Behra Bhaloo, Kanwa Bhaloo, and other Bhaloo Kind

A mother bear and her cubs foraging for termites one fine afternoon.

As we huddled around the fire-stove, two big pots – one of daal and another bhaat – simmering with flavours and warmth, I held tightly a small cup of black coffee, eagerly waiting to ask a particular question to our cook who has been a part of the history of Guru Ghasidas National Park. It was cold and dark. There was a rustle of leaves and a crackle of breaking sticks as if something walked on the outer side of a thin wall that separated us from the dense forest. The question was about a Sloth Bear – bhaloo in the common tongue.

In 2019, a bear fell in a well across from where we put up our base camp. Ropes and a ladder were put in for it to climb up, the story goes. Since this area is away from human settlements, spectators did not throng to the place of rescue, nor did it make into national news – the only reason it came into local news was that when the bear climbed out, instead of running into the forest, it charged at one of the personnel from the Forest Department, mauling the man before running away into the forest. The fortunate person survived without any disability or serious injury. The well is now covered with a metal shutter.

Plenty of signs of bears is a good sign: from signages warning not the human traveller to be wary of bears but to be cautions in case we disturb them, some roadside termite mound dugouts, and an old scat of a bear rich in termite remains and possibly a mulch of figs.

My question, really, was not about human-bear conflict, although the conversation started with it. Over the past several years – about six-to-seven years by some accounts – this place has had a usual visitor – a bear. One of the assistants of our cook found a bear tumbling in his direction as he started from the basecamp for the nearby town of Sonhat. He halted, honked, raced his bike, but the bear did not heed. This revamped road is built much higher than the surface of this undulating terrain, acting more like a bridge than a street any human or animal can cross across. That may have been the reason why the bear took the road to go around about. As the bear approached closer, he turned his bike and returned to the base. My colleagues, ever excited to see anything that moves in the wild, took the jeep to see this bear and drop our cook home, but the bear had vanished into the night.

That bear can’t hear, I’m told. The people of this region call him ‘behra bhaloo’ – the deaf bear. He wanders this whole area between Mendra gate of Guru Ghasidas National Park to Sonhat – distance of five kilometres by road. Some have even seen him walking right through the town at night, heedless to everyone. One night, a colleague of mine heard a ruckus in the dead of the night outside her room. When they shone light, it was a bear digging for termites right behind the base, heedless to the lights or the shouts to chase him away. Behra bhaloo! The chowkidar who mans the barrier exclaimed. The child-like footprints of the hind foot they found the next morning assured that it was indeed a bear.

A daytime bear is highly unusual to see; it may mean that this habitat is less-disturbed and hosts a high density of bears.

In Shahdol, while surveying the forests connecting Bandhavgarh and Sanjay tiger reserves, we came across many-a-signs of sloth bears – fresh prints in the sand, scat, scrapes on termite mounds, and scratches up the trees. They were the most frequently occurring among large carnivores. Quite naturally, we were weary of crossing paths with them. They’ve been called many things; they’re blind, they cannot hear well, or smell – dumb, even. What they truly are, are a species perfectly adapted to this landscape they share with us. We found subterranean termite nests dug over three-to-four feet deep. One chowkidar told me that if I came upon a sloth bear feeding on termites, it would completely ignore me and go about its business. I could, apparently, touch him while he is busy sucking up termites in its mouth, and it wouldn’t be bothered at all. One of our cooks in Kanha Tiger Reserve imitated how Sloth Bears walk: with their heads under their legs – looking backwards – because their long fur doesn’t allow them to look straight ahead.

Hilly forested areas, with lots of rocks and large crevasses and caves, are an ideal habitat of Sloth Bears. Guru Ghasidas National Park is blessed with all these qualities.

This same area in Guru Ghasidas National Park has another visitor – ‘kanwa bhaloo’ the people call him – the one-eyed bear. Because he can’t see properly, it may have been this bear that fell into the well, they say. He is supposedly more aggressive, evidently because he attacked one of the persons who rescued him. The same colleague who was disturbed by behra bhaloo, once saw a mother bear with two cubs on her back crossing the hill under which our base camp lies. What’s unusual of this is that it was around 11 o’clock in the morning. She passed, unheeded, into the dense forests of Guru Ghasidas National Park.

The expanse of Guru Ghasidas National Park and Sanjay Tiger Reserve: Guru Ghasidas is a proposed Tiger Reserve; the town of Sonhat is visible near the bottom-right.

