Winne- Yogi- Balu- Fozzie- Smokey- Barth…  What is common among them?

They represent one of the most unique species from the wild called – bear! Bears have captured our imagination since ages. May it be the honey-loving Balu from jungle book or sweetheart Winne, bears have an aura of their own. The lanky furry hair, dagger-like claw, unique face, tongue like nails used on sleepers of train track, unique vocalizations and no-nonsense approach to self-defence makes them one of the most unpredictable and feared animals from jungles of India. Historically humans have tamed bears for entertainment purpose. Not long ago, we could see bear shows on roads in India. Thankfully now it is illegal to tame a bear and perform a roadshow.

Found almost across central India and deccan plateau, the most common bear in India is “Sloth bear”. It is lankier than Brown and Asian black bear. Most popular places to see bears is Daroji sloth bear sanctuary and tiger reserves of central India. Essentially omnivorous it is mammal who prefers to eat insects. It is designed and built for eating insects. Long claws and snout, large nostrils, long lower lips which can be stretched over the outer edge of their noses and the lack of upper incisors, everything is designed to dig grund for roots or termite mounts and suck up large numbers of insects. Interstingly, the teeth of bear are always in bad shape because of all the soil that is sucked up along with insects and roots.

Sloth bear in it typical habitat. Did you notice its claws? Tadoba May 2019 (c) Shirish S Bhakare

Everything about them is strange. They prefer eating mahua flowers which are used by locals to make intoxicating drinks. These flowers have strong pungent odour and bears are attracted to it. They can be easily spotted under Mahua trees when the tree flowers. White marking on chest just along fore limbs is another unique characteristics. It can be seen when it stands ground on rear limbs.

The walk of the bear is also unique. They generally walk on four limbs. However, can be seen walking on two limbs and or standing on two limbs. The best part is they are expert tree climbers since birth. It has been reported that cubs and Mumma are seen climbing a tree to overcome the threat from other predators including other bears. However tree-climbing ability reduces with age due to an increase in weight. Also, it is interesting to note that Momma bear carries babies on their backs. Bears are known to sharpen claws by climbing trees and then sliding down with claws dug into the trunk of a tree.

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Bear scouting and digging around dry rivulet for insects. Tadoba March 2019 (c) Shirish S Bhakare

Sloth bears breed during spring and early summer and give birth near the beginning of winter. When under stress or when excited in mating the howling and shrieks of bears are strange scary and truly wild. It is an experience worth listening. They are tempremental in everything they do.

Bears don’t like surprises. They behave savage when surprised. Lot of forest workers and guards working in jungles get regularly attacked by bears. When surprised they have the instinct to stand ground and attack to defend. No wonder more people are killed by bears in India than tigers. I have experienced this behaviour myself at the hill station called Chikhaldara near Melghat tiger reserve. While travelling to Seemadoh from Chikhaldara in Ambassador car, a bear attacked our car. We escpaed unhurt but later realized that it attacked because we stopped our car on road that mumma bear was about to cross. To protect cubs she just charged.

A lot of horrifying stories of bear attacks can be heard from Jungles across India. The most horrifying story I have heard is from Panchbola point at Chikhaldara where the honeymooning couple was dragged and killed by Mumma bear in front of other tourists. Most of these incidents happen late evening when bears become active and their dark coats are difficult to differentiate with jungle backgrounds.

Tigers and bear share lot of habitats. However both stay away from each other. A tiger knows one swipe of dagger like the claw of bear could lead to life time disability and ultimately death. So generally tiger will stay away from bear. Weight to weight both are close match with slight upper hand to tiger. A tiger can kill bear only if the tiger remains undetected before attack on bear. The famous battle of Matkasur(dominant male tiger) from Tadoba and Mumma bear is a testimony to resilience and aggression of bear.

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Forest department using elephants to protect orphaned tiger cubs from bear. Bandhavgarh, November 2017.  (c) Shirish S Bhakare

We have already done a lot of damage to their habitat. When the territory of a bear is encroached upon by humans, they sometimes attack in self-defence. With incessant deforestation, the conflict is bound to increase. A lot of bears and humans are killed in this conflict. We have already diminished their population by hunting them for food and body parts such as their claws. It is time we help them make a great come back by protecting their habitat, creating awareness especially among people living along the edge of forests and understanding their behaviour. The dark aura of been temperamental and savage needs to be dehazed.

If bear see’s you coming, he will shy away to avoid you. Ranthambore October 2018 (c) Shirish S Bhakare

So next time you are in the jungle, please pray to God that you get to see a bear too. This unique shy wild spirit will always try to keep himself away from you and hence is very difficult to sight. Feel blessed if you get to see one and make sure not to surprise the bear for your own sake, after you don’t to trigger the savageness of this wild spirit.


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