An Encounter With A Sloth Bear
Early June 2010. Nagarahole Tiger Reserve, Karnataka. The forest is monsoon green. With me in the legendary ‘Main Watchtower’ is Chikanna, caretaker of the Kalhalla Forest Resthouse. From my vantage point, I am gifted with clear visibility thanks to three firebreaks. Just under 100 m. away, I can see the waterhole, which has offered naturalists some of the finest wildlife sightings imaginable.
Photo: Dr.Anish Andheria.
I sit silently as minutes turn to hours and wonder if a tigress with three cubs or a pack of wild dogs is written into my destiny today, as they were on previous visits.
Binoculars and camera in hand, I watch spotted deer gnawing away at the mud in a salt lick, some drinking gingerly from a puddle, ears rotating in their sockets to capture the slightest rustle. A solitary male Indian Peacock, in deep moult, preens before me notwithstanding its scanty tail feathers. Come evening and Green Imperial Pigeons and a flock of Yellow-footed Green Pigeons descend on a nearby puddle to quench their thirst for the last time in the day. A stripe-necked mongoose adds a touch of excitement as it scours the clearing intermittently, in search of grubs or other small prey.
Seventy five minutes into our vigil, Chikanna points to a black form some 100 m. from us along the rightmost firebreak. Through my binoculars I see an adult sloth bear walking purposefully towards a pool of water situated some 50 m. from our watchtower. After scraping cursorily at some mud at the edge of the pool, it disappears into a nearby lantana thicket, a touch closer to us. Anticipating that it will reappear along a thin animal trail in front of the tower, I take position, camera in hand. A minute passes. No sign of the bear. Asking Chikanna to keep a watch in front, I move to check the rear of the watchtower. Within moments I hear a distinct rustle in the undergrowth about 20 m. away. And to my surprise, the rustling gets louder… and closer. Glancing down, the bear is now clearly visible, less than 15 m. from me, but it seems completely oblivious of my presence.
And then something totally unexpected happens.
The bear turns 90 degrees towards us, following the narrow trail right up to the watchtower. I am on the outside deck and could tap the iron railing to warn the bear of our presence, but prefer to watch silently, curious about its intent. What happens next could never have been predicted. The bear begins to climb the steps of the watchtower tentatively!
Looking down, I can see it negotiate the first steps of the metal staircase. If it wants to, it can reach the top deck where we are within 10 seconds. This is not a good idea at all. I think quickly. If we make ourselves suddenly visible, it might easily be startled into reacting aggressively, as most cornered animals, especially bears, are prone to do.
The massive creature is now literally five steps from me on the middle deck and I hear its snuffling as it sniffs the floor. I figure that the best way to warn the animal is to trigger the flash of my camera. But it is too close, less than the minimum focussing range of my lens. The camera refuses to fire. Hurriedly switching to manual mode, I shoot one frame and the flash fires. At that very moment, lightning and thunder add to the drama and confusion. I fire again and the bear looks up, more curious about the sound of the shutter than the flash. It freezes. I could now see it try to turn, but the steps are too narrow. And then, much to my relief, instead of blundering up towards us, it chooses to reverse gear and, clumsily, descend, bottom first. No sooner do its hind limbs touch terra firma, the handsome creature turns and gallops away to vanish in the undergrowth.
And we live to tell the tale!
What prevented us from turning into a bear statistic was probably the fact that bears are accustomed to climbing down trees bottom first. Once at Katezari in Tadoba and another time in Bandipur’s Kalkere Range, I have seen sloth bears descend from over 15 m. in this fashion.
Most forest guards, wildlife biologists and even seasoned tourists will tell you that the ‘sloth bear’ is one of the most dangerous animals in the Indian forest. Victims that survive sloth bear-attacks will readily reinforce the need to respect and fear these animals in particular. But I do not think they deserve such a bad reputation. From the many encounters I have had with them while on foot I can state with some confidence that they will choose to take evasive action if they can.
Note: In the first instance, I desisted from using my flash so as not to disturb the bear. The purpose of a watchtower is to enable a visitor to be ‘invisible’ to wildlife. The experience strengthened my belief that sloth bears have an undeserved reputation for attacking more often than not when startled. I think they are prone to attacking only if they perceive a distinct threat (to a cub for instance) or if they believe their only safe exit is being blocked.
Author: Dr. Anish Andheria First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXX No. 5, October 2010.