THE Ceylon Bear, Melursus ursinus, is called by the Sinhalese, walaha and by the Tamils, karadi. These uncouth, savage creatures infest all the forests of the low-country but are not found in the wet forests of the interior at a greater elevation than about 1,500 feet. They are most numerous in the driest parts of the Island and prefer high forest interspersed with rocks. Their foot-prints, like those of club-footed men, may be seen in the sandy beds of every river and stream in the low-country in the dry season. In monsoon weather they resort to caves and large hollow trees.
The males generally wander about by themselves and the females with their cubs, but they sometimes go about in pairs. Occasionally a whimpering she-bear, followed by several ardent males, all in excessively bad humour, may be met with, a party it is as well to avoid. Bears do not range far but generally keep to the tract of forest in which they were born. Should one intrude on a neighbour's domains there are sure to be "ructions," for the creatures are great fighters. Many old bears have lost an eye or an ear or have scars to shew, the result of these encounters.
Owing to their shaggy, black hair they look larger than they really are. When facing men they seem broad and strongly built, but when stalking across the path in front of them their comparatively slender bodies and long legs are apparent. Their hind quarters droop and appear to be their weakest part, while their fore-legs are extremely muscular and armed with formidable, curved 3-inch claws which are capable of independent motion like fingers. The males are of course larger than the females. Old he-bears will stand about 33 inches at the shoulder, and when fat may weigh from 15 to 20 stone. They have peculiarly-shaped heads with long grey mobile snouts, their very loose lips being capable of protrusion. The hair round the head is bushy and often of a brownish tint, they have a white "horse-shoe mark" on the breast and white patches behind the ears, have a strong musky odour and are generally covered from head to foot with ticks.
The sight of bears is poor, nor is their sense of hearing particularly acute, but these deficiencies are more than compensated for by their remarkably keen sense of smell. They walk flat-footed with the toes of the fore-feet turned out, which gives them a peculiar comical gait. They often sit up on their hams. Usually they wander about slowly, nosing as they go, but if alarmed shuffle off at a great pace. If hard pressed they can gallop faster than a man can run. They are most agile climbers and constantly scramble up trees, often to a considerable height, in search of honey-combs, always descending backwards. They are also powerful diggers, their strong, blunt, non-retractile claws being well adapted for the purpose. Ordinarily they are very silent, only grunting from time to time as they shuffle about looking for food. If alarmed they growl menacingly, and if angered give loud coughing barks. When fired at unexpectedly they will utter roars of consternation, and if badly wounded give vent to most humanlike wails. They have a peculiar habit of sucking their paws when lying down, making a humming noise at the same time.
Bears may be said to be omnivorous, and they are not at all particular what they eat, Though usually vegetarians they are not above making a meal off any carrion they come across, if hungry. Roots and fruits of forest trees and honey are their chief food. They are very fond of ant-bread, and it is astonishing what holes they will dig in the stone-hard white-ant hills in search of this delicacy. Their strong inhalations as they suck the ants and larvae out of holes and under rotten timber may he heard at a great distance. They are usually very lean, but in the hot weather, when many of the forest trees drop their fruit, they get extremely fat. The natives say that they sometimes so gorge themselves with the sweet pods of the "ehâla" tree which have purgative properties, that they have been found lying in the forest scarcely able to move from the effects.
Though they are most numerous in the driest parts of the country, bears do not appear to be able to support thirst as well as other animals. They usually drink at rock-holes in the depths of the forest, but when these and the tanks and pools are dry, they go to the rivers and dig for water in their sandy beds, often making huge pits.
She-bears have generally two cubs at a birth but sometimes only one, the period of gestation being about seven months. The cubs are blind for about three weeks after birth. The maternal instinct is very strong in bears. They do not leave their young in caves or hollow-trees as most wild animals do. For a few weeks after birth the mother carries her cubs about on her back when looking for food, the little creatures holding on with their feet and claws to the thick fur on their mother's neck. When suddenly alarmed, while a cub is running about, its mother will sometimes catch it up in her mouth and bolt. The cubs stay with their mother till nearly full-grow.
