Meet the charismatic sloth bear (Melursus ursinus)! Although, its common name is a misnomer of sorts. The sloth bear is not related to sloths of South and Central America, nor does it move at a sloth’s pace. Its long, sharp claws do resemble that of a sloth’s, but the resemblance ends there.
Native to the Indian subcontinent, sloth bears are distributed across India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan. They were last reported from Bangladesh in the late 1990s and are speculated to have gone extinct in the country. Sloth bear is one of the four bear species found in India, and is also the most widely distributed. It has adapted to an impressive range of habitats – from wet and dry tropical forests, grasslands, scrublands, savannas – and can be found upto elevations of 2,000 m.
With its characteristic black, thick, shaggy, unkempt fur, the sloth bear may seem like a misfit in the hot and dry forests and scrublands of India. But, its multi-purpose hairy coat acts as a protection from its prey and most preferred food on its menu – the termites!
The coat also provides a comfortable grip to the cubs which mount their mothers on the back and are ferried about for the first 9-12 months of their lives. This behaviour of the female bear carrying her cubs on the back is unique to the species and has not been documented in others, and is believed to be practiced to keep the young ones close and relatively safe from predators. The breeding season of the sloth bear is around June-July and females generally give birth to one or two cubs.
A sloth bear’s size – 5 to 6 ft. in length and weighing up to 55-141 kg. – betrays its choice of food. It largely subsists on termites and ants (a phenomenon known as Myrmecophagy) and its unique anatomy aids this specific task. It’s long, curved, non-retractable claws help to dig through the nesting mounds of the ants and termites expertly gauging holes in the mounds to get to the food, after which it sucks the insects out using its specially designed snout. Its front teeth have a characteristic gap between them through which the insects pass when sucked, and the bear also is able to close its nostrils while its mouth is exposed to the skittering termites inside the mound. The sloth bear also feeds on fruits and flowers of various plants such as fig, mango, etc. its fondness for honey is also well known and the bears have been known to adeptly climb trees to reach for the beehives.
Sloth bears, especially in India, face myriad threats which are causing their populations in various parts of the country to decline. They are often poached for body parts for the gruesome illegal wildlife trade. A nauseating, ancient, illegal practice of capturing live bear cubs from the wild by the members of the nomadic Kalandar community in India and forcing them to perform on the streets for entertainment continued until very recently. But, today severe habitat loss and fragmentation further threaten the future of the species which has been listed as Vulnerable as per the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List of Threatened Species.