A rarely-sighted sloth bear ((Melursus ursinus) rears up on its hind legs as a vehicle loaded with tourists looks on. Bandhavgarh National Park, India.

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM at 217 mm, 1/160 sec at f/4, ISO 1600

On our first Indian game drive (they call each game drive a “safari” in India), Alison and I were really anxious to see a tiger – any tiger. Two hours into the drive we had detected no sign of a tiger — no footprints seen, and no monkey or deer alarm calls heard. Even though it was very, very early in the trip, I was beginning to contemplate just how unlikely seeing a tiger might be. After all, we were mostly in dense jungle, confined to the jeep road, and tigers tend to be most active at night. Could we have traveled halfway around the globe on an exercise in futility?

All of a sudden, Vijay, our naturalist and driver, announced, “Sloth bear!” I must confess: up to that point, I had only a vague notion of what a sloth bear looked like. In a strange coincidence, Vijay, who has seen countless tigers in his lengthy career, had told us story the previous evening about one of his favorite sightings. It involved a sloth bear, not a tiger. He described a sloth bear encounter in which the bear was very cooperative, even getting on its hind legs to rub its back on a tree situated right on the edge of the road. It made such a lasting impression on him that he had memorized the tree in question and has been referring to it as “the bear tree” ever since. His story was captivating, but the way he recounted it made me think that our chances of having a similar sighting were about as good as encountering a unicorn.

In Bandhavgarh National Park, India, a sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) moves through a bamboo forest.

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM at 400 mm, 1/320 sec at f/4, ISO 1600

Yet, here we were: the lone vehicle in close proximity to this shaggy, black, dust-mop of an animal as it shuffled through the dry forest. Its path roughly paralleled the road, where we were able to follow it, allowing our encounter to stretch beyond thirty minutes. At some point, a couple of other vehicles joined us, but our viewing opportunities were not diminished. Twice the bear reared up on his hind legs and rubbed himself on a tree in full view of our vehicle. Was it scratching an itch? Scent-marking? Striking a pose of intimidation? It is impossible to know for sure, but at certain moments each of those explanations seemed the most apt.

Amazingly, with this sloth bear encounter, we had seen our unicorn, or lightning had struck twice, or [insert favorite rarity cliche here] had occurred. How greedy will you think me when I admit the following: While I felt extremely fortunate to have had this wildlife encounter, there was still a voice in my head intoning, “Where are the tigers?”

A sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) sniffs a tree trunk in Bandhavgarh National Park, India.

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM at 200 mm, 1/160 sec at f/4, ISO 1600

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