The Chattogram Hill Tracts is a mysterious place. The rugged terrain, the maze of streams, boulders large and small, hills after hills and ranges after ranges make the whole landscape a big field of hide-and-seek.
Before experiencing wilderness, hence, it is necessary to understand what to seek and also where to look for. The patchy, ever-shrinking vegetation comprising much of the Tracts often gives the impression of a wildlife habitat at first, offering only small birds at a glance but in reality, hiding much larger animals.
But those who frequent the Tracts often hear extraordinary wild tales; some lucky ones also get the rare glimpse of jungle inhabitants. Here is the tale of an Asiatic black bear cub, snatched from his mother forever and forced to live the life of a refugee.
The Vwom and the hunter
Along the foothills of the Sippi Arsuang mountain range in Bandarban runs two streams. The larger one, Paindu, cuts between the Sippi foothills and an adjacent valley running from north to south. The eastern and northern portion of the valley is bordered by rolling hills with an extended steep stone massif. Two tabletop mountains are also present on the southern horizon, one is the famous Kapital; once the hideout of Laldenga's Mizo troops.
Scattered vegetation of the valley offers refuge to the Indian muntjac and wild boar, leopard cat and jungle cat and occasionally, sambar.
Jungle fowls and various pheasants are abundant, though large predators, namely, tiger (Chakai in the native tongue) and leopard (Kytai) are extinct.
Even Tlang H'oi, the local forest spirit, has not been heard for many years; sounds sequential when the massive, century-old trees keep disappearing at an unprecedented rate and the sound of chain saws becomes louder and louder. However, the hills are still good at holding a rich assemblage of large, fearsome mammals. The Asiatic black bear or 'Vwom' in the local Kuki language, a formidable beast with a record of tearing the face off of its victim, is one of them.
The valley-people, the Kukil, are, however, skilled hunters. Once feared for their practice of headhunting and conducting raids on neighbouring people, Kukis today are peaceful, well-mannered and meek. But they hunt every non-human living thing that crawls, swims, flies or walks. Wild honey and honey-loving bears are highly prized on the Kuki menu.
At the start of April 2022, a lone Kuki hunter heard the call of a distressed bear cub. Deep in the bamboo forests, it somehow—as I was told—lost its mother.
The hunter went back and formed a group of 9, armed with muzzleloaders and machetes, and re-entered the forest with powerful torches and machetes.
However, the mother bear did not return to take back her cub. Probably her acute hearing and sight senses detected the ambush. The hunters waited for two days, and then captured the cub and brought it into their village.
A bear cub is not an easy thing to catch – they prefer rocky terrains and bamboo forests. So it took quite a bit of hassle to subdue the forest child.
The meeting with the Vwom
Bears are rare, but not rare enough to create much stir in the village. Coincidently, after a week of his capture, I came to the village and heard about the cub.
He was kept in a tea stall, barely a few months old, slender, underparts and head were almost hairless.
Hiding in a dark corner, the cub was small and weak with a battered nose—an injury caused by futile escape attempts. I found the cub quite accustomed to his human surroundings. Cubs get conditioned fast.
"He eats bananas and milk. Bears are dangerous, we cannot keep him here much longer," the owner said. He was the first to hear the cub. "What do you plan to do with him then?" I asked.
"We will give it to someone rich, who can keep him. Or what? These jungle animals cannot be tamed. Buyers are already contacting me," he explained in broken Bangla.
Bear parts and bear biles are highly prized for traditional medicines. Surely the cub will be poached if left here. There must be a way to save him perhaps?
Two possibilities came to mind. One was to release him in the wild, but the village hunters would soon track and kill him.
The other one, and the safer one, was to hand him over to the forest officials and then to the Banglabandhu Safari park in Cox's Bazar, which will not be much of a bear standard but better than being poached.
Extended stay, prolonged persuasion
Two days went by and my prolonged persuasion with the hunters bore some fruit.
After several discussions-meetings-lectures mixed with logic and requests that I do not want to bore the reader with, the captors agreed to hand over the bear to me.
Of course, they did not understand the urgency, and also did not understand my requests not to kill bears.
"It is meat!" one bewildered Kuki man shouted. "Meat is rare in the hills. And why not kill it? Bears are dangerous."
"You can tame say, a racket-tailed drongo, chital deer or parrots but bears are a different breed. He will head towards the jungle the first chance he gets. Do not keep it as your pet I warn you," his voice raised concerns. I assured him the cub will be sent to a large, open zoo.
Help from Dhaka
I needed to make a series of phone calls. The news got relayed from Muntasir Akash, an assistant professor of zoology at the University of Dhaka to Mollah Rezaul Karim, conservator of forests, wildlife and nature conservation circle, Bangladesh Forest Department.
Then, I ended up talking to Md Mahmudul Hasan, divisional forest officer, Bandarban. "Saving a cub is sacred," joy and excitement were eminent in his voice.
Hasan promised to take care of the cub and safely introduce it to the other cubs of the Dulahazra Safari Park. Despite limited facilities, the willingness of the forest department personnel ushered in hope.
Finally, a rescue team from the Forest Department was dispatched. Villagers were kind enough to arrange a couple of motorbikes.
The cub was put in a sack and rode 11 kilometres of mostly dirt road under the scorching sun, screaming and wrestling to get out of the sack.
The Kuki bikers handed the cub to the forest officials and left in a scurry. That is the last I saw of the bear cub.