Think beyond the tiger and head to one of India’s quieter sanctuaries to find the snorting, grunting and rather dishevelled looking sloth bear.
Scrunching noisily through the leaves isn’t exactly what immediately comes to mind when imagining walking through India’s jungles but that’s exactly what we were doing. Although India's Central Highlands were tinged with green there were many naked trees and giant teak leaves were falling all around us.
It hardly made for a stealthy approach as we stepped through Satpura’s dappled shade in search of wildlife – but perhaps that wasn’t a bad thing after all. There are tigers here and though they're very rarely seen there’s no telling if one is actually watching you.
I’d come in search of sloth bear, the most unkempt looking of India’s three species of bear (the others are the Himalayan Black Bear and Brown Bear) with heavy shaggy hair and a long muzzle with a protruding lip and an interesting white V-shaped patch on the chest.
The bear is partial to fruits, berries, grasses, flowers, honey, insect larvae and other insects and although not known for its man-eating tendencies, the mahua trees were in flower and the bears have a penchant for their fermenting alcoholic blooms. I didn’t want to find out what a disturbed, disorientated, drunken bear with four inch long claws might do. Even though they don’t have any front teeth I'm sure they could do still do a good job of sucking you to death.
Satpura is the only national park in India that allows walking safaris and before setting out we’d been briefed that should a bear become aggressive in protecting its territory our plan of action would be to stand together to look big and make as much noise as possible . . . Despite the name, sloth bears are not slow moving and can easily out run a human. Fortunately, we were accompanied by a superb naturalist and a park ranger armed with a big stick and a very intimate knowledge of the jungle.
The signs were there – rocky outcrops and caves ideal for dens, claw marks on fruiting trees and partially dug out termite mounds. The sloth bear has an incredible sense of smell and can detect insects deep in the mounds or underground. It uses its lips as a giant vacuum to noisily suck them up through its muzzle bizarrely creating a sound just like someone hoovering in the jungle.
Sloth bears are primarily nocturnal, but in the jungle they can often be seen searching for food during the day. But, unfortunately not this time. We had to wait until our jeep safari when we were able to cover more ground to see our sloth bear. Lolloping through the trees her shaggy, dusty-black coat swinging as she trotted along, there was not one, but two cubs clinging tightly to her furry back. My Baloo at last.
Posted by: Andrea Hulme