The story of Mowgli, a boy living among animals in the Indian forest, remains as vivid and appealing today as it was when Rudyard Kipling included it in The Jungle Book, a series of short fables published in 1894. Mowgli’s adventures have been retold time and again in animated films, television shows, plays, and now a partly live-action Disney feature.
But while the universal tale of friendship, belonging, and community remains steadfast, the state of the animals Kipling featured has not. Even a century ago, the author was concerned with the human impact on nature, and many of the animals he described are now threatened with extinction. Here’s what you should know about the real-life versions of The Jungle Book gang.
Black panthers like Bagheera are not a distinct species, but are simply color variants of the spotted leopards found in Asia and Africa and the jaguars found in South America. Kipling acknowledges this when he describes Bagheera as “inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk.”
Leopards have the largest distribution of any wild cat in the world, but they are also the most persecuted. That’s likely because leopards can live in places with suboptimal habitat, including on the fringes of cities, where they are more likely to come into contact with people. They are also hunted for the illegal wildlife trade, including for use in traditional Chinese medicine.
“They’re being killed more and taken into captivity more—it’s really becoming a problem,” says Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization.
He and other experts are keeping a close eye on leopard populations to see if they should revise the cat's conservation status, as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), from “near threatened” to “vulnerable.”
The true identity of Kipling’s “sleepy brown bear” is a bit of an enigma: Baloo’s physical description in the book would suggest a sloth bear, but his diet of nuts and honey runs counter to that species’ insect-eating preferences. Baloo’s name, which simply means “bear” in Hindustani, lends no additional clues.
“The problem is that The Jungle Book is fiction, and all of Kipling’s characters are a mixture of imaginary types and real animals, so it’s impossible to know the species for sure,” says Kaori Nagai, a Kipling scholar at the University of Kent. But Kipling did use 19th-century naturalists’ writings while crafting the book, and one of his sources was an 1884 natural history text that notes that the common Indian sloth bear is “as a rule vegetarian.” Given that sloth bears tend to sleep a lot during the day and can be found throughout India, most scholars agree that Baloo likely fits this label. And Disney's 1967 animated movie has Baloo teaching Mowgli to eat ants.
Sloth bears, which are found only in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and India, are currently listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN, but they “are quite widespread and safe in India in terms of conservation, although they are under some pressure from trade for their gallbladders,” says Ullas Karanth, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s India program. The bears are also abundant in many reserves in India, he adds, “where they are especially adapted to eating termites—and fond of honey.”
Mowgli’s jungle foe, the Bengal tiger Shere Khan, is the most imperiled of Kipling’s characters. According to new estimates, about 3,890 tigers remain in the wild worldwide—about half of which live in India. That’s an apparent increase from 2010, when 3,200 tigers were thought to exist. But not everyone is convinced that the bump truly represents a recovery for the big cats, and new data published by the IUCN shows that global tiger range has declined by 40 percent since 2010.
“A lot of people hailed this as a huge success in tiger conservation,” says Rabinowitz. “In reality, it was a huge success in assessing tiger numbers.” He credits better census-taking strategies and technologies for the apparent population rise.
In India, which invests the most of any country in tiger assessments and protection, the news is a mix of good and bad. Tiger habitat in many areas there continues to fall to development, and poaching in certain places is rampant. But some of the large cats are roaming between strictly protected areas, and populations in other places are stable or increasing. Overall, Rabinowitz says, “India’s doing well and is the major country that’s contributing to the conservation of wild tigers.”
Akela and Raksha
Mowgli’s adoptive canine parents are Indian wolves, which are simply wolves that live in India. “The wolf, Canis lupus, is circumpolar, so it ranges throughout the world,” says David Mech, a senior research scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey. “The wolf in India is the same species as the ones in Minnesota, Canada, or anywhere.”
Listed as “least concern” by the IUCN, wolves are doing OK in India, where they live scattered across more rural areas of the country. What they are not doing, however, is raising human babies. “There’s no evidence of a child ever actually being raised by wolves,” Mech says.
The conniving Kaa is an Indian rock python, a nonvenomous serpent that can grow up to 21 feet (6.4 meters) long. Cars represent the biggest threat to rock pythons, followed by habitat destruction and purposeful killings by villagers.
“People get afraid and kill pythons because they confuse them with venomous snakes,” says M. Bubesh Guptha, a wildlife biologist at Pitchandikulam Forest in southern India. The snakes are also always in high demand by the foreign pet trade. For now, rock pythons are listed as “near threatened,” and India has established captive breeding programs and rehabilitation centers for the snakes, in addition to banning their trade.
King Louie has always been a bit of a cinematic wild card. Kipling included no such character in his book, but Disney’s introduction of a vine-swinging jazzy orangutan in its 1967 animated feature was an instant hit. There was a hitch, however: Orangutans don’t live in India. The endangered great apes are found only in the dwindling rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra.
Rather than perpetuate a geographic fallacy, the team behind the new Disney movie came up with a creative fix—one that would allow them to have their ape king and correctly place him, too. Today’s King Louie is a Gigantopithecus, a massive ape genus that once lived in forests throughout southern China, Southeast Asia, and India.
Experts know little about what the creatures actually looked like, because they have only jaw bones and enamel teeth caps to go on. For now, all we know for sure is that Gigantopithecus fits within the evolutionary tree of Asian apes and that it likely appeared most similar to a modern orangutan—albeit a 9-foot-tall (2.7-meter-tall) version.
The youngest known Gigantopithecus fossil specimen dates to about 400,000 years old, although Russell L. Ciochon, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Iowa, is currently investigating caves for evidence of a more recent population. Regardless of the temporal mismatch, Ciochon approves of Gigantopithecus’s inclusion in the new film.
“I’ve been studying Giganto for a long time, and now I find out it’s a movie star,” he says. “Except for dinosaurs, you don’t really see that happening a lot for extinct creatures.”