Heeding the Sign (Part Two)

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Brown bear fur and claw among oak leaves. Photograph © J. Slaght

It was time to look for a dead bear.

This corner of northeast Asia is the only place in the world where tigers and brown bears live in the same forests, and the prospect that John and I had stumbled upon evidence of a direct and fatal encounter filled me with oscillating waves of exhilaration and trepidation.

John unholstered his canister of bear spray—a concentrated dose of capsaicin that presumably worked against tigers as well—and passed me a Russian hand flare. These devices, shaped like a runner’s baton and designed for use by distressed sailors, ignite when a string is pulled to release a meter-long, blindingly-bright flame accompanied by two minutes of smoke and a monstrous roar. It is the last line of defense in a large carnivore attack. John suggested I remove the lid and have the ignition string handy; if unexpectedly charged by a tiger or bear it would be unfortunate if my last act on Earth was the frenzied unscrewing of a flare cap.

We began a methodological search for the remains of a kill. We moved in an ever-widening circle emanating from the tiger bed; occasionally stumbling into pockets heavy with the invisible but dense aroma of death. Scents of decay can drift from the point of origin, sometimes hanging in the still air or otherwise collecting far from a carcass itself, and try as we might we could not pinpoint its source.

John and I spent the better part of an hour in our fruitless search for bear remains before eventually sitting on a log to rest and admit defeat. It was time to head home.

Just then, above the canopy of green oak leaves, I heard the sounds of wings and spied a crow flying in our direction. When it reached us the bird cocked its head, peered down, and vocalized with a curt caw. Then it wheeled in the sky and flew back in the direction from which it had approached. John and I watched silently then resumed talking, but a minute later the same bird or another like it returned and repeated the same action. John’s interest in the search was renewed: he recalled stories about ravens leading hunters to deer and other wildlife, hoping to feed off scraps once the hunter was done. He wondered aloud if this crow was doing something similar. With nothing to lose we stood and pursued, following the crow east toward an area outside our search zone.

A few hundred paces later we encountered fresh bear tracks along a thin game trail crowded by lush understory. The stench of death grew stronger. John whispered to have my flare ready. Obviously it was.

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Brown bear hind leg, no longer functional. Photograph © J. Slaght

Then, the forest unexpectedly opened to a small clearing a half dozen meters across. I stopped short at the severely-decomposed hind leg of a bear; a horror that shared a striking and eerie similarity to a human leg. The stench was indescribable. John moved ahead and announced the discovery of a similarly-ripe forearm with pale bone and fetid flesh camouflaged on the forest floor among the last year’s oak leaves. And then, a little further to the side, he found a skull still attached to the spinal column. John put plastic bags on his hands to pick up the head and examine it; I tucked my mouth and nose into the neck hole of my shirt to filter the unholy stink. By the tooth wear, this had been a very old brown bear.

Only then did I notice our surroundings with more clarity; it looked like a grenade had gone off. Everything was devastated—shrubs were stripped of their leaves, branches were broken, and the soil had been scraped from the forest floor and piled into a massive mound of earth in the middle of this space. I had no idea what I was looking at, but of course John knew immediately: this was a bear pantry. Brown bears sometimes cache their kills for future consumption, and they do so by burying the meat under a pile of dirt and debris they scrape together.

The exact sequence of events was unclear—and always would be—but what we did know was that an old brown bear had died (either killed by a tiger or another bear or died of some other reason) and its carcass had been buried by a bear. At some point a tiger had discovered this cache and spent several days digging up and consuming various bear bits. This was why the tiger’s collar had transmitted a number of “inactive” signals across a protracted period—the tiger was lazing about in a bear-induced food coma.

I noticed a few crows bustling in the canopy above and was reminded of how we found that place to begin with. Were the crows waiting for us to dig up more bear? They would be left disappointed if so; I had no intention of rummaging through the dirt pile for the missing bear torso.

The mystery solved to the extent it could be, we poked about for a bit yet then started back toward the truck; John gaily swinging a rancid bear head in a plastic bag and me looking over my shoulder for any lingering carnivores…

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There be bear under there. Photograph © J. Slaght

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