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Sunday, October 9, 2011

7. Bear

If you come across someone with a scarred and disfigured face in a village then undoubtedly you have bumped into a person who has saved his life from the vicious attack of a bear. When surprised in the jungle by man, a bear stands on its hind legs and literally falls down on him with the claws of its forelegs flared open. This stroke scrapes the man from face downwards. It will also normally bite the person’s head. Even if one is lucky to survive such an assault, the chances are that the battle scars will disfigure one’s face for the rest of the life.

Bear is an omnivore which generally feeds on fruit such as Weera, Palu, Mora, and on insects such as termites. It is naturally capable of climbing trees and can be quite smart in retrieving bee hives too. Though the soft parts of the carcass or the carrion of a wild animal are also consumed by the bear, they generally do not kill for food. Scats of bear can be distinguished from those of other animals in the jungle by the mass of tiny parts of ants and termites that they contain. A bear can readily break into and take apart a termite mound during the rainy season. It takes out the hive of termites and does not leave until the last termite and all the grub are sucked out and eaten.  

Once, at the National Zoo I witnessed a bear’s greedy way of eating termites. Then, the Wildlife Department head office was housed in a building within the Zoo premises and whenever we went there on duty, we used to spend our spare time wandering about the zoo.  Once, we saw two pieces of termite hive being taken to be offered to two bears caged close to each other.
On noticing this one bear became rather anxious and started to wriggle. As soon as the piece of hive was thrown into the cage it jumped at it and started to suck the termites hastily, holding the hive on the ground with one hand and pressing the lips on it. The soft and flexible lips of a bear can be rolled into a pipe to suck termites and grub within seconds.
But, the reaction of the bear in the other cage was totally different. It was startled on seeing the hive and started to look at it with great suspicion while trying to hide in a corner of the cage. The bear relaxed a little a few minutes later once it realised that the object thrown into the cage was motionless, and slowly reached it and examined it. It tapped the piece of hive in quick movements of the hand keeping its distance. Even after sometime the bear did not recover from its anxiety and figure-out what it should do. The totally opposite reactions of the two bears were a puzzle to me. The riddle was solved upon the curator Mr. Molligoda explaining that the first bear was one captured from the wild while the second one was captive born. The former had learned from adults how a termite mound is to be broken and had experienced the way how a hive is to be sucked of termites. It exactly knew what to do once the hive was offered. But the second bear born and grown in a cage did not know the taste of the termites. Until I left the scene this ‘urban’ bear did not accepted the termites offered as food in this form.

Certain animal species identify the food available in the environment and learn the way it is to be gathered by its association with adults of its kind. If such an animal looses that opportunity it finds it difficult to do so with its own instincts.
All animals in the wild follow the rule of eternal vigilance against danger. Generally, on sensing even a trivial change in the surrounding environment, animals retreat hastily and take evasive action. In most animals and depending on the species, acute sense of vision, smell or hearing, help them with this.
However, the bear is considered to have a weak sense of hearing and sighting. As a result, an approaching man may not be noticed until he is quite close. When startled at such close quarters the bear has no alternative escape strategy other than to pounce upon instantly.
Though I encountered bear in the jungle many times during my stay at Yala-East I was fortunate enough to get away without being attacked. Once, we narrowly escaped being mauled by a she bear at Bambaragasthalawa where there are several hillocks strewn with rock caves and boulders. She bears with cubs generally take shelter in such rock caves.

