Written by Roger Allen
Being a sloth bear in India was not much fun if you’d been orphaned as a cub and taken captive by a nomadic tribe of Kalandars. A red hot poker was pushed through their snout and a rope threaded through, it would stay there for life. The Kalandars lined the road out of Agra forcing the tourist coaches to stop, the bears would then be brought forward and made to dance – the pulling on the rope was so painful it made the poor beasts hop about looking as if they were dancing. The hat would go round – the nomads earned thousands from the bears -that was until International Animal Rescue stepped in, a British Sussex based charity. They set about getting the animals off the streets.
Over the course of a few years the bears disappeared into large sanctuaries being cared for by dedicated staff who would feed and water them. The bears were so damaged with beatings and appalling diet a lot of them were blind. A team of young lady eye vets volunteered to go to Banagata, the IAR and Wildlife S.O.S safe haven for rescued bears, Allan and I tagged along.
The team of ladies was led by Claudia Hartley a jolly woman, a leader in her field.
The first morning the four vets, Allan and I set off for the home of the broken bears. Spirits were running high – laughter and banter filled the minibus as we drove through the madness of Bangalore. Tut-tuts, buses, men pushing carts full of either rubbish or vegetables filled the streets – to us we were on our way to perform miracles, make bears see again.
+ + + + + +
At the gates to the Banagata park signs warned of wild animals, elephants, wild boar, sloth bears in the wild, cobra, Asiatic lions and more – enough to kill you many times over.
At the end of the first day, five bears deemed suitable for having their sight restored had failed the test. They were all incurable.
The mini-bus on the way back to our hotel was very subdued. Allan and I’s time was very limited (2 days), the pressure was on to cure a bear. It was now a race against time to get the story done.
The pair of us ventured out onto the dusty streets of Bangalore. We found a bar selling the local brew, Kingfisher, the first one is okay, the second not bad, the third like washing up liquid. I Switched to vodka, Allan to gin, big mistake.
After a night of drinking and chatting we decided to walk back to the hotel. Along the way stalls of street food popped up every 100 paces. The variety was amazing, small corn fritters, lovely fluffy potatoes with cumin and chilli, boiled eggs with a fiery mix of veg sauce wrapped in a hot bread.
We did not hold back, we could see it was all freshly cooked with little risk of illness.
+ + + + + +
We fell into our beds with a call set for 7am. The minibus was leaving at 7.30….. no problem.
I woke up first with mouth like sandpaper and a stomach full of Asian wind. As space was limited at our hotel Allan and I were sharing a room.
Allan murmured “What time is it?”
“9.30” I said having forgotten to set the alarm.
“Shit. 9.30 they’ve gone without us” I squawked.
I grabbed my phone to find a list of messages.
“Couldn’t wake you, gone to the park” 7.35
“At the park now,” 8.15
“Great news we’ve got a bear to operate on, starting now”. 9.30
JESUS CHRIST…. I leaped in the shower threw my clothes on and grabbed the cameras.
“I’ll follow you there, I haven’t drunk gin for 25 years” Allan announced.
+ + + + + +
I found a taxi that would take me to the gates of the park but would have to drop me outside as they couldn’t enter.
An hour later I stood in the blazing heat, sweating vodka and stranded three miles from the sanctuary. The phone had no signal. The men at the gate house shrugged “not our problem” Casting around the stall holders and hawkers stationed beside the gates to the park I spotted a young lad sitting idly on his small motorbike.
I pulled two large notes form my pocket waved them in front of him pointing to the park.
“We go see bears I give you money,”
He looked a bit nonplussed but got the general drift. He explained we’d have to slip around the red and white pole across the road very quickly and go like the wind. I handed over the money and leapt aboard his bike, before my arse touched the seat he’d opened the throttle, I clung on for dear life as we flashed round the barrier.
It was only when we had cleared the entrance that the pilot of the bike realised the danger of being on a motorcycle.
“Lions, wild elephant it danger”
“Don’t worry mate just keep going, more money” I waved another note at him.
We rounded a corner to be confronted by a large bull elephant along with his wife and children.
“We go back, we go back it bad bad”
“No just wait” I shouted as we rolled to a halt.
Slowly the huge grey beast along with his extended family moved into the trees.
10 minutes later I walked into the operating theatre looking very wind swept. Claudia looked up with her microscope glasses on. She burst out laughing.
“Oh my God! Look at the state of you.” The other girls turned to me and doubled up with laughter.
“Thank you ladies, how’s the bear?”
“Good we’ve found one we can save.” Claudia said.
I photographed the end of the operation. Just I was finishing a small van pulled up outside the green building. Allan had taken a tut-tut to the gates of the wildlife park then hitched a lift in the back of a van full of huge ripe melons. Food for the bears.
+ + + + + +
That evening we moved to a deserted theme park hotel closer to the wildlife park. The weird empty plunge pools and broken slides made it a very depressing place to be. The restaurant was closed.
The pair of us walked out of the unmanned gate onto a main road full of lorries hurtling past at breakneck speed. In the smog of exhaust fumes we found a bus stop, after a short while a bus full of locals shuddered to a halt. We made signs to the driver we wanted to go somewhere we could get a beer. He nodded and we roared off.
Our stop was opposite a dimly lit roadside shack with a wooden veranda. We walked in to see a bar but no bottles on show just a wall behind the bar with Tetra Pac boxes lined up from top to bottom.
“Beer?” we asked hopefully. The scruffy lad serving whipped open a chest freezer and brought out two ice cold Cobra beers 500ml! The golden liquid slid down a treat.
It had been a day of stop/start. The blind bear had recovered well and was out and about in the large enclosure, the only problem was finding her, it was the picture that would make the set complete.
+ + + + + +
We drove around and around in a Toyota jeep, dozens of bears but not ours.
“Where could she be?” asked Allan.
“She maybe busy,”
Then out she came, Allan hoisted a melon out of the window, the large fluffy black bear ran straight to it. I jumped out and photographed her running up the road to get her snack. The job was done.
+ + + + + +
Back in the roadside bar a steady flow of decorated trucks pulled in, the drivers ran in straight up to the bar pointing at the Tetra Pac’s. They ripped off the top and downed the contents in one. Between ten and fifteen drivers came in while we sat in the gloom.
“What is that stuff? I’m going to ask the boy.”
Minutes later he came back.
“Its rum, pure rum!”
The hiss of air brakes on another overloaded truck heralded the arrival of another thirsty driver. Within minutes he was off driving into the night…..
Over the three days in India’s “garden city” we ate vegetarian street food. These are some of the more memorial roadside snacks . . .