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WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU ENCOUNTER A BEAR IN THE WILD

You should feel lucky if you ever see a bear in the wild — but to feel lucky, you first have to live to tell the tale!

This happened to me in August 2018. My partner and I were camping for two nights in a mountainous region in Northern India called Naranag. With us were a few other people: Jaz (our tour guide who accompanied us from Srinagar), Riyaz (our mountain guide cum porter cum cook), and a couple of village kids who came to help gather firewood.
 
Us with Riyaz (first from left), Manir (second from right), and some random dude from the village
 
On the second night, Riyaz had to leave early because his young daughter was alone at home. He left one of the boys with us to help with the fire and keep us company for the night. The campsite was actually not very far from the village, so we were not too worried.
 
 
Our temporary mountain guide, a 9-year-old boy named Manir, went in search of some more twigs for the fire. But not even a few minutes after he left, he came scampering back and screaming. Now that’s not something you’d want to see your mountain guide do. He shouted some Urdu words at our tour guide, Jaz, who then told us to quickly get into the kitchen tent.
 
Initially, I thought it had something to do with the rioters (of which Kashmir had many). But it was actually even worse: There was a huge black bear lurking near our campsite, just about 20 meters up the hill. With its speed of up to 30 mph, it could reach us in just a few seconds!

Image may contain: one or more people, people sitting, food and indoor
The kitchen tent
For some reason, at that moment, my brain failed to register the magnitude of the danger we were facing. If it hadn’t been for Manir, I would have thought Jaz orchestrated the entire thing to get us to sleep with him (we’d been having issues with the guy since the beginning of our tour in Srinagar). 
 
But Manir started sobbing in fear, and we had to take turns consoling him. We then tried to call Riyaz to ask for help. Our calls went to voicemail. By then, it was beginning to dawn on me that this was serious shit.
 
Finally, Riyaz answered. But there was nothing he could do. It was too dangerous for him to come over when there was a bear on the loose. The only solution was for us to stay put in the kitchen tent till morning. We had an ax, a kitchen knife and hiking poles in that tent should we need to use them as weapons (although I doubted they would be of much help). Riyaz told us to switch off the lights and stay silent.
 
 

With only the lights from our phones, Manir — who had regained his composure — ladled some rice and dhal onto our plates, because if we were going to die anyway, we might as well do so with our stomachs full. Then, we turned off our phones and went to get some sleep.

When I woke up again, it was bright outside, and Riyaz was quietly preparing our breakfast. I had never been so happy to see a man.

After breakfast, we quickly packed our stuff. The whole village was talking about the bear. A sheep had died. The cornfield was destroyed, and our little tent was trampled on. Good thing we had stayed on in the kitchen tent that night.

Our tent, destroyed.

Apparently there was another camper, but he had fled the scene in the middle of the night, running across the river with his tent and all.

How to Avoid Bears

Coming from a tropical country, we had ZERO knowledge about bears. Bears simply didn’t cross our minds when we were planning our trip to the mountains.

But if there was any good thing that came out of this experience, it was that we obtained very useful new knowledge. Otherwise, we would have remained ignorant and probably put ourselves in danger on future trips. So, now I’m sharing the knowledge here in the hope that it might save somebody’s life.

From all the resources I read, I learned that the best way to survive a bear encounter is to try not to encounter them in the first place. Here’s how to avoid bears:

  • Be alert to every sound and movement around you. Do not wear earplugs or noise-canceling earphones. This is a good advice that doesn’t only apply in the forest, but also wherever you go, even in the city.
  • Make a lot of noise. Unfortunately, hiking quietly can endanger you. Bears do not like to be surprised. So, go ahead and belt out that tune as loudly as you can.
  • Hike in a group of at least three people. Bears are generally scared of humans and will be deterred by big groups of people. The larger the group, the better. Sorry, introverts! Avoid moving through bear habitat silently and alone.
Image result for a group of hikers in the forest
Hike in a group. Credit: Dissolve
  • Beware of blind corners and loud streams where a bear may not see or hear you (and vice versa).
  • Avoid dense bushes or berry patches.
  • If you see a bear in the distance, give it a wide berth. Consider turning back and leaving the way you came from.
  • Bears have an exceptional sense of smell — 7 times more powerful than that of dogs. They can detect odors from over a mile away. As such, avoid bringing strong-smelling food. Use bear-proof or odor-proof containers. Do not leave food in vehicles. Learn to hang food at least 10 feet off the ground.

Types of Bears

In general, there are two common types of bears that you might find in the wild: the black bears and the grizzlies. Why is it important to know the difference? Well, different types of bears behave differently. So, in order to know how to react to them and increase your chance of survival, you first need to be able to tell them apart.

Now, if you didn’t know any better, you would have thought that all black bears are black and all grizzlies are “grizzled”. It only makes sense, right?

Wrong.

“Black bears” can come in any color — from black to blue-black to dark brown, brown, cinnamon, and even white! Likewise, the grizzlies can be anything from black to blond or a combination of light and dark hair. The grizzlies are on average significantly larger than black bears, but neither size nor color can be a good indicator of their species. For example, how can you tell if that small-ish bear you see is a black bear and not a young grizzly cub? 

