Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Eye contact

Female grizzly. Nekite River, BC, Canada
They say you shouldn't make eye contact with strangers in the big city, and don't stare at people – it's rude.

So there is a certain frisson when North America's second largest predator lifts its head from a leisurely breakfast of fresh sedge grass, along the banks of a tidal islet in the Nekite River estuary, and calmly looks you straight in the eye.  Suddenly you are no longer the big kid on the block, as that appraising gaze looks you up and down and finds you of no great significance to its owner's plans for the day.

The female grizzly – 300 pounds of muscle honed by ferocious natural selection, with a naturally inquisitive mind trained by her mother's own formidable example – is in fact largely vegetarian at this time of year, springtime in the Great Bear Rainforest of coastal British Columbia.  After months of hibernation, she is more concerned with feeding up on nutritious young plants than fulfilling tired stereotypes of the ravenous predator.

And she has another admirer.  A young male grizzly, flushed with adolescent optimism, has been following her as she moves along the bank, hoping to be the lucky suitor when – if – she comes into season in the next few days.  She seems largely untroubled by his attentions, but perhaps he is beginning to annoy her just a little, because she stops feeding and pauses to consider her options.  And we are part of her calculations.

Responsible eco-tourism operators are careful to minimise the impact of visitors on the lives of the creatures we come to see.  Yet sometimes those creatures surprise us with their own adaptability.  Here on the Nekite, guides suggest that grizzly feeding patterns may have shifted slightly to take advantage of the morning and evening boat trips from the nearby floating lodge.  Females and younger bears seem happy to feed on the estuary while being observed discreetly by visitors, but the larger males who normally dominate the feeding grounds seem less certain of how to respond to these feeble boat-borne intruders and tend to avoid peak viewing times.  So it may be that carefully managed tourism can actually benefit the sections of the bear population that are most vulnerable to starvation early in the season.

And our female has another trick up her sleeve.  The decisive moment has arrived, and she carefully lowers herself into the water and launches into a brisk doggy paddle across our bows towards the opposite bank.  Just as she expected, her admirer seems torn between his own desire to follow her and a certain caution over approaching the visitors too closely, a fact the female hopes to exploit as she makes her getaway.  But he is young and foolish and after a brief moment of doggy puzzlement, sat back on his haunches like a confused retriever, he too launches into the river and pursues his love to pastures new, disappearing after her into the shoulder-high grasses of the opposite shore.

Omnia vincit amor.

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