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Close encounters

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WHEN AN ELEPHANT CHASES YOU Zigzag across the forest
WHEN AN ELEPHANT CHASES YOU Zigzag across the forest

W hat should people be wary about while walking in the jungles of India? No, not tigers and leopards, or even leeches and ticks. Watch out for elephants and sloth bears!

When I first went with Rom on treks into the jungle, he taught me to be aware of wind direction (you want to be downwind of an elephant so you can smell it first), sounds of snapping branches, rumbling (elephant) bellies, any snorting and blowing (sloth bear busy with a termite mound), and identify escape routes should we get up-close to an elephant. It was nerve-wracking initially, but eventually, it became second nature. Similar to learning to drive a car, I guess.

Should you sense an elephant or bear, you quietly melt away into the forest in the opposite direction. But, if your senses fail you, and you come face-to-face with an elephant, what do you do? Climb a tree, run downhill or across boulders, use the topography in your favour.

On level ground, zigzag across the forest, never run in a straight line as, surprisingly, elephants can out-run you.

When a bear is engrossed in hoovering up termites, he's not listening very well. If it is too late to retreat without being noticed, call attention to yourself: cough or whistle just loud enough to alert it. It can be a fine balance between protecting life and limb, and enjoying the pleasures of the wild.

But, should you startle one, there is little chance it will run away — a startled bear is an angry bear! It lashes out with its long earth-ripping claws with terrible consequences. Goldilocks got away lightly…

Rom had three close encounters with bears, and, thankfully, he was able to duck behind a bush or tree every time. A lot of people have not been as fortunate as him, and have had their faces torn, heads scalped or even got killed.

The price for not being aware in the jungle is quite high. Usually I carry a stick, which in a pinch, could distract a charging bear, but, thankfully, I've never had a chance to try it out.

Rom recalls that writer Kenneth Anderson's son Don slept with his pet sloth bear on the same bed, and until the shaggy animal woke up of his own accord (late in the morning), Don just could not afford to move.

Some individual animals can be cantankerous, and don't abide by these broad generalisations.

A few years ago, a few friends were trekking through a forest. One of them went for a stroll along a dry river bed. When she saw a sloth bear come down the opposite bank for a drink, she crouched down slowly, before the animal could see her. But, moments later, the animal that had been drinking water, suddenly jumped into the puddle and charged across the river bed, straight for her.

The friend covered her head with her arms, and balled up. Behind her, one of her camp mates came running from the forest yelling and brandishing a tree branch, but the bear showed no signs of stopping. Another quick-thinking companion fired his gun at the ground in front of the bear. The noise and spray of sand hitting its face brought the creature to an abrupt halt. A moment later, it turned around and loped back into the forest. None of us can explain why the bear attacked. After hearing this story, I'm much less certain that the stick I carry would deflect an intent bear.

Yet, despite the occasional unpredictable danger posed by wild animals, it is far riskier driving the chaotic roads of the city where few people follow traffic rules, and where impatience, road rage and recklessness rule.

(The author can be reached at janaki@gmail.com)

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