The moment I laid eyes on my friend; mouth open, eyes wide and frantically waving at me, I knew something was very wrong. Initially I thought he was afraid my approach would scare off the bird (Yes, Ornithologists do get excited for things like that). However when the tracker joined in with the arm waving and my friend started miming swear words I knew that wasn’t the case. Diving into the grass, me and the friend by my side silently crawled towards the others. My arm waving friend directed his question in a whisper at me at the first possible instance.
“Didn’t you *explicit* hear that?”
And then hear we did. A low guttural growl, emitted from seemingly cavernous depths. It was sustained not for long, but long enough to do two things. Turn our blood into distilled water, and bring forth an extensively used four letter word from me. The growl seemed to hang in the air, leaving remnants, even after it had long gone. When I realized where exactly the growl had come from, I said “hell” while using the four letter word as an adjective. It came from directly above where I was before I turned to see my friend waving at me. Had I taken another step, yours truly would not be here today, typing this post while sipping coffee. And while we stood there, trying out different swear words to see which best reflected our feelings; the godforsaken Partridge flew right over our heads.
I’ve always taken pride in possessing acute senses and the fact that I had completely missed the first warning growl was a heavy blow to my ego. I tried to replenish my dignity which was at a low ebb by persuading the others to accompany me to determine what exactly let out that growl. When we could finally muster enough courage, we climbed the small rock and found our way to where the growl had come from and were greeted by the strong smell and sight of bear scat which cleared our doubts as to who issued the threat. By this time the bear had thankfully exited the stage. The bear would’ve seen us approaching and, reluctant to move away, would have growled a warning. He must’ve been quite a good natured animal to have tolerated a puny human crawling towards his den even after having been told he’s not welcome.
I apologize if you were expecting a spine chilling fight between man and beast; the likes of which we’ve seen in Tarzan movies. Life my friend, is far less dramatic and in this particular case, far more fortunate; at least for me.
Relying mostly on their sense of smell to locate food, sloth bears roam the dry zone forests of Sri Lanka and are among the most feared of the jungle denizens of the island. However I believe that it is unfair to paint such a picture of this animal. Listed as Endangered in the Sri Lanka red list 2013, it is one of the most charismatic mammals of the country. If startled (as in almost all cases) it will defend itself with a good offence and leave you shunning mirrors and little kids shunning you for the rest of your days. If you survive the attack that is. However if given half a chance, it would vanish as would a ghost and be swallowed by the darkness of the jungle. I shudder at the thought of our forests devoid of the presence of this beautiful animal with its lumbering gait and comical smile. Thus, I believe it is time we started understanding our bears and conserving them. Because in this case, procrastination is a luxury we cannot afford.
Now you know about my close encounter with the bear. That leaves us with one other account; the tale of how my bear-photograph curse was lifted. But that, as they say, is a story for another time.
Image : ‘Makara- Nilgala’. Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to. The picture does no justice to the place.