Sloth-Bear

The Indian Sloth Bear (Melursus Ursinus) can easily be recognized by his shaggy black coat, long muzzle, protruding lip and by a white V-shaped patch on the chest. His diet consists of fruits, berries, grasses, flowers, honey, insect larvae and other insects. He has a particular proclivity to “vacuum” up termites and ants using his long snout.

For over 400 years, the Sloth Bear had been a target for human exploitation. A nomadic tribe known as the Kalandars began ‘dancing’ sloth bears for the emperors during the Mughal era. Over centuries, as the kingdoms in India disappeared, the ‘dancing’ bear trade transitioned to become entertainment for villagers and tourists who paid to watch the bears jump in agony.

Mother bears were killed so that poachers could take and sell their cubs in perpetuation of this brutal practice. Through underground trading the cubs as many as 200 annually would end up in the hands of the Kalandars. With no anesthesia, a red hot poker rod would be driven through the muzzle of the baby bear, often at the tender age of six months. A rope would then be strung through the painful piercing, and tugged to induce ‘dancing’ performances on demand; for many bears a life at the end of a rope would be all they would ever know.

As of 1996, our research indicated that there were more than 1200 ‘dancing’ bears scattered throughout the country. With cooperation from Government officials, and the help of our partner organizations International Animal Rescue, One Voice, Free The Bears, and others Wildlife SOS has been able to rescue and rehabilitate over 620 dancing bears. They are now living peacefully in four large natural sanctuaries across India, enjoying a life where they’ll never again have to endure such cruelty and pain.

Despite this joyous success, it is still critical that our anti-poaching efforts continue. Even with minimal demand for ‘dancing’ bears, Sloth Bear cubs are still being poached for use in Chinese medicines and gourmet cuisine in South-East Asia. This ongoing poaching, combined with habitat encroachment, continues to pose a serious threat to an already depleting population in the Indian Sub-Continent. Wildlife SOS has in the last decade successfully carried out many rescue operations in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, where these bears are often found injured in snare traps or with bullet shots by poachers. Read more about our recent rescue operations here.

Sloth bears have shaggy, dusty-black coats, pale, short-haired muzzles, and long, curved claws that they use to excavate ants and termites. A cream-colored “V” or “Y” usually marks their chests. Sloth bears’ nostrils can close, protecting the animals from dust or insects when raiding termite nests or bee hives. A gap in their teeth enables them to suck up ants, termites, and other insects.

Sloth bears grow five to six feet long, stand two to three feet high at the shoulder, and weigh from 120 (in lighter females) to 310 pounds (in heavy males).

Most sloth bears live in India and Sri Lanka; others live in southern Nepal, and they have been reported in Bhutan and Bangladesh.

The sloth bear is listed as vulnerable on the World Conservation Union’s Red List of Threatened Animals.

Sloth bears live in a variety of dry and wet forests, and also in some grasslands, where boulders and scattered shrubs and trees provide shelter.

When trees are in fruit, usually during the monsoon season, sloth bears dine on mango, fig, ebony, and other fruits, and also on some flowers. However, ants and termites, dug out of their cement-hard nest mounds, are a year-round staple. Also, sloth bears climb trees and knock down honeycombs, later collecting the sweet bounty on the forest floor. Beetles, grubs, ants, and other insects round out their diet. During food shortages, sloth bears will eat carrion. They sometimes raid farm crops.

The Zoo’s sloth bears eat insects, mealworms, and crickets, as well as such fruits as pears, melons, oranges, and grapes.

Sloth bears mate during the hot season—May, June, and July—and females usually give birth to two cubs six to seven months later. Cubs are born in an underground den, and stay there for several months. After emerging from the den, cubs stay at their mother’s side for two to three years before heading off on their own.

Active mostly at night, the sloth bear is a noisy, busy bear. It grunts and snorts as it pulls down branches to get fruit, digs for termites, or snuffles under debris for grubs and beetles. A sloth bear uses its lips like a vacuum, making rapid, loud “kerfump” noises as it sucks insects from their nests.

Sloth bears are a bit misleading by name. They are not related to sloths, and they are not slow moving. In fact, they’re agile bears that can run faster than a human and will attack if surprised. It was a European zoologist, George Shaw, who named the sloth bear for its long, thick claws and unusual teeth. He thought that the bear was related to the tree sloth due to these features. Sloth bears sometimes hang upside down on tree branches, much like a tree sloth.

The sloth bear is a bit messy in appearance. It has long, rough, unruly hair around its ears, shoulders, and neck that is cinnamon to dark brown in color. The pale muzzle and a flexible nose sniff out interesting smells. The sloth bear often has a white patch of fur on its chest in the shape of a Y, O, or U. With a stocky body and powerful legs, this medium-size bear is able to climb trees. The sloth bear cannot pull in its claws like a cat’s, so it looks a bit awkward when walking.

Sloth bears adapt well to many different habitats. They live in the hot, dry grasslands and forests of South Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Does having a thick and shaggy coat seem odd for this environment? That coat protects them from being bitten by their favorite food—termites! It also gives sloth bear cubs something to grip when their mothers carry them on their backs.
These bears are unusual because they do not hibernate like some bears. They often sleep in caves and near rivers when available. Sloth bears tend to be nocturnal when living around humans. But without human disturbance nearby, they are often active during the day.

The sloth bear has a nose for sniffing out food but it cannot see or hear as well as other bears. It is not an aggressive animal. But the bear will defend itself against tigers, leopards, and other bears by standing on its back legs and using its teeth and claws.

While it might have a “bear” of an appetite, the sloth bear has more in common with an anteater than other bears. Even though it is omnivorous and dines on fruit when available, the sloth bear also eats termites and ants. As an adaptation for this creepy-crawly diet, the bear has few hairs on its nose and can open and close its nostrils as needed. This keeps bugs from crawling up the bear’s nose while it eats!

Large, thick 3-inch (8-centimeter) claws come in handy for ripping apart termite nests in soil, old logs, or trees. This is a noisy activity. In fact, sloth bears are well known for being noisy bears, especially while they eat. A large gap between the upper teeth makes the perfect space for sucking up termites. Like vacuum cleaners, the bears’ lips and tongue create a powerful suction and loud slurping, sucking sounds. They also eat honey, sugarcane, flowers, eggs, grubs, and carrion.

Sloth bears aren’t very vocal, but can make an impressive roar if needed for defense. A mother with a cub clinging to her back was observed scaring off not one but two tigers with her roar! San Diego Zoo keepers say one of our sloth bears, Kenny, used to blow “raspberries” at them. It seemed to be his way of being social. If a keeper blew Kenny a raspberry, he’d blow one right back!
The courtship of sloth bears is a brief encounter. Living as a solitary animal most of the time, the sloth bear makes an exception during the breeding season, May through July. The female then stays in a den for six to seven months until she gives birth, usually to two cubs. The male does not help raise the cubs.

Remember the sloth bear’s long coat? It helps a mother sloth bear as she carries her young on her back. The long hair is easier for her cubs to grip, and they can hold on better while Mom looks for food. Riding on the mother’s back is thought to provide the cubs protection from predators. As they get larger, the cubs spend more time on the ground. They nurse for about a year and stay with their mother until they are 1½ to 2½ years old.