The Real Jungle Book: Playing With Tigers In Madhya Pradesh, India

With Walt Disney’s recent reboot of the Rudyard Kipling classic, SUITCASE ventures into Madhya Pradesh in central India to find the Royal Bengal Tiger making a timely comeback…

It's close encounters of the furred kind. The first sign we're not alone in Kanha National Park is the trail of earthy pug-marks in the biscuit-brown dust by the entrance gate. Unmistakeable, the prints - five small circles above a weighty smudge - cross the track, before disappearing into a thick bower of forest. This is the territory of the most elusive big cat, the pin-striped Royal Bengal tiger, and inspiration for the Kipling classic The Jungle Book.

The Mumbai-born writer first used the sal and fern forests of the Seoni Hills in southeast Madhya Pradesh as the setting for his stories back in 1894. Yet fast forward more than 120 years and this jungle greenbelt, of which Kanha is part, is still intrinsically bound to the legacy of abandoned man cub Mowgli, Bagheera, Kha, and sloth bear Baloo.

It's also where you can find dusty, cracked hills crowned with jungle forts, ochre-roofed huts and yawning villages, and a scattering of luxury safari tented camps, the individuality of which makes them more rewarding than the wildlife circuses found in Kenya or Kruger. Here there is no tourist crush.

In the afternoon, feverish after our morning game drive, we retreat to the comfort of Shergarh Tented Camp in the park's buffer zone to watch the afternoon fade into soft-focus in the shade. The home of Jehan and Katie Bhujwala, and their children Kai and Ella, the camp is run like a family retreat, with all the jungle eco-chic touches you'd expect to find in a place inspired by Kipling's era of colonial splendour: gin and tonics on the terrace, afternoon tea with homemade Indian snacks, a library to sift through and tents lit by oil lanterns.

But still, the real luxury of a camp such as Shergarh is impalpable. The Bhujwalas have co-pioneered a walking safari in the park's buffer zone, keeping deforestation in check and helping to safeguard the tiger's habitat from development. It's early days, of course, and it's just one of many steps being taken to help ensure the species' survival. But numbers (estimated at around 75 in Kanha) seem to be on the rise and for the time being, man and tiger - once rural India's greatest nemesis - are living happily side by side.

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