The bears panted in the hot sun. The afternoon air was thick and humid, sticky with discomfort. Yet the hours passed unheeded.
Three Sloth Bears lumbered on the rocky slope, slurping up supplemental food put out by the forest department. They were engrossed in eating the gooey mix of jaggery and palm oil, and we were captivated. For hours, the bears noisily poked around the rocks, rummaging in crevices. One of them seemed to like scratching out a bit of feed with its claws, and slurp on it much like we would suck liquid from a straw. When it liked what it tasted, it would settle down on its behind or flat on its belly and devote itself to licking the feed clean off the rock. It was exhausting work in the heat, and the bears took breaks to amble off into the shade and rest behind large boulders. But they would soon return to resume their noisy activities; their sniffing and slurping audible nearly a hundred feet away.
The breaks when the bears rested were far from dull, though, filled as they were by a full cast of other characters. Half a dozen Ruddy Mongooses darted around the slope all afternoon, finding bits of food here and there. A mother and pup rested in the shade for quite a while, the mother looking around nervously while the pup sniffed and nibbled curiously. Palm squirrels bolted, chased each other and nosed around in hyperactive bursts. Sometimes they sat atop boulders to watch for impending trouble, keeping a lone rock agama company. A constant parade of peacocks pecked at the feed put out for the Sloth Bears; some showed off a full train of beautiful feathers, but many were divested of their colourful burden this late in the breeding season. There was much excitement when a family of Painted Spurfowl strutted in view to cross the rocky slope. Nearby, a male tailorbird called unceasingly, until the rhythm finally melted into the afternoon. Time flew. Somehow it was evening, and we had to leave this magical theatre. We fantasised that a leopard lurked among the boulders crowning the hilltops, quietly watching us leave.
A couple days later we returned, hoping for a rerun. But nature has its own plans and vagaries, and the drama that unfolded this time was totally new. The props were the same, but the mood was very different – the sky was overcast, and it rained all afternoon. Sloth Bears are thought to avoid the rains, curling up in dry caves or under large boulders for weeks during the monsoon in wetter forests. But here they were, up and about in the steady drizzle. Perhaps because this is a dry area and the rain offered welcome relief, or maybe the sweet food supplements were too good to pass up. After a while, one of the bears shook itself free of raindrops, scaring a squirrel that had wandered too close. One by one, the bears drifted farther as the feed washed away in the rain. Just as we were wrapping up, the clouds cleared out and the sun returned.
In a short while, a pair of Painted Spurfowl surprised us by walking up very close, their colours enhanced by the golden evening sunlight. Intent on pecking at the abundant grass seeds that this monsoon has produced, they seemed unfazed by our presence. A peacock, feather train in full glory, settled on a hill-top and fastidiously preened itself for a long time. Its long neck and beautiful crest moved gracefully, and its feathers danced in the breeze. It announced its presence far and wide, its call penetrating the valley, and then with a majestic swoop, it disappeared into the trees below. As we drove back toward our base at the Jungle Lodges and Resorts camp, already content with the day’s kindly fruits, we spied a pair of charmingly googly-eyed Blue-faced Malkohas hopping in Acacia trees. Bright yellow male weaver birds sang and flapped their wings over their nests to attract females. Baby Little Grebes shook raindrops off their backs and paddled towards cover at the edge of a pond to turn in for the day. On a rainy day, nature is full of wonderful treats.
Our September afternoons in the Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary were but a glimpse of the richness of the landscape. The 80-odd square kilometers of the sanctuary encompass a dry deciduous forest ecosystem with stark boulder formations. Numerous native plant species belonging to genera such as Grewia, Acacia, Pongamia, Capparis, Shorea, Cassia and Butea, dot the landscape; their green cover supporting an impressive array of animal species. The forests are largely free of the invasive plants that are slowly choking some other forests in southern India. To the uninitiated, these stunted deciduous forests would appear depauperate and bare. In fact, wildlife abounds here, and in the past decade many new animal species have been described from such dry deciduous and scrub habitats of peninsular India. It is true that long dry spells and droughts that sometimes last for years appear to suck life out of this landscape, turning it yellow and brown. However, the replenishing rains return sooner or later, coaxing dormant life out of its slumber.
At this time of the year, it rains nearly every day for a few hours. Herbs of a hundred kind have broken the hardened dry land, and rough, brown twigs that appeared dead a few months ago sprout green buds at an unbelievable pace, turning the hills verdant. Frogs abound, and peahens skitter with little chicks in tow. Enormous millipedes crawl over boulders, somehow looking hurried yet Zen at the same time. The abundant herbs and vines produce a crop of fresh butterflies that flit about the walkways and sail over the landscape. To our surprise, we found the elusive Alida Angle butterfly right outside our cottage. The Indian populations of this species were scientifically christened in the 1940s, but the species had not been seen in India since then, until 3-4 years ago. So, this seemingly rare species is perhaps more widespread than anyone had expected. How many more surprises do these ancient landscapes and forests hold? Time will tell as naturalists continue their explorations.
Rains bring respite not only to the landscape, but also to our senses. Soft raindrops lull the ears and soothe the eyes. The evening light and breeze are unbelievably beautiful, setting off velvety green waves of fresh grass. Reflected from raindrops clinging to the bears’ black coat and from Acacia flowers dotting the landscape, the light acquires a magical luminescence. Warming the ripe ears of jowar ready for harvest, it evokes the rich colours of Van Gogh’s palette.
Meanwhile, unperturbed by the world, a large Indian Eagle-owl dozes on the grassy rockfaces along the canal snaking out from the Tungabhadra dam. Its heavy eyelids curtain startlingly bright orange eyes. Time stands still; and the hours pass.