Saturday, February 13, 2016

Bear Truth

The jungles have always been my second home and we were at Masinagudi that summer of 2006. On a late afternoon early March, my friend and fellow photographer Ravi, our local guide Mari and I set off towards the Moyar River at Masinagudi.

A family of Malabar hornbills greeted us as we parked near the Electricity Board guest house and began our short trek overlooking the magnificent mountains. A mongrel from the guest house accompanied us for a few Kms. He was friendly, walking ahead of us as though taking on himself to lead us. Nearing a clearing, he stopped abruptly, started sniffing the air and began growling. Baring his teeth, he looked closely towards the bushes and suddenly turned tail and bolted the way we had come.

“I hope it is not an elephant”, I remember telling Ravi as I raised my Camera mounted with a Tele Zoom to my eyes carefully scanning the bushes. Finding nothing I was about to move forward, when a movement to my right on the far side caught my eye. There, about 150 yards away, in a small clearing by the bushes, was this sloth bear. The animal had clearly seen us and was assessing the situation.

We were in no danger, for this was quite a small built bear, we were three and moreover, the distance between us was quite a large one and even in the event of a charge we were armed with pepper sprays, fire pencils and strong walking poles which when swung around could cause serious damage.

However, the nervous bear was looking back into the bushes and staring at us – a clear sign that she was protecting something (maybe cubs or her kill). Suddenly, she made a dash towards us stopped short and got back to the clearing. She did this thrice, and it was clear that she was nervous and the situation could reach a flaring point if we continued to stay around.

So, we slowly started back tracking till she retreated into the bushes. We were sure that we had seen her off and decided to go forward, circumventing and side stepping her direction.

We were wrong, the bear was waiting in the bushes and as we stepped forward, made yet another charge at us without a warning and was coming straight at us. The quick thinking Mari started banging a tin can which he was carrying causing a huge cacophony in the otherwise silent jungle atmosphere. This metallic noise caught her off guard and she hastily turned tail and got back to the bushes.

It was foolish to even consider going forward and we turned back constantly checking if any more surprise attack was in store – hands on the pepper sprays – just in case . . . . 

It puzzles me even today on why she chose to attack, when there was so much distance between us, she could see she was outnumbered one to three and we were not even heading towards her direction.

Friday, January 1, 2016

When a tripod saved my life!!

In my decades of roaming around the forests of India filming wildlife, I have been at the wrong end of the barrel more than a dozen times, with a few very close encounters – like the incident detailed below.

If I remember right, it was 2009. I was on a photo shoot at Masinagudi, looking for Sloth Bears along with Sundar, another wildlife phtographer. A friend had a home stay inside deep jungle where a few bears were reported to be frequenting a clearing near the place and we decided to stay there. It was a wonderful home, right at the foot hills of the mountains, unfenced and in the middle of the wilderness. After breakfast, we set out along with the Cook (our guide for the day, an excellent tracker himself) to the clearing, hardly 500 meters away where we had decided to wait for the bears to make their appearance.

It was nearing noon when we walked to the clearing, Sundar and the cook were almost 50 meters behind me. Nearing the clearing, I heard branches being torn apart. Moving closer, I was spell bound seeing a lone tusker right in the open, munching slowly on the lush green grass, as I hid behind a bush and began filming the majestic animal – barely 200 meters away.

Sundar and the cook had by then seen me and the elephant, so they hid behind a tree (Sundar took this photo). Since we were not very far from the house, we did not bother about the wind (though I knew we were walking downwind) which actually turned out to be a huge blunder. While composing the frame I did see some disturbing signs through the view finder, like the animal feeling the air with his trunk, stiffening, flapping his ears quickly and the front leg scraping the earth. These were tell tale signs of an impending charge and I was getting nervous, for though the house was just about 500 meters away, there was no way we could outrun an elephant if it did charge.

Sundar and the cook  sensed this too, and gestured to me to get back. As I was communicating with them through gestures and signs, the beast charged. A loud trumpet, one of the loudest I have heard in the jungles shook the earth as the massive animal blasted through the clearing aiming straight at us. Sundar had the extra burden of the tripod mounted camera to carry as we turned and ran back towards the house. We were no match for the speed of the elephant, which was closing the gap at a very rapid pace. It was just minutes, before it would be reaching us.

Then it happened. The tripod that was attached to Sundar's camera came loose and it fell down making a clanking noise, as we kept running. Along with the tripod Sundar had a red and yellow carry bag (holding the water bottle, a pack of Marie biscuits and anti-leech lotion – a local concoction) which fell down as well. This distracted the animal for it slowed down and was sizing up the tripod and the biscuits, especially the foul smelling anti-leech concoction, This gave us precious moments, enough time to put more distance between us and the animal. We did not look back to see the fate of the tripod. Later, coming back with more reinforcements, we saw the completely smashed, shattered and mangled remains of the tripod and shredded remains of the bag – which could have been us, had it not been for the sacrifice of the Tripod!!