leopards, porcupines, pangolins...”
Her eyes scan the trees. “Racket-tailed drongo over there,” she says. “Rufous treepie... Red-wattled lapwing there... Indian grey hornbill... Plum-headed parakeet... Yellow-footed green pigeon... Scops owl gazing down, camouflaged by the bark.” A flock of dots flies across the horizon. Mynahs, she says.
We have dinner round a bonfire and sleep extremely well.
Next morning at 6.30am, mist swirls over the forest and spiders’ webs glisten with dew. There’s frost on the grass, porridge and whisky on the terrace, and hot water bottles in the jeep. The sun rises, almost silver through the mist.
As we set off on another safari, someone seems to be blowing a bugle in the distance. “The rutting call of the swamp deer,” says Sadhvi.
We talk about Kipling. “A lot of visitors mention The Jungle Book,” says Sadhvi. “They say ‘Shere Khan, the cruel tiger’. But tigers are relaxed animals; they don’t get angry – even if there are 10 vehicles in front of them. They don’t care, because they know they’re the kings of the Indian jungle.”
We pass a jeep-load of guests who have spotted one. They show us the pictures on their smart phones. They’re very happy, but, even though we’ve seen no tigers, so are we. After all, we’ve seen a racket-tailed drongo.
Cox & Kings (020 3642 0861, coxandkings.co.uk) offers a 10 day / eight night tailor-made tour to India from £2,795 pp sharing. The price includes international flights, private transfers, game drives, train journeys and breakfast daily. The itinerary includes Kanha, Delhi, Agra (Taj Mahal), Mumbai and Chambal National Park.