Daroji's timeless army of bears

LAKSHMI SHARATH | Updated on June 30, 2011

Sloth bears are found largely in India, besides Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.They were originally considered a species of sloths rather than bears, and werenamed after their slow gait. The first sloth bear to arrive in Europe was shipped from India late in the 18th century.

Mythology packed in pristine nature, at the Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary near Hampi, Karnataka.

Sipping hot tea, I watch the first rays of sun caress the thorny scrub jungles of the Sloth Bear Resort in Hampi. At a distance the mountain ridges are bathed in a golden hue. My day begins with a bit of mythology as my guide, Virupaksha, narrates stories from the Ramayana.

“This area is not just historic, but very rich is mythology,” he says, referring to the twin towns of Hampi and Anegundi, separated by the Tungabhadra river. Anegundi, he adds, is even older than Hampi (the erstwhile capital of the Vijaynagar empire). “It is the mythical Kishkinta, or monkey kingdom, of the Ramayana. And if you believe in myths, there was one bear in the army called Jambhavan — now, you see an entire army of them here,” adds Virupaksha, describing the Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary, located close to Hampi.

Home to over 130 bears, the sanctuary encompasses the Bukkasagara mountain range around Hampi and Anegundi. There are leopards, foxes, jackals, hyenas, pangolins and a variety of birds and reptiles here. The rocky caves and boulders are a perfect habitat for these bears, which feed on berries and wild fruits that grow in plenty. There is no dearth of honey too, and you can see several termite mounds as well.

We start our journey towards Daroji, a nondescript village 20 km from Hampi, which the locals believe was earlier called Darwaze, meaning gate. “This is one gate, madam that has forgotten to be marked,” says Virupaksha, referring to the many gateways to this walled empire. On the drive down, I am lost in the ageless spirit of Hampi. Scattered among the ruins are gates, forts, temples, palaces, monolith statues, stables and baths, all vying for attention. But we are not looking for them. Our agenda is to sight sloth bears.

The scenery changes dramatically. Bordered by hills stacked with boulders, the sunflowers add colour to the paddy fields. Small canals of the Tungabhadra river give us company, while herds of goats block our path. We pass nomads accompanied by their horses and cattle. A slight drizzle sets in as the fields slowly turn into shrub jungles. We take a detour towards the Daroji Wildlife Sanctuary and the birds welcome us.

As boulders give way to shrub jungles, fowls and francolins rush past and a brood of quails runs into the shrubs. We reach a hillock. A peacock emerges from behind another boulder just as we catch sight of two black furry heads peeping from behind a rock. The bears slowly emerge from a cave, a mother and cub, and they are followed by several others.

The bears get busy identifying boulders and rocks, and start licking them. Virupaksha explains that the Forest Department arranges for sweet-licks and the bears are rather addicted to them. While most tourists get to watch the spectacle from a watchtower, we were lucky to see the bears up close.

Soon the hillock is filled with bears. Suddenly a bully walks in and we hear growls. The threat turns into a territorial battle as the bear hugs turn a bit nasty. They butt and bite each other as they get possessive about their turf. The mother threatens every male who tries to come near her rock, while the cub hides behind her. For a long time it is just us and the bears. Once in a while, they turn to look at us, but they seem largely indifferent to our presence.

The silence is slowly interrupted by loud echoes of dynamiting from the hills, as mining and quarrying are rampant in these areas. Huge steel plants are being set up adjoining the sanctuary, threatening the existence of these bears. As we hear stories of man-animal conflict, a big bully walks into the arena and fights with the other bears for his share of the sweet-licks. Watching their territorial fights, it seemed a bit ironic as industrialisation slowly takes over their very homes. A sudden drizzle turns into a downpour, a mongoose walks past us and takes shelter under the rocks, a peacock cries and the bears shake the water off their fur and continue to lick as we watch them in silence. The Jungle Book of Kipling has just come alive.

Best time to visit is October to February. The Sloth Bear Resort organises safaris and nature walks. The Forest Department organises nature camps too.

Published on June 30, 2011

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