IN SEARCH OF SLOTH BEAR
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2004). In search of Sloth Bear. Serendipity. August 2004. Page 8.
The Palu season draws Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne to Yala
The Palu tree is a symbolic tree of the low country dry zone. Except in riverine areas or where the salinity of the soil is high, in the dry zone, it is what botanists describe as a ‘climax species’. If one were to clear a patch of land, it would be subject to what ecologists describe as ‘vegetational succession’. The bare land would first be colonized by fast growing, herbaceous plants which would grow and set seed within a few weeks or months. These are opportunistic plants which have evolved to take advantage rapidly, of clearings in a forest. Over time, slower growing shrubs and small trees would become established. Eventually slower growing trees will set seed. A few trees like the giant Palu, will over several decades, grow to tower over their rival plants who are competing for the same scarce resources of soil nutrients, water and sunlight. Therefore every Palu tree in the dry zone is a story of success, a story of bitter rivalry waged in the plant kingdom and a tall notice of the victor’s triumph.
The Palu ( Manilkara hexandra ) or Ironwood Tree is also a beautiful tree conforming to the classical shapes and proportions of what one expects from a tree. It has a robust trunk, with a bark which is deeply fissured into small rectangles. A spreading canopy is formed from tight clusters of dark green leaves. In May and June, the canopy becomes encrusted with a mass of yellow berries. The tree which is rich of symbolism, now signals the start of the bear watching season in the dry zone jungles of Sri Lanka.
May 2004 was an unusually good time for the plant life of Yala. Late rains had left the park looking still green and lush, not dry and parched as would be expected. The unseasonal rains had not been so late as to wash off the flowering Palu. The timing had just been right and we had one the one of the finest Palu harvests the park had witnessed for some time. With hopes high, I had engaged in a series of game drives with a team of journalists and friends. Bewilderingly, we returned empty handed with no sightings of our target species. Usually, the Sloth Bear is a reclusive and nocturnal animal. But during the Palu season, it is unusually bold and will engage in a gluttonous feasting of Palu in daylight, in full view of an admiring convoy of vehicles.
The trackers speculated that the Palu harvest had been so good, that there was no reason for the bears to venture out to the trees lining the jeep tracks. The first week of July saw me back in the park. The news board at the Yala Safari Game Lodge held good news. Bear sightings were up. Most of the sightings were of single bears which reflect their lifestyle. A mother with a cub had also been sighted on and off. Last year, many visitors were treated to a mother with two cubs who had frequented the area around the Rukvila waterhole. The first game drive did not yield any of the stars, although the presence of leopard was evident from tracks and the alarm calls of Spotted Deer. In the evening, we headed off to Welmal Kema, which has a history of being good for bear sightings. We were not disappointed as we came across three jeeps observing a bear in the distance. Chandana, our tracker, anticipated that the Sloth Bear would cut across the main road towards Siyambalagas Wala. Priyantha drove away leaving the other visitors wondering why we were leaving the bear.
On the main road, we positioned ourselves in front of a grassy clearing and waited. A few minutes later the bear came walking along rather nonchalantly. The fearsomely long claws, adapted for digging into termite mounds was very clear. Sloth Bears have a penchant for eating termites. It has protrusible lips and lacks two canines which makes it easy for it to blow dust away and suck in termites, after it has ripped away the strong casing of the termite mound. The other jeeps, predictably roared in, and pulled in besides us. The Sloth Bear ambled briskly through the line of jeeps and headed off to Siyambalagas Wala. Priyantha once again positioned me ahead of the pack, at the waterhole, where we waited patiently for her to come and offer good views. It was around five in the evening with decent light. I could not have asked for better conditions for a bear sighting. Every visit to Yala has something to offer. Perhaps it is a blaze of yellow with the Moderakanniya in flower, or an unforgettable encounter with a tusker, a leopard or a bear.
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