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I visited the Daroji Sloth Bear sanctuary in central south India. This 5000 hectre reserve has the highest density of wild sloth bears anywhere on the planet and so you'd think that I'd have a good chance of seeing one.
Arriving in Daroji My mind is immediately transported to the American wild west - it could be the Majave desert of California. Big sky and big landscapes, strewn with huge wind sculptured sandstone blocks. If Star Trek had been produced in India then this would have been the setting for many of Kirks memorable encounters. It was to be the setting of one of mine. Dry desert was certainly a relief from our travels in the monsoon drenched mountains - I was grateful for a bit of rainshadow relief - The mountains themselves blocking the rains from reaching this far east. As we surveyed the vista at the heart of the sanctuary six giant sandstone tors betrayed the location of the sloth bear dens and right in the midst of them was a monolithic sandstone platform - an arena of sorts where the park wardens liberally scatter honey. This attracts bears to the exposed outcrop and in doing so it attracts keen bear watchers to a viewing tower a mile away. It may sound like a controversial thing to do for otherwise 'wild' bears but as the park warden, Mr Ravindranath told me 'This is all for conservation and preservation of the sanctuary and the bears'. The public pay to protect the bears habitat and the bears don't really complain about having honey on tap. Mr Ravindranath wears his military looking uniform with pride and basks in the glory of being a one man operation caretaking this highly regarded reserve. He has local people working for him but with fewer officials he has escaped much of the beurocracy that often clogs projects of such magnitude. As such he seems relaxed and in high spirits talking about his three successful years as boss. 'We have over a 120 bears here' he proudly boasts 'many of which have been rescued from other areas and introduced to the sanctuary'. 'it's a safe haven working closely with the local people to ensure it's
On the orange sandstone the dark sticky patches of honey glint in the sunshine, a treasure which beckons hungry Sloth Bears to stumble out of the wilderness every afternoon for their Public appearance. We found a convenient bush a few metres from the platform, and parked our jeep behind it. Over the course of a few hours we saw mongoose come and go, peacock and painted spur fowl all eager for their share of the honey. Five-lined squirrels somersaulted between boulders - almost defying gravity in their 'matrix' style moves to get to the goods before anyone else.
Ruddy Mongoose grabbing a lick of honey
Then in the distance we saw a tuft of black hair appear from behind a boulder. The fidgeting squirrels and mongooses paused, looked up and then dissapeared. Bobbing up and down the dark tuft came closer and closer until it waddled into view. Our first sloth bear, a young male and looking hungry for honey. His long soft snout was hard and crinkled to the ground and I could immediately see the resemblance to a pig snorting in a trough. He was completely engrossed in his mission for food. Upon reaching a nice patch of honey you could almost see the satisfaction as he adjusted his posture, sitting almost cross- legged and bent over, to be as intimate as possible with the object of his desire. Now and then he would stand up and mosey across to a new patch of honey. Swaying as he went like a big furry John Wayne - a site befitting of this wild west backdrop. Not a care in the world the bear was completely oblivious to our presence.
Sloth Bears have really poor eye sight and can barely see further than10 metres so as long as we remained still and silent we would be able to observe the bears in all their slobbering glory. We did hide our chocolate however as a quick whiff of that might have caused a stampede. Occassionally our young male surfaced for a breather, raising his nose and opening his mouth like a panting dog. He was tasting the air and I wondered if he could detect the strangers in his midst. If he could then he must have decided that he had more important matters to attend to and chowed back down. While he took a sniff directly in my direction I caught a superb view of his strange dentures. Other than threatening looking canines he has less teeth than a pensioner - missing his upper incisors completely. An adaptation for getting closer to food, especially for getting access to their favourite delicacy - termites. This is also where his vicious looking four-inch claws come to play. Upon discovering a termite mound those claws are the ideal tools for tearing it open. Then all he has to do is shove in his muzzle and suck like a Hoover. The sounds can be heard from hundreds of metres away. He was entertaining us with a range of sounds that I've only ever heard before in a gents loo - and like a gents loo a few more individuals eventually appeared and joined in the chorus.
Sloth Bear tasting the air
Now there were four bears greedily feeding just a few metres away from us. Their individual characters were coming to the fore. One particularly large male seemed to really enjoy scratching and rolling on the floor - every now and then he would clumsily back up to a boulder and comically rub his backside on it - reminding me of Balloo in the Jungle book. The smallest of the four bears just wanted to play - probably a bit high on all the sugar. He lumbered over to another feeding bear and unexpectadly pounced on him, bearing his teeth - it could easily be mistaken for aggression but I could see my younger self and my brother in this interaction, and how we used to fight just for the fun of it. When he had finished teasing one bear he quickly switched to another, and it continued for the best part of an hour, by which time the sugar rush had probably worn off and he tuckered down once more.
Sloth bear rubbing his backside against a boulder
They really do lull you into a false sense of security - Sloth Bears look so harmless, their expressions so goofy, and yet they are considered more dangerous than Tigers and Elephants. 'When they are cornered they strike back in self defense - using their claws and teeth as weapons' said Sammad of the Sloth Bear rescue centre. 'Most dangerous encounters happen when you suddenly run into one and surprise it - because their eyesight is so poor they don't realise until you're right up close.' Sammad has rescued more than seventy bears in the past ten years. Often he gets a call from a panicked villager who has found a bear rummaging through his house, or has become trapped in barbed wire. On one occassion a confused bear who had found himself in the centre of a village chased a woman into a school - the fast action of one man got the children out and trapped the bear inside where it went bonkers. 'the only imjury on that occasion was a gouge to the mans face. It could have been more serious' he admits 'It was a huge difficult operation to safely rescue him - he's now doing well having been moved to Daroji'. 'This sort of thing was happening more and more' Sammad told me reflecting on 10 years of change 'as farmers encroached onto the bears natural territorytheirs would be problems'. This is why the sanctuary was setup - simpy to give bears somewhere to live in peace.
Most of the sloth bears Sammad has rescued have been from the brutal art of bear dancing - a traditional livelihood which has been practiced in rural india for centuries but which has been illegal since the wildlife protection act of 1972. Yet until very recently during the breeding season bear poachers would wait outside a den for the mother to leave in search of food for her young. They would swoop in, grab and bag the young cubs and sell them for less than 30,000 rupees (about 350 pounds) to Kollanders, the traditional bear dancing community. 'Here they begin a life of pain and discomfort.' Sammad told me, 'After a few months their canines are ripped out, their claws are clipped, males are castrated and a red hot iron is used to pierce their sensitive nuzzle through which a coarse rope is threaded.' it is the pain of pulling on this rope that makes them dance as they are dragged from village to village and made to perform, standing on their hind legs and used as puppets on a string. All the while enduring severe pain and punishment. 'they are severly malnurished and are only given the very poorest food to survive on' says Sammad with a tear in his eye 'when we rescue them they are in really bad shape'.An awareness of the plight of the dancing bears amongst rural people has really helped Sammads mission. 'People might fear the bears but they also value them - they play a part in Hindu mythology and are considered sacred.' According to local lore this is their empire and it is where the king of the Sloth Bears married the daughter of one of the gods.
It's easy to victimise the Kollanders but we should remember that they have been dancing sloth bears for generations - a profession which is passed from father to son. It's a difficult chain to break but rather than criminalise individuals the government now offer them a package of aid to help change to a more respectable livelihood. Thanks to this united effort Sammad is pleased to tell me that 'soon the dancing bear profession will be over for good'.
The rescued bears can never be released into the wild, instead they live out their days in peace at one of the four sloth bear rescue centres. My next visit would be to one of these centres based just outside of Bangalore.
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