Courtesy of Center for Wildlife Information – Graphic Art Fund 

The best way to identify them is by looking for a combination of characteristics. The grizzly bear typically has a pronounced shoulder hump and a concave or dish-shaped face profile that extends from between its eyes to the end of its nose. Its muzzle is broader and more prominent, and its eyes appear closer together and deeper set. Grizzlies also have smaller ears and much larger claws. They tend to have longer and fuzzier fur, especially on the face.

In contrast, black bears have a flatter “Roman-nose” profile that looks fairly straight from the forehead to the nose tip. They have larger ears, no visible shoulder hump, shorter claws, and shorter fur.

What to Do When You Encounter A Bear

Now that you can tell between a black bear and a grizzly, what do you do when you chance upon them in the wild?

Image result for bear attack meme
Credit: Know Your Meme

First of all, remain calm. I know this is easier said than done, but panicking is the worst thing you can do in such a situation. A scream or a sudden movement may trigger an attack.

Bears, especially black bears, are naturally fearful of humans and will only become aggressive when they feel threatened. Make your presence known by speaking in a calm, appeasing tone. Do not give them a reason to think that you’re a threat.

If the bear is stationary:

Move away slowly and sideways — preferably in the direction you came from. Moving sideways allows you to keep an eye on the bear and avoid tripping. It also appears non-threatening to the bear. Leave the area, or if this is impossible, wait till the bear moves away. Make sure you leave the bear a clear escape route with no people or obstacle in its way.

If the bear follows:

Stop and hold your ground. If it’s a black bear, make yourself look as large as possible by standing tall and waving your arms above your head. If you’re in a group, stay together as this makes you appear larger and more intimidating. Talk to the bear in a firm voice. Shout, stamp your feet, make lots of noise, and act aggressively. Look it directly in the eyes and threaten it with your hiking sticks or whatever is handy. The more the bear persists, the more aggressive your response should be. A black bear that is initially curious may become predatory if you do not stand up to it.

If it’s a grizzly, remain still and calm, and get your bear spray ready.

If a brown/grizzly bear attacks you:

Related image
Credit: Sierra Club

You’ll never overpower a grizzly, so leave your backpack on and PLAY DEAD. Lay flat on your stomach and clasp your hands behind your neck. Spread your legs and elbows wide to make it harder for the bear to flip you over. Don’t get up even if it walks away. Remain still for at least 20 minutes. Grizzlies are known to linger to make sure you’re dead.

If a black bear attacks you:

DO NOT PLAY DEAD. Use whatever weapon is available and fight for your life. Concentrate your blows on the face, eyes, and nose.

If a bear attacks you in your tent:

Bears do not typically stalk or attack people. When they do, it’s usually because they are hungry and see you as prey. In this case, fight back, no matter what type of bear it is. Playing dead will only make you an easy meal.

If you encounter a bear on a carcass:

Bears can protect their food very aggressively. Get as far away as possible, quickly and quietly. Do not play dead and do not act threatening. 

What NOT to Do

No matter what the situation is, and no matter what type of bear you’re dealing with, these are the things that you MUST NOT do:

  • Do NOT try to get closer or take a picture! This should go without saying, but in this time and age, it has to be said. People who do not have much knowledge about bears may be unaware of how dangerous they can be. I have to admit that when I first heard there was a bear near our tent, my first thought was “Winnie the Pooh!”
  • Do NOT run. You’re acting just like prey. Like cats, dogs and most predatory animals, bears are more likely to chase fleeing animals. Besides, there is no way you can outrun a bear. They can run as fast as a racehorse both uphill and downhill.
  • Do NOT climb a tree. Both grizzlies and black bears are good climbers.
Image result for bear on tree
Credit: World Atlas
  • Do NOT scream or imitate bear sounds. This may startle the bear and/or make you appear as a threat.
  • Do NOT approach a mother and her cubs. The chances of an attack escalates quickly if she sees you as a threat to her cubs.
  • Do NOT drop your backpack. In case of an attack, it can provide extra protection for your back.
  • Do NOT shoot a bear. A bullet is very small for a 500lb beast and is more likely to make it more aggressive rather than neutralize it. According to a research by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, those who use weapons against bears sustain much more serious injuries than those who only use bear spray.

ALWAYS Carry a Bear Spray

What is it?

Bear spray is a type of mace made from hot peppers that will temporarily cause a burning sensation in a bear’s eyes and make them tear up. It’s not the same as human pepper spray (although it works the same way). Make sure you select an EPA-approved one that is specifically designed to stop aggressive bears. Bear spray should be your first line of defense against bears and is over 90% efficient in preventing a bear attack.

How to Use

  • Always carry bear spray with you on your belt or in an easy-to-reach pocket. Do not keep it in your backpack.
  • Upon encountering a bear, slowly take out the canister and remove the safety lock.
  • Do not use the spray unless the bear is within twenty-five feet. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have any effect and you’d only be wasting the spray.
  • If the bear charges, aim the nozzle just above the bear’s head so that the spray falls into the bear’s eyes, nose, and throat.
  • When it is 20 – 25 feet away, give it a sustained blast.
  • Bear spray is not a repellent, so do not apply it to your body or equipment.
Check out these bear sprays from Amazon:

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