“A cat uses its paw, a bear all five fingers.”
This is a story from a long time ago, 1984 to be precise.
Some 9 km from Panna town, on the main road to Khajuraho, you will find a narrow cart road forking to the right, follow this road for about 3 km and you are at Ballaia-seha – the name given to a table-land with steep sides – from here you can see a beautiful valley below. The most interesting feature here is a huge mound of loose boulders at the bottom of the cliff; nature has arranged these boulders in such a fashion, one over the other, that a labyrinth of caves and tunnels are formed beneath making this place a unique home for wild animals. Both bears and tigers, who usually keep an eye out for each other, live here in harmony.
It was a summer afternoon. My senior colleague Pabla Sahib was then the director of Panna National park and I had just joined my first charge as DFO in the plantation division. We mostly toured together and in our excursions into the jungle – Ballaia seha became a destination that we would never bypass.
At Ballaia seha, on the edge of the plateau overlooking the valley below, there is a curved parapet of stones, erected long ago by the rulers of the Panna, which the kings and their kin used as a vantage point to watch wild animals and shoot them when the animals returned to take shelter into the caverns or emerged from it. For Pabla Sahib and me this place became a school for learning the ways of the wild – often we sat on the ledge for hours looking at the bears and occasionally at the tigers, besides a variety of birds, monitor lizards and ruddy mongooses kept us engrossed.
One day, Pabla sahib brought his guests – the MLA of Nagod, his wife, and his five-year-old son. We reached Ballaia seha an hour before dusk and took to our perches inside the parapet and with our legs dangling over the cliff and our eyes fixed on the rocks below, we waited. We were lucky for soon two bears emerged from the caverns and moved about. As we were engrossed in our act, the boy standing behind us suddenly shrieked, all of us turned around at once and saw a bear standing on its hind legs just about 2 feet from the boy, towering over him.
The mother rushed to grab the boy and pushed him behind her while three of us gave out frantic shouts to drive the animal away; Pabla sahib grabbed his camera and ran after the bear. The bear loped for a while and then taking an animal track swiftly trotted down into the valley. Later, we all discussed the reason for the bear to have come up the hill to us and the only plausible explanation which we could offer was that the bear came up attracted by the scent of the strong perfume that Mrs. MLA had worn that day.
Now, most of the old shikari turned conservationists, who have weaved yarn after yarn of jungle lore, vouch that bears have poor eyesight but a keen sense of smell, only one of them –Kenneth Anderson – believed that bears have a poor sense of smell, too. I believe that it does have a keen sense of smell as for finding food – honey, termites, fruits – it must have an intense sense of smell. The polar bear is known to locate dead seals from some 16 miles away. Scientists believe that bear’s sense of smell is 2,100 times better than that of human beings.
Another assertion that Corbett had made in two of his stories is about tiger having no sense of smell at all, which I find difficult to believe for a top predator must have all its senses enhanced; the very fact that a tiger depends on scent markings for announcing its territory to others and for reproductive reasons, is basis enough to believe that tiger has a reasonably good sense of smell. Recent studies have shown that tiger does have a sense of smell – mostly used for the above two reasons, while for finding prey it largely uses its heightened senses of sight and hearing.
As for the bear, scientists have concluded that bears have sight as good as dogs.
Photos: tiger by Suhas Kumar; bear by David Raju
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