Is That a Grizzly in My Garden?

Animals

Is That a Grizzly in My Garden?

Illustration: Saachi Mehta/ Arré

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t 6:00 am last Sunday, I was flooded with WhatsApp messages and Facebook updates which seemed like a collective attempt at an April Fools’ prank, albeit in July. Morning walkers and joggers on the main road around the Naini Lake claimed that they spotted a Himalayan black bear swimming in the water. Now if you know Nainital, you’ll know that our town is cupped in a valley around a beautiful lake in the Himalayas. The lake is literally in the middle of our town, and there is no way to get to it without crossing houses, hotels, and roads. Yet the messages kept pouring in. The whole town was abuzz with excitement. The enthusiastic admin of my local WhatsApp group even changed the group’s name to “Bhaloo!” I couldn’t quite believe it; it seemed absurd – too whimsy. The kind of stuff that happens in Emir Kusturica films.

At 6:30 am one of the domestic helps at my house, which is a good kilometre up the hill, told me that she had just seen a bear run across our garden. Now, this was unbelievable. The bear, my help said breathlessly, had run at great speed through the dahlias, into the neighbour’s yard, and in the direction of the oak forest, higher up the hill.

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Ironically, in what seems like a fitting metaphor of our times, I had been busy reading the updates on the bear on my phone, so I totally missed the singular sight of it rushing through the dahlias in the garden.

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Encounters with wildlife are not uncommon in our part of the world. Nainital is surrounded by forests that stretch all the way into Corbett National Park. Though tigers are sometimes seen in the mountains, leopards are routinely sighted around town. I have seen them walking around my house. On one occasion, the principal of my daughter’s school showed me CCTV footage from a camera installed at the school’s gate – I was dropping my eight-year-old daughter to school and behind us a leopard ran across the road.

Another somewhat ironic encounter with the big cat was over a meal – while dining with a friend, a leopard was dining on the friend’s dog, just outside our window. That completely ruined dessert for me.

But bears are shy and a rare sight. Peter Barren, who is credited with “discovering” Nainital for the British, launched a boat service on the lake in 1842. Of this expedition he writes, “In one of our excursions on the lake, we came upon a great black bear climbing a frightful precipice, and only thirty or forty yards distant from us. To our great disappointment, we had not a gun on board, or we should have had splendid sport.” It was unpardonable for a bloodthirsty Briton to be in a boat without a gun. How is a servant of The Empire expected to acquaint oneself with anything without first shooting it? Perhaps Barren is being denied afternoon tea in the afterlife as punishment.

However, even as early as 1927, bear sightings had become infrequent. JM Clay, the deputy commissioner of Nainital at the time, writes, “The Himalayan black bear is found in certain seasons in the forests around Nainital, but he can scarcely be regarded as common or even as a permanent resident.” And if he did have to visit, I hardly think he would do it at peak season tariffs.

The Himalayan black bear, though shy and retiring, is not an animal to be trifled with. It can be quite savage if provoked. Rudyard Kipling calls him the most bizarre of the ursine species”. So tarnished is the Himalayan black bear’s reputation that one can’t help but feel that Leo DiCaprio’s character in The Revenant was lucky to have been attacked by a mere grizzly.

In fact, when one reads about bear attacks and watches films like The Revenant and Grizzly Man, it seems that all the ursine species are hell bent on violence against humans. It’s almost like a collective revenge on the human race for turning them into cute, cuddly (and sometimes pink) soft toys.

Given ample warning, a bear will generally avoid human interaction. However, Himalayan black bear attacks on humans are on the rise throughout its range. A study conducted in Kashmir discovered that in 2009, 25 people were killed and 342 injured by bears. By 2012 this number had reached 40 and 562 respectively. Why is this man-animal conflict on the rise?

Of course, wildlife is facing a huge loss of habitat due to the burgeoning Indian population, but let’s not go down that old trope. As far as forest cover is concerned, Nainital has not fared too badly. The forests around Nainital have been protected and reforestation has been successfully carried out by the forest department. In some places, the forests are actually healthier and denser that they were a hundred years ago. Testimony of the ecosystem’s good health is provided by the variety of mammals I can see in my front garden – leopards, langurs, flying squirrels, porcupines, yellow-throated martens, and, as of last Sunday, the occasional Himalayan black bear.

