Close encounters with the sloth bear

Saturday, 26 April 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The sloth bear is an often-misunderstood animal. Despite being sighted in both Yala and Wilpattu National Parks in the recent times very little study has been carried out its behaviour. The jungle folk would recall the bear as one of the most dangerous animals to encounter while on foot. Many Veddas and villagers near the jungles have horrific scars from their confrontation with this animal. Having very poor eyesight, the bear’s natural reaction is to attack when startled. Rising on two feet the six-inch long claws inflict terrible damage on a person’s face, with many people left maimed and disfigured. My personal odyssey with this elusive animal has been quite vivid and interesting. The early encounters I had were when I was very young, while on camping trips to Yala National Park.   "Having very poor eyesight, the bear’s natural reaction is to attack when startled. Rising on two feet the six-inch long claws inflict terrible damage on a person’s face, with many people left maimed and disfigured" Some encounters which I remember were very brief sightings of bears running across the road, and in once case of a mother and cub resting on a rock. I did not have good cameras back then and it was virtually impossible to capture these encounters using the small point and shoot cameras which I had. I recall a sighting in 2004 of around three bears feeding on palu trees completely oblivious to the throng of vehicles. Another close sighting was after my A Levels again in Yala of a very old and sickly bear who seemed to have seen better days. I have had two close shaves with bears while on foot. One was in Wasgamuwa National Park, when I was camping out in Medhapitiya which was adjoining a small stream which ran along deep forest. "In recent times it seems that Wilpattu is the place to go to find bears as the Yala sightings seemed to have lessened in the recent past. The reason behind this occurrence is unknown and is worth some investigation" Having borrowed an old manual SLR camera from one of my friends, I intended to walk along this stream photographing the birds I could find. After a good half hour I realised I have ventured very far out into the forest and away from the campsite. I began to feel that I was watched by someone or something. The feeling gave me the shivers, and I heard a hooting noise from the forest. This noise was very similar to a human giving a hoot, and I was confused as to what or who made that sound. Thinking it was my friends I gave a hoot back, with no reply except some loud grunts and the rustling of leaves and branches from deep inside the forest. My saving grace came in the form of my friends who had followed me on my path. Hearing their voices in a few minutes I doubled back and headed towards the relative safety of my friends’ company. Back at camp, I related my story to our tracker who said that bears make very human like noises and the hoot was one of them. He related that this is the reason to hoot twice like a “Hoo Hooo” to signal to other people while in the jungle rather than a single hoot. The other encounter was in Lunugamvehera National Park. We were on a school camping trip there, and I was an old boy who joined the trip to help our school master to manage the young boys. We were taken on a hike to climb a large rock. This was a tall rock which was covered in dense forest and we were accompanied by an armed ranger. Halfway up the climb I had some difficulty due to a leg injury, and decided to rest while the others continued towards the summit. While waiting for the others to return, I began to hear noises of a large animal coming from the forest. Suddenly I heard loud grunts and despite the injury managed to climb some rocks and peer down to where I was sitting. From the jungle appeared a lone bear and only then did I realise that I was actually sitting outside its cave. I was terrified, but managed to muster some nerve to make some loud noises to chase the bear away. In the later years I began to take photography more seriously and managed to invest in some good equipment. Despite my new arsenal, my bear sightings were running dry. I was doing weekly trips to Yala and Wilpattu for two years and yet I couldn’t get a decent image. Most of the shots I got were either hazy and blurry or were during low light and hence were underexposed. Finally my dry spell came to an end in 2013, when I came across three bears in Wilpattu National Park. One of them was during good morning light. The bear was sighted at Maradanmaduwa, and we followed him all the way to Thambi Oluwa where the fellow was walking along the road searching for termite mounds. During the rains of December the bears come out during the afternoon and I had a very good sighting in Ibbanwala in Wilpattu last year. We drove past Ibbanwala once without a sighting and due to the insistence of another driver we turned back towards the so-called location. When we approached Ibbanwala again, there he was a big male digging on a termite mound. He may have been sleeping when we passed this place the first time. The bear was busy digging, but hearing our vehicle approach it lifted its head and walked towards us. After satisfying its curiosity, it went back to digging the ground.  The photographs taken by my new lens truly showcased the behaviour of this shy and elusive animal. The latest encounter was few weeks back during a long weekend; I had made a bungalow booking inside the park. While driving into the park early morning we came across a young bear digging for termites by the roadside. Curiosity got the better of him and I got some good shots of the fellow looking up at us. During late evening while heading back to the bungalow we entered the open glade of Panikkawila and stumbled upon a bear who had come out to drink. Being very shy, the bear ran back into the forest. I noticed the bears around the villu areas are more reclusive and shy compared to the ones found on the main Wilpattu road around Maradanmaduwa. In recent times it seems that Wilpattu is the place to go to find bears as the Yala sightings seemed to have lessened in the recent past. The reason behind this occurrence is unknown and is worth some investigation. These mysterious animals will continue to capture my imagination and I hope to have many more close encounters with the sloth bear in the years to come. (Read more from Rajiv at www.wildlifediaries.blogspot.com. You can view his photography portfolio at www.flickr.com/photos/rajivw and contact him via email on rajivwelikala@hotmail.com.)

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