Next to elephants natives dread bears more than any other wild beast owing to their bold and savage disposition. By far the greater number of deaths and mutilations suffered by jungle villagers have been from attacks of these brutes, met with suddenly in the dark or at close quarters on forest paths. They do not, as is generally supposed, rise on their hind legs to attack, but rush at their victims, and on their falling, throw themselves on them and holding them down with their fore-feet bite savagely, continuing to do so even after they have ceased to struggle. They have a terrible habit of clawing the faces of people who have fallen under their attacks. Men who have had their cheeks torn away and their eyes raked out by the claws of these creatures are to be seen in every jungle district. Natives say that they also always bite their victims in the private parts, and there is no doubt that there have been cases of such mutilation. An attacking bear if struck heavily on the snout is likely to bolt. Small rewards are paid by Government for their destruction, but they are seldom shot by natives, and it is probable that their number is increasing.
They are usually shot by Europeans by moonlight when coming to drink. Some account of this form of sport will be found elsewhere. They are not very often seen in the daytime, but any sportsman going quietly along old timber-roads or game-tracks in a wild district, in the early morning or late in the afternoon, is likely enough to meet one. On catching sight of him the brute will usually face him silently with its long snout stuck out enquiringly and its wicked little eyes squinting. A ball in the centre of the "horse-shoe mark" on its breast will drop it dead. If only wounded it will utter a roar of surprise and anger and then bolt. It will generally not attack unless so near its assailant that it thinks it cannot escape. Bears as a rule are easily killed, not having apparently the tenacity of life most savage creatures have.
In the isolated rocky hills which are to be found scattered about the low-country, caves may often be found, which are permanently occupied by families of bears. They are not to be found in ordinary rock-cavities, the whole extent of which may be seen from outside, but only in caves which have deep holes or pockets at the back into which the brutes can crawl and lie snug, invisible in the darkness. It is first-class sport routing them out of caves such as these. The floor of the outer cavern is generally thickly strewn with fine dust and it is easy to tell from the foot prints whether the family is at home. As a rule on hearing voices outside, the bears will lie close and give no indication that they are crouching there listening. Crackers are generally required to drive them out. Most bear caves have two or more entrances and the crackers should be thrown only into one, leaving the other open for the bears to bolt out of. Before throwing them in, however, two of the party should be directed to go away talking at the top of their voices so as to deceive the bears into thinking that the men who had disturbed them had gone away. Half-an-hour should be allowed to lapse in perfect silence and then, the sportsman having posted himself in a safe position commanding the mouth of the cave, the crackers should be lit without noise and thrown suddenly in. The uproar which always follows is usually found by tyros rather trying to the nerves, as all the bears within "woof-woof !" fiercely, and come scrambling out in their consternation, giving as a rule easy shots. Sometimes, however, if they suspect danger outside and the cave is large, they will retreat to the back of it and make it echo with their deep barking growls.
Smoking bears out of caves has often been tried but it is a tedious and generally unsatisfactory method. It has frequently ended in the animal being suffocated in the deep recesses of the cavern where it could not be got at. Female-bears have allowed themselves to be burnt to death rather than bolt out and leave their cubs to their fate. If there is only one narrow entrance to the bear-cave it is obviously senseless cruelty to build a big fire at the mouth.
Another method of shooting bears which are known to live in particular caves is to lie in wait for them as they return from their night rambles. They may be expected to turn up soon after daylight, and as they come along, swinging their bodies and rolling their heads, unconscious of danger, they may be shot without trouble.
There is no record of any attempt ever having been made in Ceylon to hunt bears with dogs, but it would probably be most excellent sport. Two or three strong, plucky bull-terriers, which would seize by the nose, throat and ears, would probably hold any bear and give the sportsman an opportunity to knife or spear it. The dogs are not likely to be much injured by its blunt claws.
The fur or rather hair of a bear is generally so coarse and thin that the mangy-looking skin is scarcely worth taking. Occasionally, fat young bears with thick glossy hides are shot. The claws may be set in brooches but are scarcely worth it. Natives attach no particular value or virtue to bear's fat or grease and do not extract it. They, however, always cut out the gall-bladder, for which native doctors will give two or three rupees. The male bear, like many of the carnivora, has a bone in the penis which is sometimes cut out by sportsmen and kept as a curiosity.
Bear-cubs have often been kept as pets. While young they are amusing little creatures but soon become savage, surly brutes which must be chained up or shot. They apparently cannot be tamed like the bears of temperate climes.