The sloth bear, or bhalu, is a shambling, hairy-eared, misshapen misanthrope; much, in this respect, like me. It leads a solitary, grubbing life in the forest and grassland of India, searching for termites, fallen fruits and flowers, carrion, and the nests of bees. At all costs it avoids contact with such dangers as tigers and humans, though sometimes inevitably their paths must cross.
Last night, after one o'clock, a violent storm beat Tadoba, spitting rain and lancing lightning at the land. The wind thrashed the grasses and puddles formed all over the park in the courses of streams. For a tiger watcher this is a disaster: tigers are most easily seen when the forest is driest and water is least available.
It was to a cool, damp, tousled park that we went this morning, knowing we had little hope of seeing a tiger. The usual pug marks were in the road, a female here, a male there, and distant alarm calls came from sambar. But for most of the morning the jeeps sat at well-known tiger (and jeep) crossroads, with no concrete leads to follow.
For our part, having seen a beautiful tigress the day before, we chose to leave the desultory huddle of jeeps and look for other wildlife. Thus it was today that the bear's path crossed ours, though the bear was only dimly aware of us and our intentions towards it were wholly innocent. It was first seen up a slope to our left, poking its long, brown, termite-snuffling snout from behind a tree, trying to ascertain what manner of disturbance we were.
Retreat, the bear decided, was the best course, so it loped away through light forest, and occasionally we saw its soot-black shape among the trees. Our driver and guide divined that it would cross the road behind us so we freewheeled down the gently sloping road to meet it. Our bear, unhappy on open ground, lolloped across the paved road as cameras clicked and smiles broke across our faces.
On a damp day on which tigers stayed hidden by pools in the streambeds, just one jeep saw a bhalu as the paths of bear and humans crossed once more in the great story of the forests of central India.