If there is one animal I am fully uncomfortable around – or truly scared of – whichever way you infer it, it is none other than a wild bear.
Having said that, I have had the liberty of lying very close to a fresh, odourless, dung of a Black Bear (Ursus americanus) in the temperates, always wondering if the bear was still around, or had simply trailed away on his daily trot as I was lulled to sleep by some outworldly forces. I do not know until this day if I really slept through it as I waited in the hide, or was my body innately reacting by feigning death to the presence, or the unknown absence, of the bear in the vicinity.
But no bear sniffed me that day, I believe, however my imaginations opened the doorway to vivid dreams, exciting but downright scary. On the other hand, I observed that even man undergoes thanatosis, just as the little beetle you scared the hell out of, when you grabbed him off its perch.
That was three years ago, and only a year before I had had the experience of crossing paths with one of three bears of India famous for all the wrong reasons, the Sloth Bear, Melursus ursinus. It is the most versatile of the three species, because it is small yet powerful, tamable yet aggressive, and extremely curious and defensive. Although the above characteristics hold true for every bear species in the world, this one has a streak about him which I’d like to call mad if I simply put it arrogantly. But its general appearances have nothing to do with my fear of Ursids; my ursaphobia comes from my fascination with bears, and stories of bear-attacks.
Fortunately I have never had the experiences of the worst-kind with any bear species, and this phobia, therefore, I think is irrational. But when what you’ve read mingles with what you are experiencing, you’re in an entirely different state of mind.
Before I begin with my appointment with this bear, I must say a Sloth Bear is the most demeaning name of all bears. It is more uncommonly called Labiated Bear, specifically so because of their adaptation to feed on insects such as ants and termites, by sucking them out of their homes. They are the only bear adapted to a myrmecophagous diet (IUCN Red List).
Interactions with Labiated Bears have not been very pleasant in the past. Some online sources rank them one of the worst murderers of the animal kingdom, one of the reasons for this title is that they don’t kill to feed. In fact, Labiated Bears are feared more than tigers in some parts of India and Burma (Wikipedia), for the reason of attacks often appear unprovoked. The people living with these bears around agree to this with a nod and closed eyes.
My interaction with this bear was in Anshi National Park, a part of the Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve, when I had volunteered for WCS survey to estimate the tiger-prey population in Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve. This part of the Western Ghats is primarily evergreen forest, known for the healthy melanistic leopard population. Nobody told me there would be bears too.
It had been six days of long walks through some of the most beautiful evergreen and moist-deciduous forests of the Western Ghats. Occasionally we would come to bald mountains – a few scattered sholas of Dandeli-Anshi – and would freeze there enchanted. A few plants also tried their best to hold us back by sending down long barb-wired tendrils, its hooked thorns clutching our clothes and skin. Nobody told me we’d be facing the Calamus rotang, the plant whose fruits exude dragon’s blood.
These transect walks were arranged in the remotest of the regions of the Tiger Reserve, where the hopes of tigers and its prey living undisturbed from the beleaguering men were high. Only on two occasions did we come cross any settlements, mostly tribal communities, living deep inside the towering trees. These two instances were enough to get used to the brisk walking of men over dried leaves, and the perpetual noise of hacking and burning bamboo, which today has been recorded as a serious threat to the Tiger Reserve’s rich bamboo forests.
And so as you would walk on a pathless forest floor where you have to step on dried leaves, crumbling upon them without meaning to, we walked every day, sometimes twice in a day, recording deer, langur, and other wildlife that we could sight. The trick was we seeing them before they saw us. But they always beat us to this game.
On the seventh, and my last day, of the course, two of us started at 0400 Hrs only to reach the transect site in an hour, and about two hours from the sunrise. Even then the sun would not breach the thick, heavily wet and dripping canopy of the intimidating deep and dark woods that stretched before us down the vale. We decided to wait at a water-saturated clearing until the grey cloak allowed the strongest light to pass through.
Walking in the woods with the trees soaking you as though it is raining is a cold feeling. For some reason the water is heavier and colder and wetter. And as you brush through the dense undergrowth under a denser canopy, the water soaks you up from bottom up and top down. Yet it was a refreshing, and a new experience, of looking at forests at dawn.
As our eyes slowly began to distinguish shapes through the darkness, the veil was lifted, and the first light filtered through prisms of droplets. Grey Langurs howled and leapt as they heard us from miles away. Some invisible primates up the trees always threw fruits on our heads, something even Bagheera found extremely annoying 119 years ago. Sometimes they hit us, but often they startled us as the fruits fell in the leaf litter around.
Sometimes we came across a drying cake of elephant dung, and noticing its disintegrating nature, we would wound around it in hopes of seeing an elephant. As we walked at a steady pace of one hour for every kilometer, crossing a multitude of dry riverbeds and streambeds, we were on a particular hill which we traversed through its left shoulder.
There after a slight curve in the hill a stream has carved a shallow dell in a straight line across its length, its bank heavy with dry leaf litter. On the turn we heard the rustle made by brisk footsteps, probably put squarely in the driest of the leaf beds, heading in our direction.
The folly of brisk walking in the quietest of the forests can only be made by mankind, we presumed. Coming over the curve, and looking into the dell, we saw a big, black, head emerge looking down, and feet as large as mine.
The callous nature of walking as if in a market, and the size of the feet it would take to make such noise would have warned us already, but given our lack of tracking mammals – and the effervescent curiosity – urged us to go and check this thing out – and voila, it was a Labiated Bear, lost in thought as it followed, fortunately, not behind us but right through the dell and down the hill.
It was the first animal that we saw and which did not see us watching it go. Needless to say our hearts were pounding, our feet were tense, our brow sweating – and we traced about a quarter of a mile back to lose track or any scent of us which this curious bear of the woods would follow.
We waited under a tree, looking at each other, the horror of the what-if scenarios that ran simultaneously in our heads as that of seeing a handsome Labiated Bear in its prime habitat – on foot, showing nakedly on our face. After a while, we sat down.
After a little longer, we proceeded with extreme caution – like a shadow amongst the trees, but every fruit cast at our heads made us curse under our breath, and every curve or every river we crossed, we crossed with hearts in our mouth.
Man-animal conflict in Dandeli-Anshi Tiger Reserve is not unheard of. Bears have attacked in the past, and after we have passed through. The stories we’ve heard of bear attacking people, are different than the stories we hear of leopards attacking people. The attacks provoked by bears are not because they can overpower you easily, but because of some signal that you send off through your actions during the confrontation. A mother bear however would not regard whether you feign death or act large in front of her – she would chase you for miles until you fall flat on your face and have your guts ripped out. She is simply protecting her cubs. And this thought took its first shape in our minds as we saw the bear emerge.
Fortunately it was a single bear minding its own business, and we happened to cross our paths right at the crossing of one of the many pretty dells in a large evergreen forest along the Western Ghats. I would say we were destined to meet, with me carrying the burden of my own fear, and the bear carrying no care in the world of greeting me.
To each his own fear is said by Baloo in the chapter Kaa’s Hunting (The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling).