We start from Madhai gate of Satpura a 4 pm. Forest is full of wonderful species of animals and plants. I am dazed by the diversity. We have been driving for about 3 hours now and are about to reach our destination for night halt at Churna Forest Rest House. It’s twilight. I think, “The time is good enough to come across a tiger, leopard, sloth bear…”
As we pass a somewhat plane and open landscape, luck strikes. There is a sloth bear in the forest on our left about 50 m inside. The guy is groping around for food. When it sees us, it makes short few metres run and hides behind a thin stem. It’s like hiding behind a fig leaf! But it thought, it is good enough! When we continue standing and watching, it does what most wild animals do in such situation. It is strangest part of animals’ way of escaping, which is paradox by any logic. The animal is generally in forest. It has to move somewhat more inside and it is hidden from view. But, no. It would take all the trouble and risk to come out of the forest, cross the dust track in front of vehicle/watcher and disappear on the other side. With the awkward gallop, the bear disappears. There has been time enough to do some video.
Next day we start very early, at 5.15 in the morning. Tiger is heavy on our mind. We see a trail of pug marks (foot prints) of a tiger. We follow it and then they disappear at the point where on the right side a hill, Katapahar (cut hill), rose steeply. In his anxiety to see a tiger anyhow, Rajeev enquires “cannot we drive up the hill?” but also knows that it is not possible.
There is disappointment. But, soon we notice, there is a black ball rolling in the forest on our left about 100 m ahead. Second bear of the trip. As soon as we see it, it also sees us. It stops activity and wonders what to do. As with the last evening bear, it also runs across the dust track on which we are standing to disappear in the forest on the right side, but not before stopping behind a tree to observe us before emerging on the dust track. After crossing the dust track, it stops again and stands up beside a tree at the edge of the track to see what we are up to. Bear stands up at times to get a clear view. It also tells the present people “Don’t you dare, I am huge.”
We have been in the forest for a long time and it is almost noon. The heat is severe and Sun is very very harsh. No animal can be seen. All are resting and hiding is shade. And to our utmost surprise, one bear is still out and going around in the forest! It fails all logic and behaviour books. Bear is known to retire before dawn. It is rarely seen in day light. It continues to be busy in whatever it is doing and does not lifts head to see us. On our part, we are too tired to wait. So we move on. Third bear of the trip.
National Geography describes the animal as ‘Shaggy, dusty, and unkempt, reclusive…’ and so they are in Satpura, though from distance their coat appears lustrous black.
Next morning, we start our safari from Madhai, again early in the morning at 5.30. We had not even gone for two minutes that at the old Madhai village site itself, a bear is found. Fourth bear of the trip. It is somewhat away, at a distance of about 300 m. It is busy in its own core and it does not notice us, or may be, it does not care. It sees too many visitors. We do wait for five minutes but there was no chance of action. So, now we are not very keen in the bear as we had already seen bear in very good situations.
During the fag end of this drive in Madhai region, we pass through a hilly track. On the narrow dust track, we see a jeep stopped in the middle, opposite to us, and the tourists are watching something deep inside the forest, on our right. We take a clue and look in the direction and Lo! another bear. This guy seems to have a target in its mind. It is walking diagonally out of the forest and in fact towards us.
The driver starts backing the car with unusual speed. ‘Hai Captain, why are you backing up. The bear is right there. We would miss it,’ said Rajeev. “Please wait a minute, sir,” replied Captain. Captain the name of our driver. And, he is right. He knows the animal’s behaviour. He calculates where the animal would emerge from the forest and cross over to the other side. He backs up enough so that animal can cross in front of us instead of behind us. Smart on part of Captain.
I realise, ‘Five sloth bear in short two days’ visit is unbelievably good score to be envious about.’ It’s virtually raining bear at Satpura. Poet Jay Garg in Chetna says, ‘Sloth bear, share life’s honey with the sting bees.’ That’s wonderful Satpura.
Post Script: Status of Sloth Bear is Vulnerable –IUCN’s Red List – Sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) are present in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan. Until recently they were also known to occur in Bangladesh, but their continued existence there is uncertain: There being ~20,000 or fewer animals, and thus <10,000 adult animals. Moreover, strong evidence of their range reduction suggests that their population has declined by 30-49% over the past 30 years largely as a result of habitat loss, and to some extent from exploitation for parts, or systematic elimination as a pest. Sloth bears are reported to exist in 174 Protected Areas in India, which include 46 National Parks and 128 Wildlife Sanctuaries (Chauhan 2006). Populations appear to be reasonably well protected inside these PAs, but faced with deteriorating habitat conditions outside PAs. Sloth bears are listed in Appendix I of CITES and are completely protected under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act. They are also protected to varying degrees by national laws in the other range countries. Given the aggressive nature of this animal, and the increasing number of encounters between bears and people, these bears are widely feared.
Satpura stories are based on my visit to the tiger reserve during 12-14 June 2016.