This National Park was split from Sanjay Tiger Reserve when the state of Chhattisgarh was formed from the state of Madhya Pradesh in the year 2000. It is a contiguous and a large habitat of Sal and mixed deciduous forests of eastern Central India with a long and tall chain of mountains what are locally called Ramgarh hills connecting with the Chhota Nagpur Plateau of Odisha and Jharkhand states. While it was slated to be a Tiger Reserve several years ago, the delays seemingly lie in bureaucracy – about which I know nothing. 

Some of the birds of the many: Grey-headed Canary-flycatcher, Black-rumped Flameback, and Small Minivet, of the sal and mixed-deciduous forests of Guru Ghasidas National Park. 

This geography is unique – for a first-time visitor such as myself, it is an amalgamation of the Panna Tiger Reserve of Vindhya, of Satpura Tiger Reserve of Satpura, and the tall and broad plateaus of the Sahyadri. I could spend a few hours listening to the wilting leaves, the sleepy zeet-zeet of the Small Minivets, the echo of the Brown-headed Barbet, and the soft cur-cooing of the Peregrine Falcon from atop the Balamgarh that my colleague happened to find as I repeatedly vented out on seeing no falcons or vultures.

The Peregrine (subspecies Shaheen Falcon) was the only raptor that day singing along the cliffs of Balamgarh, a prime habitat for raptors.

Whatever the titles some of the bears bear now, the picture is unique. It is unique for the people here know at least a few of the many bears that share this space. It is unique for they allude to some form of harmony – the holy grail of wildlife conservation. It is unique, for me, because I am pleased to write about bears in a way I haven’t written about them in a long time – the only times I’ve interacted with bears or their doings is through the study of human-sloth bear conflict (read the pop sci article here) in Balaghat and Seoni, and through my first-hand on-foot encounter with another in Kali Tiger Reserve – on both occasions the bear came off as the antithesis in the balance between man and nature – in spite of well-meaning intentions of highlighting the negative human-bear interactions to reduce mishaps. An illustrated booklet I published with The Corbett Foundation, too, centred on this: how to avoid conflict with Sloth Bears. While these are important researches I am pleased to have conducted, I have, I feel, failed to highlight the other kinds of interactions, where man and wild animals cross each other with perhaps just acknowledgment on one-another’s existence in the same space, or with no reactions at all.

In Ramgarh, about 36 kilometres from Sonhat up the mountains, the foresters casually cross paths on their morning walks with a particular sloth bear likely heading back from its nightly forage. They tell us that there haven’t been many cases of conflict – many in this context is any number of untoward incidents that would mar the Platonic relationship the both share. In Balaghat too, while I interviewed Sloth Bear attack victims, I was told of a bear with a prominent white snout that walked by a village and seldom interacted with people.

About 280 km south of Guru Ghasidas National Park, the relationship of humans and sloth bears is the most intimate. The Chandi Mata Mandir, on the outskirts of Bagbahara in Mahasamund district, has been witnessing several Sloth Bears – the mandir bhaloo, or, temple bears – visiting around prayer time to eat the offerings. What started with one bear visiting the priest has now turned into a spectacle where the usual human spectator is now participating in feeding these Sloth Bears – from sweets to cold drinks – without any barriers between the two. This temple today is well known, with increasingly more people now visiting it – not as spectators but as relationship builders. Some experts call this a ticking timebomb; for the conservation of Sloth Bears, it may even be so. On the one hand, they are being tamed to feed on human food, and on the other, any aggressive behaviour might attract ire of the political eye, wanting not only greater barriers, but perhaps even worse – such as getting them removed from a holy site – depriving the freely living bears a luxury not many places today afford them.

Sometimes, these Platonic or intimate relationships we share with wildlife alludes to a ‘harmonious’ coexistence. While we think zero conflicts mean harmony, these two extremes – of harmony and conflict, complicate our understanding of conservation interventions. If only it was this black-and-white. Back in Guru Ghasidas National Park, there have been a few exceptional cases. In Angwahi, about 10 km south of Sonhat, a bear mauled four persons at the same time, two succumbed to the wounds. The bear was tracked on foot and using drones, but it was found dead of natural causes in a nullah – quite possibly because of rabies.

This bear appeared out of nowhere when the team was out surveying. After spotting the bear so close, they all made for the vehicle before whipping out their phones and taking pictures.

The negative interactions are few and far between, but these draw attention. With avoidance – spatial and temporal – being the only way to prevent sudden encounters with bears, the instances of where they coexist – with or without harmony – Platonic or intimate, is tested when and how we react to negative interactions. I am compelled to make a blanket statement here that most encounters with Sloth Bears are harmless, it is few that end up being dangerous, fewer still that make it into the media upon which we base our judgments. In an era of sensational news, there is a corner in India where humans and Sloth Bears – quite casually, might I add – live alongside one another.