Dancing No More - The Sloth Bear

According to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) the sloth bear is the most vulnerable of the bear species and is on the verge of extinction. The sloth bear's scientific names are Ursus ursinus or Melursus ursinus.

As well as the 'common sloth bear' (Melursus ursinus ursinus) there is a Sri Lankan subspecies (Melursus ursinus inornatus) which has much shorter body hair and is smaller overall.

The sloth bear is found on the Indian subcontinent in the forested regions of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

Sloth bears are lankier than black or brown bears. They vary between 140 and 170 cm in length, are around 85cm tall at the shoulder and weigh between 90 and 160kg at maturity. Size varies according to the availability of food. The male is typically larger than the female.

Their distinctive dental and facial structure has developed due to their highly specialised diet of, preferably, termites. The front incisors are absent and there is a hollowed cavity instead of a bony palate. Because they do not eat much vegetation, the molars and premolars are relatively small.

The nostrils are wide and can be voluntarily closed and the long, thick muzzle protrudes forward with long lower lips which can be stretched over the outer edge of the nose. The bulbous snout and palate are ideal for sucking up insects. The ears are large and floppy.

Sloth BearCredit: Wikimedia

The sloth bear is black or a dark rusty colour. The muzzle is pale and the claws white. There is a creamy Y or V-shaped mark on the chest, although this is sometimes missing in the Sri Lankan subspecies. The long, shaggy coat is particularly heavy round the neck and shoulders, giving a mane of perhaps 30cm. Females may have a heavier mane than the male. However the underparts have very little fur.

Disproportionately long, sickle-shaped claws enable the bear to dig for food and to climb trees. The claws may reach 4 inches in length. A hairless web connects the toe pads, making them good swimmers. The tail is 6 to 7 inches long. The back legs are knee-jointed, allowing the adoption of a number of positions.

While they walk with a slow and shambling gait, they can gallop faster than a human can run if threatened. They are excellent climbers, feeding and resting in trees. They may hang upside down. Over 25 different vocalisations have been recorded including barks, grunts, shrieks, whimpers and yelps. When mating, they make loud, melodious calls.

Adults sometimes travel in pairs. Possibly because food is generally so readily available, the sloth bear does not appear to hibernate although its activities slow late in the year.

Sloth Bear in TreeCredit: I [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

Day beds are made in trees and caves are used as resting places during the wet season. Sloth bears travel quite long distances when foraging and cubs may be carried on the mother's back. Males are gentle towards cubs and are tolerated by the mother.

Termites are abundant in the tropics and provide the bulk of the diet. They are located by smell up to three feet below the surface. By scraping at the bottom of an ant-hill the bears uncover the large combs then suck up ants.

Sloth bears also eat honey, fruit, berries, yams and vegetation. Although they will eat carrion on occasion, they are not predatory animals. Sloth bears are diurnal but prefer to feed at night. The noise made from sucking up termites can be heard 200 to 300 metres away.

Long distances are travelled in search of termite mounds. The time spent at a mound is limited because soldier ants attack the bears forcing them to move on after a period of time.

Depending on the locality, mating periods are not consistent throughout the range. For instance, the sloth bear breeds year round in Sri Lanka but only in June and July in India. Gestation is 6 to 7 months with the cubs being born from December to January which is the dry season. There is reason to believe the sloth bear, like the kangaroo, is capable of delayed implementation if conditions are not ideal for breeding.

One to two cubs are born. The cubs weigh 300 to 500 grams at birth. They are born blind but develop quickly compared to most bear species. They walk at 4 weeks, are independent at 2 to 3 months and sexually mature at 3 years. Cubs stay with the mother for 2 to 3 years. The period between litters may be 2 to 3 years.

Cubs are fed a regurgitated dark yellow bread-like mass from the mother. This 'bears bread' is regarded as a delicacy by some of India's indigenous tribes.

Natural predators are tigers, leopards and wild dogs. Unnatural predation comes in the form of loss of habitat and illegal poaching. While tigers will prey on sloth bears if they are able to take them by surprise they will usually back off from an aggressive sloth bear which will usually stand its ground. Tigers may mimic the call of sambar deer when hunting the deer and sloth bears may react fearfully to any sambar deer calls. Indian leopards will follow sloth bears up trees. Asian elephants and Indian rhinoceros are intolerant of sloth bears for some reason and will charge at them.

In years past the sloth bear was the mainstay of the dancing bear trade. Despite the implementation of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 in India, sloth bears were, until recently, still kept as dancing bears, mostly by the Kalander gypsies. Cubs were poached to be sold as pets and/or as replacements to existing dancing bears. Bear handlers have been helped with education and jobs thus reducing their reliance on dancing bears as a source of income. It is believed that not one gypsy, once helped to find alternative employment, has gone back to owning dancing bears. Latest reports state that the bears have virtually disappeared from the streets of India.

Dancing bears rarely lived more than ten years in captivity whereas the expected lifespan in the wild is 25 years. The practice was very cruel with dancing bears having their snouts pierced to take a rope or chain. Males were castrated, teeth extracted (without anaesthetic) and hot plates used to encourage the bear to 'dance'. The bear was also hunted for its claws and baculum. The baculum is a bone found in the penis of many mammals.

The sloth bear is considered by some to be more dangerous than the tiger. They will attack without warning and certainly without provocation. The bear strikes at the head and face, causing gross disfigurement at the least. In a five-year period (1989 to 1994), sloth bears killed 48 and wounded 686 people in Madhya Pradesh state, central India.

With the cessation of the dancing bear trade, hopefully the sloth bear will recover from its endangered status.