The road leading to Bambaragasthalawa ends at a hillock with a huge flat rock extending over a couple of hectares. A rock cave with an ancient reclining statue of Lord Buddha is found along a trail running on the left side of the hillock. The trail wends its way through huge trees unique to such rocky hills, with the trees resonating with the high pitched noise of the crickets. Nothing of the inside can be seen until one enters the elevated cave as the approach is from behind.
As Bambaragasthalawa was frequently invaded by poachers from Panama we used to patrol the area often. During one such patrol and after a search around the rock we were heading towards the cave with the experienced guard Raufdeen in front. Rauf climbed the hillock quickly and vanished into the cave with us filing slightly behind him. It was then we heard the frightened scream of Rauf. As the tone of his scream signalled danger we scrambled towards the mouth of the cave. Though we found Rauf to be safe he managed to put his words together only after a long struggle. ‘wala…. petiya ekka….  mawa dekala… diwwa…’ Rauf explained, panting[1].
Rauf had seen the she bear with a cub only after he entered the cave. His sudden appearance excited the bear and made her turn here and there and he started shouting subconsciously.  Getting startled by the scream of the uninvited visitor the bear had hurried out from the other end of the cave with its cub on the back, as we entered the cave. Foot prints of the bear and the cub were observed clearly on the layer of dust in the cave.

Newly born bear cubs start to move about in the jungle with the mother after a few weeks. When they are tired of running about or excited at the sign of danger, the cubs mount on mother’s back and hold on to her long hair. Then the mother carries the cubs to a shelter.  Bears live solitary except mothers who live in the company of their one or two cubs. During the breeding season there may be a few males in heat running behind a female and quarrelling with each other. On such occasions they are rather aggressive.

Lahugala National Park was then the smallest of its kind and one of the most attractive wildlife reserves in the island. It protects a significant part of the strip of jungle in between Yala East and Gal Oya National Park that skirts the Senanayake Samudra reservoir and protects its catchment. Such connecting streaks of jungle are needed for the seasonal movement of elephants. The Lahugala Mahawewa reservoir within the park has a floating mat of lush ‘Beru’ grass preferred by elephants with the jungle surrounding it on most sides. One has to be unlucky not to see at least fifteen elephants there on a cool and calm evening.

I had the opportunity of gaining diverse experience in the jungle during the first year of my career itself as we were directed to go on several expeditions within this training period. Such expeditions were mostly multiple day treks. With the help of seasoned officers I was able to quickly learn how to identify the different signs left behind by wild animals, their behaviour patterns and various other traits that helps one to survive in the jungle. Though some these expeditions were gruellingly long during which we were irritated by mosquitoes and ticks, the pleasure we derived being exposed to an open air life went beyond all these inconveniences. They helped to develop and stretch one’s endurance and self confidence.

On our expedition to Bakmitiyawa, August 1981. Back row - Mr. Jayaweera, Raufdeen, two villegers and Somapala Front - Arjuna, myself and Piyasiri

One warm afternoon in August 1981 we set out for an expedition from Lahugala, headed by the Park Warden Mr. I. D. Jayaweera. My fellow trainee officers Arjuna and Ajith along with some other experienced officers were part of the group. Our objective was to reach Bakmitiyawa a village in the middle of almost nowhere, by going across Lahugala National Park. The distance up to Bakmitiyawa that we had to walk was not less than thirty five kilometres. We were to reach Badamassawa through Karanda Oya before dusk to spend the night there and reach Bakmitiyawa the following day. As it is customary during such long expeditions in the jungle, each leg of the journey commences after hanging a broken twig on a large tree, with a prayer to a particular deity. Senior officers would avoid mentioning their plans and expected timings except vaguely. As it is believed that everything in the jungle happens at the deity’s will, whenever we asked anything about timings the only answer given was ‘we will see with deity’s blessing….’.
We had to carry the dry rations needed along with the utensils with us as the long walk up to Bakmitiyawa and the return journey was to take a couple of days. We were happy to be left with the light weight aluminium pots and pans as the heavy dry rations such as rice and coconut were taken by the experienced officers. But it was later that we realised the trick in it - the pack of dry rations becomes lighter as the journey progresses whereas our load remains the same.

