Sloth Bear – Melursus ursinus inornatus.
The Sloth Bear originates and exists in its natural environment only in India, but can also be found in surrounding areas. Its scientific name is Melursus ursinus, and it is also called the Labiated Bear. Contrary to previous understanding, the Sloth Bear and the sloth are two completely different species. The Sloth Bear is a type of bear, and it has endured several name changes over the course of time as scientists and researchers have attempted to ‘place’ it within the natural world. The Sloth Bear lives in trees, sleeping for most of the day and coming alive at night. They eat, sleep and rest in the branches and can hang upside down in much the same way as sloths. They make daybeds for themselves using leaves and broken branches (like giant birds’ nests).
Sloth Bears are bulky in their stature with long black coats that appear somewhat dishevelled. Their muzzles and paws are much lighter or white and their noses bulbous. Their faces are given a distinct character by their absence of upper incisors and their resultant ability to stretch their long lower lip up over their noses. This feature is of paramount importance to their eating habits, which involve sucking up large numbers of insects (such as ants and termites) at one time. Because they do not need to chew or tear away at their food, their teeth are often in poor condition or partially undeveloped. In addition to these features, Sloth Bears also have a shaggy mane, very large paws, a longer tail than any other bear species and large, droopy ears. Males can measure up to six feet in body length, while females are slightly smaller.
If it is a wet season, they usually opt to move to a sheltered cave. They usually travel in pairs, walking slowly and appearing somewhat clumsy in their manner. However, when they are pursuing prey or escaping danger, they are capable of speeds that outdo human beings. Because of their preference for the boughs of towering trees, Sloth Bears have developed excellent climbing skills. Interestingly, when under threat from enemies, a Sloth Bear will not climb their tree to escape danger. Rather, they will assert themselves on land in a display of ownership and territorialism. They are also very good swimmers.
Sloth Bears use vocalisations to communicate with others. Over two dozen sounds have officially been recorded including grunts, barks, shrieks and yelps. For example, when at rest, the bear will often emit a humming noise. Nursing mothers croon to their young ones and mating bears emit loud noises that display a distinct melody.
Indian Sloth Bears mate between April and June and have a gestation period of approximately seven months. Only one or two cubs are born. They are cared for under the watchful eyes of their mother until they are independent, which occurs at about two years of age. They reach sexual maturity a year later. Once the cubs are weaned, the mother is ready to mate again.
Although Sloth Bears make up the largest volume of their diet by eating termites, they may occasionally eat fruits, honey and other plant matter if insects are scarce at the time. Occasionally, this bear will also scavenge on a tiger’s kill.
Because the Sloth Bear is a powerful and assertive creature, it does not face the dangers of too many natural predators. Bengal Tigers may attack a Sloth Bear if it is distracted or injured and Indian Leopards may pursue them up trees. Otherwise, Sloth Bears tend to be able to defend themselves against most other threats. Interestingly, Indian Elephants and Indian Rhinoceroses do not show any tolerance when it comes to Sloth Bears. There is no clear explanation for this, particularly since both of these sizeable animals tolerate far more threatening species in their vicinity. The human being presents a distinct danger to these bears. As the size of their natural habitat decreases, they are forced to live within closer proximity to people. Sloth Bears are known to make unprovoked attacks on humans, often mauling their heads and causing damage to their faces and eyes. They also suck and gnaw at the person’s arms and legs until these are no longer of any use to the victim.
Today, there are about 10 000 Sloth Bears in India, and far fewer in areas like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan. While many of them can be seen in the natural areas of the countryside, visitors are also encouraged to visit and support the various parks and reserves in which these animals are protected.