A group of researchers throw light on one of the Indian jungles’ least understood creatures – the sloth bear. Their observations ratify the simple premise that if we are able to guarantee wild species space, isolation and protection, they are likely to flourish with little or no human help.
Photo: Manish Arya.
A thunderstorm at night brought the temperature down after a fortnight of incessant heat. But now, the overpowering humidity and heat, even before sunrise, became unbearable. We cut the motor and allowed our boat to drift silently on the placid waters of the Chambal river. On both sides of the banks, cliffs rose to a height of 40 to 50 m. and in the absence of any discernible wind, the atmosphere was almost claustrophobic. But we were mesmerised. Our focus was on dens that housed a pair of female sloth bears whom we simply named, A and B. The fact that the mothers had cubs of different ages made it easy for us to identify which was which.
A LAND UNLIKE ANY OTHER
The Chambal river passes through a deep gorge created by a great boundary fault in the Vindhyas on the Hadauti plateau. The upper tier plateau land from the river bed ranges from 60 m. to 5 m. The river flowing through the gorge drops 87 m. along a length of 48 km. Three dams and a barrage have changed the flow of the Chambal, which was once a torrentially fast-flowing stream as it poured through the gorge. The Chambal river valley was a stronghold of big cats in the pre-Independence era, possibly the only area where tiger and leopard hunts were routinely organised from boats.
The topography of the valley continues to be ideal for several species that have learned to use its ledges, nooks and rocky crannies to their advantage. Long-billed Vultures, Egyptian Vultures, Brown Fish-owls, Dusky Eagle-owls and Indian Eagle-owls, all breed here.The bears of the Chambal have leopard, hyaena, porcupine, nilgai, chinkara, langur and an occasional wolf for company. Sometimes an elusive fishing cat, or a family of smooth Indian otters may be encountered at the water’s edge. On one boating expedition in summer, we saw a bear family clambering down the valley, a leopard sitting on a rock overseeing its territory and a hyaena lumbering down to safety with its ungainly gait… chased by stray dogs.
Photo: Ravindra Singh Tomar.
In 1998, using a newly-acquired boat, we began to set out on regular expeditions along a 26 km. stretch of the river. Watching the wildlife at eye level was quite a different experience. But those were disturbing days, with rampant fishing and quarrying. Working with the very active support of the wildlife wing of the Forest Department, we saw the area transform within five years. Wild species of plants and animals rebounded and in the summer of 2010, the Chambal river valley began to offer us the very welcome sight of sloth bears with increasing frequency.
In June that year, a female and her sub-adult cubs from the previous year’s brood became familiar sights. The cubs were almost as big as their mother, but their inexperience showed in the way they followed her around and waited stoically for her when unsure of themselves. The mother, in turn, kept an eye on their playful behaviour and seldom allowed them to wander far off. Each day at dawn, they would follow a well-defined path to the bottom of the valley, only to retire to their den soon after to escape the searing heat. In the winter, another female with two sub-adult cubs was seen hanging around during the afternoon. They would come out, soak in the warmth of the mild winter sun and we would often see them, sitting confidently on an overhanging ledge. It was quite a remarkable experience, because with a high degree of reliability each winter, we were able to count between five and eight bears occupying the area.
We first spotted the family of the female ‘A’ in the third week of April 2013 and female ‘B’ and her cubs in the second week of May. A’s cubs were by now between 15 to 18 weeks old and had begun climbing down from their mother’s back to make acquaintance with their surroundings. We watched in fascination as she allowed them, tentatively at first, the small but crucial liberty of moving away to interact with B’s cubs.
When dawn broke, the bears would religiously descend to drink at the river’s edge. And, just as reliably, they would then retire to their secluded cave, only to emerge again at night to forage. At this time we would see the family indulge in long walks, with the cubs clinging on for dear life to their mother’s back.
By now we could predict that they would arrive between 5 a.m. and 5.20 a.m. and retreat to the den by 7.20 a.m. or thereabouts. The female would always be preceded by her mate, whose path down to the bottom of the valley she would diligently trace. The sure-footedness of sloth bears is remarkable. Their descent to the river followed a well-demarcated path. On the way up it was always the male that led the family and he would also be the first to enter the den.
