Saturday, 25 July 2009

Daroji - Kingdom of the Sloth Bear

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Today 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 earth.

Honey for the Bears

My mind is immediately transported to the American wild west - 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. Dry desert was certainly a relief from our travels in the monsoon drenched mountains. This was the rain-shadow, the mountains themselves block the monsoon winds from reaching this far east. 

At the heart of the sanctuary are six giant sandstone tors, the location of sloth bear dens and right in the midst of them is a monolithic sandstone platform - an arena where the park wardens generously scatter honey. This honey attracts bears to the exposed outcrop and the bears attract tourists to a viewing tower a mile away. It may controversial to feed 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 pride of being a one man operation caretaking this highly regarded reserve. '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 future'.

The sticky honey glinted in the sunshine, a treasure that beckons 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, peacock and painted spur fowl all eager for their share of the honey. Five-lined squirrels somersaulted between boulders to get to the goods before anyone else.

Ruddy Mongoose grabbing a lick of honey

The Sloth Bears Waddles

In the distance we saw a tuft of black hair appear behind a boulder. The fidgeting squirrels and mongooses paused, looked up, and then scurried away. Bobbing up and down the dark tuft came closer until its owner waddled into view. Our first sloth bear, a young male, hungry for honey. As he walked his fluffy backside swayed like a big furry John Wayne. He looked satisfied as he approached a nice patch of honey. Adjusting his posture and almost crossing his legs, he hunched over to crinkle his soft snout up against the ground - like a pig snorting in a trough.  When he was finished with one patch he stood up and waddled across to another.  Not a care in the world the bear was completely oblivious to our presence.

Sloth Bears have really poor eye sight and can see little further than 10 metres, so as long as we remained still and silent we would be able to observe the bears in all their slobbering glory. 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. 

Hoover Mouth

While he sniffed directly in my direction I caught a superb view of his strange dentures. Unlike other bears sloth bears lack threatening canines and instead have a mouth like a pensioner - almost barren of teeth. This is an adaptation for getting closer to food, such as their favourite wild delicacy - termites. Their four-inch claws rip open the mound, they shove their muzzle in, and then suck like a hoover. The sounds can be heard from hundreds of metres away. This bear 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

Mob of Feeding Sloth Bears

Now there were four bears greedily feeding just a few metres from us. The largest male seemed to really enjoy scratching and rolling on the floor - every now and then he would back up to a boulder and comically rub his backside on it. The smallest of the four bears just wanted to play - probably a bit high on all the sugar. He lumbered over to another and unexpectadly pounced on him, bearing his teeth - it could easily be mistaken for aggression but was simply a case of play fighting. Failing to get the desired response the small bear quickly switched to another, and he continued for the best part of an hour, by which time the sugar rush had worn off and he tuckered down for more honey.

Sloth bear rubbing his backside against a boulder

False Sense of Security

Sloth bears can lull you into a false sense of security - they 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 found himself in the centre of a village and chased a woman into a school - the fast action of one man got the children out and trapped the bear inside. '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.

Dancing Bears

Most of the sloth bears Sammad has rescued have been victims of bear dancing - a traditional livelihood which has been practiced for centuries but which has been illegal since the wildlife protection act of 1972.

Bear poachers wait outside a den for the mother to leave in search of food, before swooping in to grab and bag the young cubs. They are sold for less than 30,000 rupees each (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. All the while enduring severe pain. '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 part of India 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 back into the wild, instead they live out their days at one of the four sloth bear rescue centres. My next visit would be to one of these centres based just outside of Bangalore.

Dancing bear with rope through his muzzle. Photograph by Troy Snow (used with permission)

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  1. Wonderful writing. Amazing animals. Thanks very much. Soni.

  2. Ta P. These r magnificent animals - have you heard of Ken the bear in San Diego Zoo. I met him last week. Your writing describes him well.