The bear and the goatherd

A mother defending her cubs can, if she wants, peel off a person’s face like a tangerine

April 15, 2017 04:12 pm | Updated 04:48 pm IST

A survey of three neighbouring districts revealed that bears attacked more people in Banaskantha.

A survey of three neighbouring districts revealed that bears attacked more people in Banaskantha.

The flock of goats returned by themselves to Khapra village, outside Balaram Wildlife Sanctuary near Mount Abu, without their goatherd. The man who had taken them into the forest went missing. The next day, March 13, a team from the village in Banaskantha district discovered his body, but they ran afoul of a sloth bear that killed one of them. The others were lucky to escape with their lives. They set the forest afire to stop the bear and returned home to tell their tale.

The Gujarat Forest Department staff recovered the bodies, which had deep puncture wounds, and tried to put down the blaze. The bear attacked them and killed one. Two days later, a large team of forest and police officials shot the animal dead. Only then did they discover it was a nursing mother. It is likely her cubs died since. This story is based on many news reports. Even if some details are inaccurate, most reports corroborate the main facts.

According to the state’s estimate of the sloth bear population, Banaskantha district saw an increase from 90 in 2011 to 121 in 2016. Researchers from Hemchandracharya North Gujarat University, Patan, conducted a survey of the area in 2008 and 2009.

Of three neighbouring districts surveyed in 2008, bears attacked more people in Banaskantha. Professor Nisthith Dhariaya, who conducted the survey, wrote that the indigenous communities didn’t know much about sloth bears.

One news report highlighted the villagers’ surprise and shock at the attacks. “Sloth bears often come to our village,” one villager told Indian Express , “but reports of them attacking humans are unusual. They run away when shooed.”

Although its shambling walk and short-sighted squinting can make it look rather endearing, a sloth bear can be dangerous. A startled bear or a mother defending cubs lashes out with long, termite-hill-ripping claws, peeling a person’s scalp or face like a tangerine. Often the attack is so sudden there’s no time to defend oneself. Such defence earns them the respect of even tigers.

The angry mother

Did the goatherd blunder into the defensive mother sloth bear? What explains the deaths of the second villager and the Forest Department staff? Did they venture too close to her den? Individuals of a species can have different temperaments. Did this bear have an especially short fuse? It’s hard to draw any conclusions based on news reports.

Experts recommend villagers not enter forest areas to collect firewood or graze their animals. This degrades the forest and increases the likelihood of running into sloth bears. But what if bears seek out villages? Experts have no advice for such cases.

One cool November evening in 2015, Vasanta Hatwar, the middle-aged deputy sarpanch of Aategaon village, near Nagpur, Maharashtra, visited his dilapidated barn to pick up firewood. He heard soft cries of what sounded like puppies come from within the building. He peered inside with a torchlight, only to see an adult sloth bear charging at him. The bear stopped short and returned to a corner. Hatwar realised she had given birth in the barn.

The village is no stranger to wild animals, as they walk in and out of the nearby Nagzira Wildlife Sanctuary. Given the sloth bear’s reputation, none of the alarmed residents wanted to live with one. They implored the Forest Department staff to take the bear and her cubs away. The officials explained the risks of trapping, tranquilising, and moving a mother and her too-young cubs. Instead, they posted a sentry at the barn to make sure the bear posed no danger to people.

In addition, they set camera traps at the front and rear doors and on the side of the building to record the bear’s movements. As a backup, the department also created an ash trap, a spread of ash to record the animal’s spoor. This support helped the residents gain the confidence to live with the sloth bear in their midst.

For more than a month, they took a detour to visit their fields after dusk. Walking on the main tarmac road would take them past the barn and disturb the mother bear. Hatwar stocked cattle feed and firewood elsewhere so he didn’t have to use the building. The subsequent arrival of newspaper reporters who sang praises of the villagers’ magnanimity gave their resolve a boost.

On hearing this unusual event, Mandar Sawant, a young wildlife photographer from Dombivli, near Mumbai, camped out at the village with the forest guard. He said the barn was a perfect location for the mother bear.

Within 100 metres stood eight Indian jujube trees heavy with fruit. At midnight, soon after a camera flash alerted the guard and Sawant, they heard her chewing on fruits. After a quick snack, she drank from a nearby pond and returned to her cubs. She spent no more than half an hour away from them.

Over time, she stayed away longer. In the mornings, Sawant walked around to see where she had been the previous night. Besides eating fruit, she dug for termites in the fields.

The villagers carried on with their business although the bear was never far from their thoughts. None of them was bitten by the selfie affliction. One morning, just as suddenly as she had appeared, she was gone, taking her cubs with her.

The author is not a conservationista but many creatures share her home for reasons she is yet to discover. @JanakiLenin

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