We were delighted and surprised when we realised that A’s family actually had other bears for company in an adjoining cave, hidden away in a rocky outcrop. Our guess is there was a labyrinth of interconnected, underground tunnels connecting the dens, which were located roughly 30 m. above the water line and around five metres below the top of the plateau.
This second family of female B comprised two smaller cubs that we estimated to be just about 10 or 12 weeks old. Interestingly, the older cubs were allowed to approach the younger cubs, with whom they would joust playfully at the mouth of the cave, closely watched over by their mothers. Occasionally the adult females hung out together while the cubs were at play, but the males never once approached each other at close quarters, though they were obviously aware of the other’s presence. Nevertheless we observed no threat displays, or aggression of any sort between them.
Photo: Ravindra Singh Tomar.
There was also another family residing in the area, a mother with almost full-grown, sub-adult cubs who were spotted on a hot summer day huddled together in a cave sheltered from the sweltering heat.
It’s incredible how many bears manage to thrive in the region. Closer to Kota city, we recorded yet another sloth bear family comprising a male, female C and a 10 to 12-week-old cub. Their den was around 15 m. above the water line and three metres below the top of the plateau. Adults show a great deal of patience with their cubs and their parental care and social behaviour were nothing short of fascinating. The families were easy to spot all through the summer months between April and June and contrary to popular belief, the Chambal bears revealed close family bonds and relative tolerance toward other breeding pairs.
In the middle of June, a stranger visited the cave of female C. The resident sloth bear family was not at home when another male lumbered toward the cave, snorting loudly, apparently in a state of agitation. On reaching the mouth of the cave, he seemed to be in two minds, and looked around furtively. Again, it snorted loudly, inspected the cave without actually entering it, and then moved away making loud guttural noises. We construed that it was a young male searching for a mate ahead of the breeding season and that he had smelled the female, but was not sure whether or not she was ready to breed.
Post monsoon, when food is aplenty across a larger landscape, wild animals tend to leave the Chambal river valley, only to return in the summer when their favourite trees are in fruit, bee hives are available to raid and termite mounds are stocked with insects, food that bears relish. This is also when water is abundant. During our entire duration, we did not observe any encounters between the sloth bears and leopards, hyaenas or wolves. We surmise this was on account of the sheer abundance of food and the relatively low population densities of carnivores. Interestingly, bears and langurs living in close proximity displayed no hostility towards each other at all. Nor did peafowl seem to bother the bears, though they did always maintain a safe flight distance.
SPACE, ISOLATION AND PROTECTION
The reason for the thriving sloth bear population in the Chambal area is hardly surprising. The area is rich in forage, with an abundance of termite mounds and jujube bushes on the plateau. Honeycombs are plentiful in the valley, which also offers a reliable source of water. But most critically, the area enjoys protected status and humans and animals are not allowed to compete for resources. There is little more that sloth bears, or most other wild animals for that matter, really need to survive.
Over the past five years, sightings of bears have increased palpably, with multiple groups of adults and sub-adults occupying the habitat. In winter, solitary adults and sub-adults can be seen all through the day, scouring the plateau for food. In summer, families seemed to be closely-knit and we were able to spot them only at dawn and dusk.
Our observations raise questions on the popular belief that males play no role in raising the cubs. We witnessed their presence with females regularly during the infancy of their cubs. Naturally, more studies are necessary to establish whether this is merely a local phenomenon. However, we can say with a high degree of certainty that the sloth bears of the Chambal river valley are highly social animals with close family bonds.
SOME BEAR COUNTRY PLANTS
The flat plateau land over the gorge is interspersed with dry deciduous forests of dhok Anogeissus pendula and salar Boswellia serrata. The plateau land near Kota is a stony scrubland with scattered ber Zizyphus sp., and kair Capparis bushes, which explains why bears are so plentiful. The vistas are generally sparse and the vegetation is coarse. But a glimpse into the valley offers a striking contrast. Here the valley is evergreen with a profusion of trees, bushes and semi-aquatic grasses. There is a rare clump of jangali kela, Musa superba, a Western Ghats element that somehow arrived this far north. Vast stretches of bamboo also clothe the valley floor with intermediate outcroppings of karaya Sterculia urens, kaim Mitragyna parviflora, arjun Terminalia arjuna, amaltash Cassia fistula and some khajur (dates).
Author: Rakesh Vyas, Ravindra Singh Tomar and Manish Arya
First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 5, October 2014.