Lahugala jungle is different to that of Yala East. Instead of mainly open grassland and short scrub, it consisted primarily of a forest of tall trees. Entering the jungle, the delight one gets cannot just be described by words. The tree crowns hugging each other without letting much sunlight in creates darkness even during midday. The squeaking of crickets in every direction casts a mysterious spell in one’s mind. Though the tall under brush is not that dense the visibility is not that good due to the darkness. The small water holes here and there contains only a few inches of water contaminated with moss and made murky by buffaloes.  We walked along trails running from one water hole to another and reached Karanda Oya after an hour.  
Though Karanda Oya was a fairly wide stream it was almost parched except for a few puddles here and there on the streambed. When the drought spell starts to progress the puddles remaining on the exposed sand of the drying riverbed bears water only for a short period. As the drought reaches the peak wild animals will have to dig the sand to find water to quench their thirst. The skill and the muscle to do so are possessed only by a few species of wild animals such as elephant and bear. As the elephants leave after drinking from the puddles they make by digging the sand with their forefeet, the wild pigs and the buffaloes arrive. In turn, as they leave the puddles after drinking as much as possible while lying off and on, urinating and dropping dung in the water, then comes the helpless creatures such as spotted deer and barking deer. The leopard lurks near such waterholes for the perfect ambush of these weary creatures that nevertheless reach the puddles watchful eyes. This is how everything happens in the jungle – all an interlinked chain.

Exhausted after the continuous walk, we dropped the haversacks and lay on the dry sand for a while. Though a walk in a tall forest such as Lahugala where there is cool shade is not too draining we kept on having to catch up with Mr Jayaweera who was lean and tall and was one of the fastest ramblers I have seen. It would be rare to find someone who can match up to him.
As we looked around while lying under the shade of the leaning branches of the huge Kumbuk trees that stand lining the banks of Karanda Oya, we could see hundreds of butterflies clustered together on the wet sand on the edges of the puddles. It is a feast for the eye to see these butterflies suddenly appear in thousands and move about during a certain season of the year. A yellowish variety of butterflies called ‘lemon immigrant’ is quite common in the jungle. Though they are generally nectar suckers they do not hesitate to feed on moisture from muddy puddles and even from fresh animal droppings.
Though the siesta on the soft sand under the cool shade of the Kumbuk trees was so soothing we had to reach the destination Badamassawa before dark. We again found ourselves running behind Mr. Jayaweera and the other officers - Game Guards Raufdeen, Piyasiri, and Somapala.

Number of water holes on either side of the trail were seen and checked on our way up to Badamassawa. Hides constructed by poachers were found near almost all these water holes. Hunting is quite productive during the drought as proven by the appearance of these hides. Wild animals concentrate around the water holes due to the scarcity of water in the jungle and become an easy target for the poachers taking cover in these hides. The scent of the poacher disguised by the hide is not easily detected by the animals as the hide is always constructed on a tree or on higher ground overlooking the waterhole. It is very rarely that a poacher who uses a hide fails to bring down a wild animal. Such poaching cannot be curbed easily as they take place far away from protected areas or in areas away from the reach of routine patrols.
We reached Badamassawa near sunset and settled on a clean and dry sand bed of a stream. Selection of a place in a jungle to spend a night depends on several factors. Firstly, it should not be on a jungle trail frequently used by animals. A smooth sandy place free from insects and near where there is clean water is perfect.

There are a number of preparations such as cleaning the ground, cooking and collection of fire wood to keep the campfire burning till morning etc. that needs to be completed before darkness falls.  Leaving the seniority aside everybody takes part in the chores as a team.  
While we were immersed in the work suddenly all stood to attention and an eerie silence fell on hearing a distant but rather unusual noise. The sound of the trampling of the dry leaves could be heard and as we watched in excitement what appeared through the trees was a huge bear.
With its head pointing downwards the bear glided towards us turning this way and that way and suddenly rolled on the ground at a distance of about twenty metres from the camp. As we were watching in astonishment the bear scratched its body by rolling on the ground for a long time and at once headed to the forest without noticing our presence at all. Undoubtedly the bear must have been distressed after being stung by a swarm of bees while trying its hand at extracting a bee hive. Preoccupied and with its weak senses it did not notice our presence at all. This episode drove home in us the reason why in most cases bear with it’s rather weak sight and hearing can get quite close unknowingly and then pounce upon you when suddenly surprised at close quarters.

