This incredible encounter was written and experienced by Abhik Palit, who is a part of WWF-India’s team in the Satpuda Maikal Landscape. Abhik works towards the reduction of Human Wildlife Conflict and community based conservation with the local communities residing within the Balaghat Tx2 site, undertaking activities related to alternate livelihoods, natural resource management, sustainable agriculture and awareness.
Hats off to Avinash Dubey! As an Assistant Field Officer at WWF-India, Avinash, also fondly known as Laalu Bhaiya, has worked in the sphere of wildlife conservation and its multiple facets for almost a decade and he certainly has the skills to show for it. I’ve travelled down forest roads with many a companion now but rarely do I get to see as much as I do whilst journeying with him. Thanks to his practised eye and a sixth sense for sightings, I recently had the good fortune of witnessing the most stunning wildlife sighting I’ve had till date.
The sun had just set over the hills of Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh, as we left Tallabodi for the village of Khara about ten kilometres away. As our Maruti Omni toddled down the rough forest roads, swaying side to side and struggling on the kaccha path, Laalu Bhaiya promised to show me a tree along the road with scratch marks made by a bear, a spot where he had sighted one in the past. Looking forward to seeing the marks and listening to the story, we rushed headlong towards Khara in the gathering darkness with our field assistant Bharat in the backseat. We were in quite a jolly mood, having just held a successful meeting with Self Help Group members in Tallabodi. We were eager to reach Khara, finish our work there and wrap up what had been a long day. Driving the car on second gear, we chatted loudly over the whine of the engine, discussing the day’s progress and planning our meeting in Khara.
Abruptly, Laalu Bhaiyya stopped the car. ‘Almost went past it in the dark!’ he apologised as I picked up a water bottle which had fallen to the floor. We both started to get out of the vehicle when suddenly he threw a hand across my chest, his eyes dead ahead and said ‘I think he’s up there right now!’
I brushed his speculation aside with a laugh, making my cynicism known to him. Then, as I looked out the windshield at the light beaming in front of us, he pointed to tiny scrapes of bark floating down from the branches above. The movement of the branches could be clearly heard too, different from the more commonly heard sound of monkeys moving among the branches. This was more sinister and most certainly something heavier. It was when I saw the bees buzzing angrily on the ground that I realised the floating bits were not bark, but chunks of a hive which the bear was presumably devouring a few feet above us. ‘It’s definitely up there! He’s feasting on honey!’ Lalu Bhaiyya whispered as he quietly switched off the car engine and poked his head outside to look. This was when I heard him for the first time.
The rustling of the branches was accompanied by a wild, gnashing sound which froze us to the spot. I was later told that the bear was probably foaming at the mouth as it made tried to intimidate us from the tree. At first the sound was all that we got. I got my cell phone out quickly and started recording a video with the flash switched on, but to no avail. It shone out into the night, illuminating the trunk of the tree only up to a few feet, making the floating particles of dust twinkle in the air above us. It was a blackout and all we could hear was the gnashing and the rustling, as we waited with bated breath for the bear to show itself.It started with just a glimmer. The flash caught its eyes for just a second as I held my phone aloft, aimed towards the sky and the branches before it. Then, as it descended from the thick foliage- I caught my first glance. The bear was descending head down, its head aimed towards us, negotiating the branches with ease as he made his way, headfirst, towards the ground. It was mostly just the eyes that I could see, sparkling with a wild intensity, the rest of his body just a furry silhouette.
As the foliage fell away above him and just the trunk remained below, twenty feet off the ground, he sunk his nails into the tree and righted himself, head still turned down towards us, inspecting our every move. Clambering down with hurried steps, the bear slid down the last ten feet of its tree, all the while gnashing his teeth. We watched transfixed as it completed the descent and stood there, ten feet away from us, cocking its head at us inquisitively.
Very quickly, it decided we were not worth its time, probably dangerous and bound away into the forest with one quick motion. The moment had passed. It took a second for the darkness to engulf him and two more for his footsteps to merge with the sounds of the forest. But there we stood, for a long time, with blood pumping through our veins, our cheeks flushed and our breathing hurried.