By Aniruddha Dhamorikar
Featuring research supported by the DeFries-Bajpai Foundation
It is hard to tell if it is the same river you cross after every hill you descend. The jungle is new at every turn, and I might as well have crossed one-too-many. We were in the hills of Seoni, close to the Pench Tiger Reserve, the land Kipling adopted in The Jungle Book (1894-95), the land of many hills and rivers, and stories. One late afternoon, I halted at a large rock jutting out from a dry river, looking at tilting ribbons of light cast rippling shadows on the dusty bedrock. It was too early in the year for the rivers to turn into puddles. At another time, along one such river, one late afternoon, the ‘Jungle People’ were gathering by the Peace Rock. The rains had failed, rivers shrunk, and trees and vines shrivelled and withered. “If I were alone,” mumbled Baloo, “I would change my hunting-grounds now, before the others began to think.” As a kid, Kipling’s narration of how fear came always made my hair stand on end. “And yet – hunting among strangers ends in fighting; and they might hurt the Man-cub. We must wait and see how the Mohwa blooms,” Baloo added.
Earlier than Kipling, James Forsyth in The Highlands of Central India (1872) writes that sloth bears “appear to lose their natural apprehensions of danger in some degree during the Mohwa season.” Dunbar Brander in Wild Animals in Central India (1927) speaks of them as being “the most intelligent animal in the jungle, the primates excepted,” adding that “The time of plenty is when the fleshy calyx of the Mohwa tree is continually dropping, and it is an extraordinary sight to see the bears competing with each other so as to be first on the spot.” Thus far, in my journeys through the Kanha-Pench landscape, sloth bears have always eluded me. A decade ago, in another landscape, on another bend on the hill, I had come face-to-face with an indolent bear loitering down a shallow dell. Needless to say, I was off in the opposite direction. To each his own fear, Baloo would have said. Forsyth describes sloth bears as “generally very harmless until attacked” adding darkly that “sometimes, however, a bear will attack savagely without provocation – generally, when they are come upon suddenly, and their road of escape is cut off”. Brander opined that, “a she-bear with cubs is a most dangerous animal to disturb” and “it is a jungle axiom that one never can say what a bear will do”. Be that as it may, humans and sloth bears have coexisted more-or-less effortlessly for centuries.
Read more in the original article, published as a cover story on the February 2018 edition of Sanctuary Asia, where Aniruddha Dhamorikar writes of the changing landscape for sloth bears in their Central Indian strongholds and offers glimpses of solutions to human-bear conflicts that could determine the future of the species.