sloth bear profile 1 960x423 - Mount Abu- Encounter with Big Black Baloo

Mount Abu- Encounter with Big Black Baloo

Mount Abu, Rajasthan, India

A few months back in December, we were invited to a wedding of a family friend of my wife at Abu Road in February. I was not sure of making it, but the family insisted it would be a good idea; we could even spend the weekend at Mt. Abu. I did not particularly relish the idea as I only remembered the place as a child and the only thing I recalled was boating at Nakki Lake, and figured it would be like every other bustling hill station.

However, some reading up online got me interested, a small number of people were talking about the excellent trekking options. I dug a little deeper, and stumbled on a few fragments of info on the Mount Abu wildlife sanctuary. The website of the Rajasthan forest department and a few scanty TripAdvisor reviews were all I could find. So I got in touch with a friend of mine, Shardul, who had been to virtually every green corner in India. And he pointed me to Noel Desa of St. Mary’s school who would change my perception of this quaint hill station.

On February 15th, 2014 we found ourselves in Mt. Abu. We dedicated the day to explore the usual sights and sounds, Nakki Lake, Dilwara Temple (brilliant architecture). We spent the rest of the day at our hotel, Connaught House, and the well-maintained gardens attracted a nice diversity of avian visitors.

The original ‘Angry Bird’- Red-Whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus)- Both the Red-Whiskered and Red-Vented bulbuls were abundant whether it be Abu’s town side or its forested slopes.

The original ‘Angry Bird’- Red-Whiskered Bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus)- Both the Red-Whiskered and Red-Vented bulbuls were abundant whether it be Abu’s town side or its forested slopes.

While driving around Abu as well, we had noticed babblers and bulbuls seemed to be in abundance much like other hill stations, and the usual city suspects- house crows and pigeons seemed to be missing in action. The lack of scavenging avenues for the latter, might perhaps be a causal factor.

A first timer for me, though locally common here, was the Indian Yellow Tit, also sometimes known as the Indian Black-Lored Tit (Parus (xanthogenys) aplonotus).

Indian Yellow Tit (Parus (Xanthogenys) Aplonotus)- The subspecies is morphologically similar to Parus Xanthogenys and is largely differentiated by a slightly paler form, whitish rather than yellow wing-bars and distribution.

Indian Yellow Tit (Parus (Xanthogenys) Aplonotus)- The subspecies is morphologically similar to Parus Xanthogenys and is largely differentiated by a slightly paler form, whitish rather than yellow wing-bars and distribution.

These were joined by a few more of the commonly encountered species:

The brilliant Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris Asiaticus)

The brilliant Purple Sunbird (Cinnyris Asiaticus)

Laughing Dove (Spilopelia senegalensis)- A distinctive pattern of rufous split feathers, give the impression the dove is wearing a necklace.

Laughing Dove (Stigmatopelia senegalensis)- A distinctive pattern of rufous split feathers, give the impression the dove is wearing a necklace.

In the evening, we took the drive to meet Noel or Brother Noel, as he is known at school. He met us at the gate along with possibly, the world’s friendliest Great Danes. He explained that Mount Abu’s biodiversity was largely unexplored, forests ranging from thorn to evergreen with a stunning variety of birdlife (he showed us a picture of a group of Green Avadavats, one of the rarities of the subcontinent, congregated around a small water feature near his office). Leopards were also very much present here, and Mt. Abu was fast gaining a reputation of having an unusually high density of sloth bears.

Noel gave us a quick tour of the school, beautifully maintained with great care taken to preserve the local flora and fauna. The education of children here ensured they are constantly in tune with nature, often visiting the nearby forest.

The next morning, based on Noel’s advice, we visited Trevor’s tank, the sanctuary’s most popular entrance. We paid the customary entrance fees at the gate, and took the dirt road to Trevor’s Tank. The road was bumpy and though I wouldn’t advise any journeys in old cars of any questionable condition, most cars would be able to manage fine. While driving, we spotted a few common avian residents such as Black Redstarts and Fantail Flycatchers, until I spotted something interesting in a sandy patch on the road.

A leopard pugmark, about 500 meters in from the Trevor Tank gate inside the sanctuary

A leopard pugmark, about 500 meters in from the Trevor Tank gate inside the sanctuary

We had been told earlier leopards were very much present, but it was good to know the big cat was on the prowl. Tigers, unfortunately disappeared here in the 1970s, the last tiger apparently seen in 1974 when it was found raiding a village’s chicken coop. Some reports suggested past presence of lion as well, and Noel in fact had told us recently there had been rumours, that a few kilometers south of the Aravali foothills, they were again being seen, courtesy the spillover from Gir.

We reached the end of the road, and we stepped out to view Trevor’s Tank. We met one of the local guides there, Bijay who showed us around the place. The Tank had been constructed in the year 1897 by Maharaja Kesari Singh Bahadur of Sirohi State in memory of late Colonel G. H. Trevors (The agent to the Governor General Of India from 1890-1895 at Rajputana). A few tourists do visit the spot to view the tank’s reptilian residents, mugger crocodiles. They were introduced a few years back, along with some exotic species of carp and goldfish. What effect these exotics have had on the local species is undocumented.

A mugger basking in the afternoon sun. As per our guide, there were 5 individuals now present in the tank.

A mugger basking in the afternoon sun. As per our guide, there were 5 individuals now present in the tank.

The wildlife sanctuary area according to forest department stats, was not very large, 19-20 kms long, and 5-8 kms wide. Contiguity with any protected areas seemed to be long lost (At one point of time, it may have been connected to as far as Ranthambore). We asked Bijay to guide us through any trails in the surrounding forest. He said he could do so taking us to a hillock edge, ominously named Death Point. My wife and me exchanged nervous glances at the name, but decided to proceed. We began trekking, and after a few meters, were rewarded by the sight of a Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher.

The Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher (Cyornis tickelliae) is a forest-loving species, found in thick cover and shade, and particularly haunts the banks of wooded streams, exactly where we found this individual.

The Tickell’s Blue Flycatcher (Cyornis tickelliae) is a forest-loving species, found in thick cover and shade, and particularly haunts the banks of wooded streams, exactly where we found this individual.

Oriental white-eyes flitted from bush to bush. We walked on, until we heard the distinct harsh cry of a langur alarm call further up the hillside, followed in a few minutes by a peacock’s. We stayed for a while scanning the hillside with binoculars but soon the calls subsided, and we didn’t catch a glimpse of any movement. We walked further ahead, Bijay in front, followed by my wife, and then by me.

As we turned the next bend, Bijay beckoned to us with quick motions, and my wife caught a glimpse of the elusive grey junglefowl disappearing into the underbrush. By the time I turned the bend, I could only hear the rustling indicating its movement. Disappointed, I checked the time and realized we needed to head back for a quick lunch before meeting Noel to explore the forest near his school.

  We went on our way back when something flew in and perched on a tree above us. It was a Brown-headed Barbet, a common forest resident of the subcontinent.

The brown-headed barbet (Megalaima zeylanica): The word ‘Barbet’ is derived from the French word ‘Barbe’ meaning beard, so named for the trademark whiskers around its bill.

The brown-headed barbet (Megalaima zeylanica): The word ‘Barbet’ is derived from the French word ‘Barbe’ meaning beard, so named for the trademark whiskers around its bill.

We returned to our car, and to the town for a quick lunch. We reached St. Mary’s at 3:30 pm. The weather was just perfect, a warm sun, and cool winds blowing. We walked out the school gate towards Tiger Path, one of the well-known trekking routes I had read up on. The route is approximately 7 km long, ending at a village. Noel informed us it would connect to the main town road, though the route was a bit long and circuitous.

Tiger Path, Mount Abu, Rajasthan, India

We set off at a brisk pace, to take in as much of the forest as we could for the remaining daylight hours. The forest here seemed to be in far better condition as compared to the largely dry forest around Trevor Tank. A couple of plum-headed parakeets whizzed by us.

Noel knew the route, like the back of his hand, and with a long club-like stick in his hand to ward off any dangers; he was as comfortable off the route as he was on it.  As evening set in, the forest was bathed in golden light.

As the sun began its descent, we decided to head back, as we didn’t want to stay after dark, and the last thing we wanted was to bumble into anything unexpected in the dark. I had no idea this line of thinking would turn out to be somewhat prophetic.

On our way back, a small temple had been built; three youths on a motorcycle had stopped by. They informed us they had seen a bear going off into the forest from the road. We thanked them, and remained vigilant, but I knew the chances of coming across any large mammals on foot would always be low. Humans, no matter our efforts, tend to be too noisy.

We walked on, and I was scanning the forest, when my wife pointed out ahead and asked, “Who is that?” About 20 meters ahead of us, a large black figure had turned the bend and was plodding on towards us. My first reaction was, “Looks like a bear, but can’t possibly be one, what were the chances”. But a second look confirmed it, there was in fact, a sloth bear walking towards us.

At this point of time, the bear became aware of our presence. We had made no attempt to hide, not wanting the bear to come any closer; he stopped as well regarding us balefully.

The bear looking right at us. This photo is an indicator of the actual distance, with no crop or zoom.

The bear looking right at us. This photo is an indicator of the actual distance, with no crop or magnification on the original image.

Noel, a few feet ahead of us, had been looking for tracks, and as he looked up, he froze and quickly looked back to us to ensure we had seen the bear.

I managed a few quick shots, and kept an eye for any changes in the bear’s behavior. While we were a group of 3, and there was no cause for immediate danger, sloth bears are notoriously temperamental, unpredictable animals. When cornered, and unable to find themselves in a position to retreat, they stands on their hind feet and attack, biting the unfortunate victim’s face, leaving devastating injuries.

Sloth Bear Profile, Mount Abu, Rajasthan, India

However, in this case, he looked at us for 10-15 seconds, and to some relief, turned back and disappeared around the bend.

The bear turning back

The bear turning back

We proceeded ahead with caution around the bend, but rustling in the bushes a little further ahead on our left, indicated that the bear was making its way up the hillside.

We made our way back and soon reached the Tiger Path gate, and as we re-entered the school gates, we were welcomed again by Noel’s friendly Danes.

Brother Noel & The Danes

Brother Noel & The Danes

Over some piping hot tea, we relived our trekking experience. Noel pointed out that he had been making steady efforts to curb the invasive lantana (Lantana camara L., an introduced exotic species) growth. The lantana has spread through much of the sanctuary habitat adversely affecting native species destroying the habitat of endemic wildlife, key among them the Green Avadavat. Because of the efforts to maintain the natural habitat near school, these endangered birds are now being sighted again, but are at risk over the larger landscape that was already witnessing fragmentation.

We also talked about our close encounter with the bear. While everyone was well aware of the presence of bears, they were not seen as often, and if they were, it was usually at a long distance up away on hillsides.

The lower reaches have patches of evergreen forest, thorn and bamboo. The rocky upper reaches seemed to constitute ideal habitat for sloth bears.

The lower reaches have patches of deciduous forest, thorn and bamboo. The rocky upper reaches seemed to constitute ideal habitat for sloth bears.

Final word on our journey:

Having a wild sloth bear 20 meters away is a thrilling experience, but I wouldn’t certainly wish for this encounter to happen alone, when the sun has set.

We were just happy that big ol’ Baloo had graced us with his presence during the day 🙂

Kit: Sony A35, SAL75300 (75-300 mm)

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