I feel the real reason for the bear’s presence in my garden is something that is beyond the control of the forest department. As the aforementioned study in Kashmir concluded, it is probably the result of climate change that is occurring on a global scale. The last few years have seen a dramatic decline in winter rain and snow. (Or as one wise person put it, the drying of the bear’s “swimming places” which is why he decided to come down to Naini Lake for a swim.)

In 1993, the average winter rainfall across India was 44.5 millimetres; by 2010 this was down to 24.6 millimetres. Lack of winter snow and rain has played havoc with the Himalayan black bear’s hibernation patterns. The bear now hibernates for a very short time, if at all. Lack of hibernation means that the bears are out foraging for food even in the winter months when food sources are scarce. This forces them to start living closer to human habitation, so that they can forage in orchards and fields and also scavenge off the organic waste generated by human communities.

That is the thing what physicist Fritjof Capra evocatively calls “the web of life”. All its strands are connected. Anything that affects a single strand eventually affects the entire web. And yet, we recklessly continue to change our world, stick cellular radiation devices in the hands of six-year-olds, and continue to build nuclear reactors. In this constantly changing world, we would do well to heed the words of Stephen Hawking: “We are not going to stop making progress, or reverse it, so we must recognise the dangers and control them.”

Some readers, undoubtedly influenced by Nat Geo visuals of grizzlies feasting on salmon, took it a step further and suggested the bear had been gorging on fish in the lake.

We are blissfully unconscious of the fact that when we leave the lights on for longer than required, or when we take the car instead of walking a short distance, or when we choose processed foods over fresh produce, our actions could cause a Himalayan black bear to manifest in someone’s garden.

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That morning, after the household went into a tizzy at the sighting, a team of forest department officials came to scour the hillside around our house. They came equipped with a net and tranquillizer guns. It had been raining and paw prints were clearly visible in the wet earth. Scratch marks could also be seen on some of the mossy retaining walls. Evidence suggested he was a sub-adult male. After a while, the team concluded that the bear had moved up to the forest above the human habitation and no longer posed a threat.

The narrative of the bear’s travels was slowly pieced together. He had strayed into the city around 4 am and had been spotted on the hill on the far side of the lake. It somehow stumbled into a hotel and ended up breaking a glass pane there. The hotel owner and the bear met in the gallery and hastily parted ways. The hotel owner presumably headed to his liquor cabinet; the bear headed down the hill toward the lake. There was a pack of twenty dogs after it, so it must have been disoriented and pretty stressed. The lake probably offered the only respite. After swimming around for a while, the bear emerged on the shore on our side of town and apparently headed straight for our garden. From our garden, it had clambered up to famed hunter and conservationist Jim Corbett’s erstwhile home and then disappeared into the forest beyond.

The bear had spent only a few hours of a monsoon morning in our town, but what it had left in its wake can most aptly be described by that favourite word of Hindi newspaper editors – afraatafri. Those unacquainted with the concept of afraatafri would do well to get hold of a Himalayan black bear and have it run amok through the centre of their town. A close, but decidedly weak English translation would be hullabaloo.

A Hindi daily, getting into the swing of the afraatafri, hurriedly published a webpage dedicated to bear’s sojourn in Nainital. However, the editor was too impatient to wait for the photographs taken that morning, and published a photograph of a North American grizzly swimming in Alaska instead. Some readers, undoubtedly influenced by Nat Geo visuals of grizzlies feasting on salmon, took it a step further and suggested the bear had been gorging on fish in the lake.

But evidence of the bear actually enjoying his Nainital stay is scarce. When one looks at the videos and photographs, it is clear is that this animal is extremely frightened and in a state of panic. Attacked by a pack of dogs, he had even injured his paw while breaking the glass pane at the hotel. A blood spoor was clearly visible wherever he went. In short, he’s not going to give Nainital a great TripAdvisor review.

As for his brief stay in my garden, I can only hope it was hospitable and that he found my dahlias invigorating.  If he returns, I plan to show him some Narilathas.

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