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In Search of Kahna and Kipling

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July 2007
In Search of Kahna and Kipling

One hundred years ago, Rudyard Kipling, known for his stories about life in India, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Kahna National Park, the inspiration for his most famous work—the classic Jungle Book—is alive and well as part of India's Project Tiger. Much of the wildlife Kipling wrote about in the mid-1890s still flourishes in the wilds of Kahna.

Kipling's stirring tales of Mowgli, the man-cub, and his animal friends helped lead the way towards conserving this wondrous park. Born in Mumbai (then Bombay) in 1865, Kipling continued to feel the attraction of India even when he lived or traveled elsewhere. He wrote the first Jungle Book in 1894 and in it he introduced the characters we have grown to love.

In Kipling's time, the area now known as Kahna was a wilderness stretching across much of the state of Madhya Pradesh. The predominately Sal and Bamboo forest was home to a wide range of wildlife from the panther (Bagheera in Jungle Book) to the sloth bear (Baloo) to the star of today's tourism—the tiger (Shere Khan).

To preserve the wildlife and scenic beauty that inspired Kipling's beloved children's story, India created Kahna National Park in 1955. With an area of 1945 square kilometers (about 800 square miles), it is large enough to sustain populations of many vulnerable and endangered species. To help further protect the tiger, and all other plants and animals living in the park, it was named the Project Tiger Conservation program in 1974.

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Project Tiger initially began with nine reserves (including Kanha) after a first ever tiger census in 1972 found only 1827 tigers in the wild. Hunting, encroachment by man and, most significantly, habitat loss had driven the tiger to the edge of extinction. Today, Project Tiger has 27 reserves and the national tiger census shows that tiger numbers now exceed 4000. Project Tiger has also resulted in increased numbers of all other animals that share the parks with the tigers. The Indian government realized that preserving the ecosystem for the top of the food chain would benefit all wildlife.

For the most part, the animal characters in the Jungle Book still roam Kahna National Park. The sloth bear, panther or leopard, and the she-wolf (Raksha)—all protectors to Mowgli—are still seen on safari drives in the park, though the wolf is restricted to the eastern section of the park.���Mowgli's nemesis, the langur monkeys (Bundarlog) and tiger, are likewise often seen by persistent or lucky travelers.

For admirers of Shere Khan, Kahna has a very special feature for those wanting their own close encounter with the King of the Jungle. The Tiger Show, a unique feature of Kahna, gets wildlife lovers close to tigers. Once you board the elephant, you venture into the jungle and stop within a few feet of a tiger. It's just 2 people, a mahout and the elephant he controls.���Neither tiger nor elephant seem to be affected by the encounter. In fact, the last time I visited Kahna and took part in the Tiger Show, a large male tiger slept through the continuous visits by forty or more tourists—two at a time—on the backs of the two well-trained elephants. Nowhere else in India is there a better chance to see a tiger in the wild.

The greatest success story for Kahna is not the tiger, despite the growing population, but rather the swamp deer or Barasingha. The hard ground variety of the swamp deer is found nowhere else in the world other than in Kanha. Not long ago, their number had plunged to 66, but today the park hosts over 400 swamp deer. Virtually every jeep safari gives the wildlife photographer ample opportunity to photograph this majestic animal.

Three other deer species (chital, sambar and barking) are found in the park as well. The chital (spotted deer) are small and beautiful with, as the name implies, distinctive white spots. The males sport very large antlers. The sambar deer is India's equivalent of the American elk in size and stature. The barking deer gets its name from its characteristic alarm call.

One of the more interesting interactions between animals involves one of the deer species and the monkeys. The chital are almost always found in the company of the langur monkeys. The deer's good hearing and alertness, coupled with the monkeys' commanding view from the trees, gives both of them a better early warning system for predators. The chital also gain by eating the fruit and nuts dropped by the monkeys above them.

Another easily seen yet endangered animal is the gaur. The gaur is the largest member of the cattle family, with some reaching six foot high at the shoulders and weighing over 2500 pounds. These mammoth beasts are the precursor to all domestic cattle. The gaur can be seen in the both the densely forested areas and the open meadows of the park. One of the favorite foods of the tiger, these large bovines, often heard before seen, snort and paw the ground.

The gaur isn't the only ancestor of modern farming found in Kahna. The wild jungle fowl, the forerunner of the domestic chicken, can often be seen running across the roads in the park. Along with the feathered symbol of India, the peafowl, one can find numerous stork, duck, heron, pigeon, woodpecker, owl and eagle species in Kahna—a bird lover's paradise. There are more than 200 species of birds in Kahna today.

Diversity of habitat allows this wide array of bird life to flourish. Kanha preserves dense forest, disturbed forest (wooded areas with many breaks and open areas), open grasslands, wetlands, mountains and transitional zones. This diversity of flora also accounts for the large number of herbivores that, in turn, allow Kanha's predators to flourish.

Kahna has found itself in the spotlight many times since Kipling's Jungle Book. It was the study sight for zoologist George Schaller's famous work on predator/prey relationships, Deer and the Tiger. In the BBC special "The Land of The Tiger," narrated by Sir Richard Attenborough, Kanha provided the backdrop for tracing the life and death struggles of a female tiger and her cubs. Though released 40 years ago, Disney's classic animated version of Jungle Book is the best-known connection to Kahna since Kipling.

Kipling would have been proud to know that his beloved jungle still carries the roar of the tiger, the screech of the leopard and the laugh of the monkey.���Nowhere else in the world can you live inside a book like you can in Kahna. With continued diligence, Kahna, Baloo, Shere Khan and the whole gang will be here to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of Kipling's Nobel Prize.

Practical Information

Getting There: Kahna National Park lies 266 kilometers (170 miles) from Nagpur. Good roads connect the city to the park.���There is also an airport near the entrance of Kahna for small planes and charter flights.

Accommodations and Dining:���There are several resorts near the entrance to Kahna. All are full service and include all meals. The menus alternate between Indian and Continental dishes.

Climate: This sub-tropical climate can reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer while winter highs are a more reasonable 78 degrees.���The 60+ inches of rain falls predominately from July to mid-November when the park is closed.

Other attractions in Madhya Pradesh:

Khajuraho—This UNESCO World Heritage site highlights the artistic glory of the Chandela Kings with hundreds of delicate stone carved figures on the walls of the many area temples.

Panna National Park—Just 57 kilometers (35 miles) from Khajuraho. It is home to deer, leopard, monkey and tiger.

Bandhavgarh National Park—210 kilometers (125 miles) from Khajuraho or 195 kilometers (115 miles) from Jabalpur. This small park, named for an ancient fort, has one of the highest densities of tigers in India. In 1951 an orphaned white tiger cub was captured and became the progenitor of all white tigers in captivity today. Mohan, as he was named, was the last wild white tiger ever seen.

By William Ball


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