Bear watching in India!

A customer travelled on our 'Just Tigers!' holiday and submitted this entry to our writing competition.

Sloth Bear

How I met a Sloth Bear (Bahloo)

It was April in Kanha Nature Reserve, Madhya Pradesh, India and it was hot. Hot and dry. The grass was parched and the woodland floor was carpeted with a deep, warm mattress of fallen bamboo leaves. You might think that this was a barren, dusty landscape but that would be wrong. The Sal trees were covered with bright green leaves sprouting from their short branches and the forest was ablaze with the flowers of the Cotton Silk trees, Flame of the Forest, and the new reddish leaves of the Banyan trees. Other exotic and endangered trees, too, offered valuable protection from the sun: Ebony, Frankincense, and Axle-wood to name just three.

However, because of the heat it was the watering holes that were the focus of our attention as we searched for Tigers whilst enjoying the beauty of the park, the charm of the abundant Spotted Deer (Chital), the serenity of other grazing deer – the little Swamp Deer, the larger Sambar, the elusive Nilgai and the protected Blackbuck.

Suddenly, alerted by the cacophony of bird calls led by the Jungle Fowl, our anticipation that something exciting was happening was further heightened by the alarm calls of the Spotted Deer. Searching the parkland through binoculars a small herd of Gaur (Indian Bison) suddenly took flight and then, out of the woodland, walked our first Tiger.

It was a very emotional moment (if a little dusty because of the flurry of activity of the several jeeps) when he just ambled nonchalantly through the trees, emerging to cross the path of the jeeps before moving through the grass and disappearing into the bushes, totally in control of his environment and knowing it. For me that was the most exciting sighting, although there were others which offered a fabulous, closer look – two of which were from the back of Elephants. Magnificent!

But what about the Sloth Bear?

In Kahna the word is that for every 10 Tigers you see you might see one Leopard, and for every 10 Leopards you see you might see one Sloth Bear (Bahloo). We saw no Leopards but had two sightings of (the same) Sloth Bear. How was it that we were so lucky? Was it just fortuitous or was there a hidden benefit to travelling in April?

The Sloth Bear is endemic to the Indian subcontinent. As we saw on our travels he generally feeds on ants and termites and the destruction of termite mounds was evidence that we were in his territory. I was surprised to learn that humans fear him more than Tigers. Sloth Bears are mostly nocturnal and are shy creatures which hope to avoid human contact and they can be prey for Tigers if they stay up too late!

In addition to munching what must be large quantities of ants and termites to satisfy the appetite of such a giant, the Sloth Bear also loves a sweet treat. Here, I was reminded of that well-known fictional bear Winnie the Pooh, who risks all kinds of dangers to eat his favourite food, honey. We were lucky on our visit because Bahloo also takes risks to eat his favourite sweet treat in April – the flowers and fruit of the Mahuwa tree. These are in abundance from March to May and such is his appetite for this annual delicacy that he stays up late into the morning to enjoy himself, ignoring the risks to life and limb.

The Mahuwa tree is a fast-growing tree that reaches approximately 20 metres in height. It is not protected or treated with the same reverence as the other wonderful trees we saw on our tour, but it is of great importance to some local tribes who use the flowers and fruits to make syrup for medicinal purposes and also ferment them to produce the alcoholic drink called Mahuwa. Some tribes consider both the tree and the Mahuwa drink to be an important part of their cultural heritage and it is an essential part of their tribal celebrations.

However, in Kanha, Bahloo, has no competition for the flowers and fruits of the tree and enjoys his bounteous treat after the sun has risen. For the Naturetrek traveller the presence of the trees in bloom was linked directly to our joy at encountering Bahloo on two separate occasions, although he remained well hidden and did not offer us a good opportunity for a photograph. Certainly, he was shy and had no intention of playing to his audience, unlike the Tiger.

I went to see the Tigers and was rewarded with so much more.

With special thanks to our co-leader, CV Singh Hada, for giving me the information about Sloth Bears.

Read more about our 'Just Tigers!' holiday.

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