After an early dinner we prepared to spend the night. A bedspread on the smooth sand close to the campfire and the bag of cloths to keep the head makes a comfortable bed to sleep on. The current of warm air rising from the crackling campfire drags the flames up into the air. It is comforting to be warmed by the campfire as the cool of the midnight creeps in.
Then the story time comes. Daring stories with some added spin and yarns continue till midnight. Meanwhile the campfire is rekindled and a cup of tea is sipped from time to time. As the last pages of the memory book are turned and silence takes over, the group falls asleep one by one.
I was listening to the ‘tut..tut..tu...tut.. .’ call of a nightjar raised from a distance as my eyelids were closing under their weight.  It was at this moment a whole new group of visitors were coming to see us. All those asleep rose to their feet in a flicker as if a set of springs were released at once, upon hearing a deep throated howling raised just across from the camp. We came to our senses, loading one of the guns we had for our protection and quickly pulling out a few branches from the campfire as weapons of defence. Then came a mixture of frightening sounds - roaring, barking, hooting and hissing.
Four or five bears were coming up along the dry stream towards the camp site busily quarrelling with each other. Though the faint light cast by the camp fire did not allow us to clearly watch the drama being performed before us, the continuous barking of the bears was blood curdling. Undoubtedly, it must have been a group of males pursuing a female. The next moment we all started shouting as loud as we could in unison, moments before the bears were about to literally bump into us. With a sigh of relief we realised from the tone of their voices that we had alerted them enough to thwart their advance and had indeed turned them back.
Wild animal trailing females in heat are generally aggressive. A bear with its steel hook like claws and long sharp teeth in its big mouth is indeed a ferocious animal especially during the mating season.

The following morning we got up early to cook and have our breakfast and then set off on the second lap of the journey to Bakmitiyawa. It was dense jungle, through which we walked up to ‘Palutawa’ rock cave and beyond up to ‘Pinkamgathpitiya’ an abandoned chena, and finally reached Bakmitiyawa.
Bakmitiyawa did not differ from Kumana very much other than being a little bigger. Though the village had the basic facilities such as a sub-post office and a small school, living conditions of the villagers were almost the same as those of Kumana. We spent our second night in a hut near a tank called Morana, close to Bakmitiyawa. The following morning we set off and returned to Lahugala along the cart track via Karanda Oya and Hulannuge.
A few years after we visited Bakmitiyawa we heard that the village were facing harassment at the hand of terrorists  as one of the main terrorist jungle camps Kanjikudichchi Aru was located not far from the village.

Once during the period of drought I was seated on a rock overlooking Divulpallama tank with a couple of university students and late Mr. P.B. Karunaratne, one of the eminent wildlife researchers who was leading a study. While watching the animals coming to drink in the tank suddenly we heard the rustling noise of someone stepping on the layer of dry leaves behind the rock. The rustle slowly got louder and we sensed that whoever making the noise was moving along the trail towards the base of the rock. The noise stopped there and then moved in the direction of the water. As we peeped over the rock, what we saw was a huge bear starting to drink. The bear finished drinking in a couple of minutes and returned along the same trail without sensing our presence. If the bear with its sniffing and swinging head happened to take the trail up the rock instead of diverting at the foot, the story being related here might have been quite different.
Apart from what is related here, during my stay at Yala East I had the opportunity to observe bear number of times when patrolling by vehicle at night.  When they suddenly notice a vehicle coming towards them they always get surprised and start running along the road. Sometimes they run and climb on to a tree. Once I observed a bear cub quickly climbing on to its mother’s back and riding away with her.

Though bears are fierce animals and can be dangerous at close quarters observing them from a distance is fascinating.

“I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree

A tree that looks at God all day
And lifts her leafy arms to pray

A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth’s wide flowing breast

And on whose branches snow has lain
Who intimately lives with rain

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of Robins in her hair

Poems are made by fools like me
But only God can make a tree.”

- Joyce Kilmer


[1] “Bear…. with a cub…… ran upon seeing me….”