Hailing from the hot, humid jungles and plains of Southern Asia, the sloth bear stands out from the rest. With its distinctive appearance and different attributes, there’s no other bear like it. Read on to learn more about the sloth bear!
1. This Bear is Unique
There is no other bear like the sloth bear. It is so unique that early zoologists in the 18th century believed this species to be a type of sloth due to its strange appearance! In fact, the character Baloo from the Jungle Book is supposed to be a sloth bear.
The sloth bear can be distinguished from other bears by its long, shaggy coat that appears almost unkempt. In some parts of its range, it coexists with the Asiatic black bear and the Sun bear. Like them, it sports a crescent-like marking on its chest which was once believed to fend off tigers; it more likely seems that these markings are used for social communication purposes.
Two separate subspecies exist: the Indian sloth bear (which is found throughout its mainland Asian range) and the Sri Lankan sloth bear (only found in Sri Lanka). The subspecies differ mainly by size: the Sri Lankan sloth bears are a bit smaller than Indian sloth bears and are notably less shaggy. They also do not hibernate as their climate remains constant year-round (in fact, bear species that “hibernate” don’t actually hibernate; they go through a similar process known as torpor).
2. They’re Specialized for Eating Insects
The sloth bear is an omnivorous animal, just like its cousins. However, it specializes mainly in feasting insects, such as ants and termites, though it will snack on fruits, vegetation, and carrion when available. Due to this, the sloth bear is an important seed disperser in its environment. It will also feast upon honey when feasting in beehives. The sloth bear sports various adaptations that help catch its prey very efficiently.
For instance, its top incisor teeth are missing, allowing the sloth bear to suck up termites from their nests like a vacuum. Their long lips and tongue also further create the strong suction needed to extract bugs from hard-to-reach places. To break open harder objects, such as beehives and termite mounds, sloth bears use their claws to break them right open. Its exceptional sense of smell also allows this animal to search for food, making up for its poor hearing and eyesight. Their long fur also provides the bear protection against biting insects.
3. Mothers Carry Cubs on Their Backs
Though the bear cubs of other species may sometimes hang onto their mothers' backs, none do it as frequently as the sloth bear. While her long fur protects against insects, it also provides an easy surface for her cubs to hold onto. The cubs will often piggyback on their mothers until they're around 6-9 months old.
Sloth bears are mainly solitary and territorial, only coming together to mate. A female sloth bear will search for a suitable cave or crevice to use as a den or will dig one herself if needed. Researchers have discovered that sometimes, sloth bears may even share their dens with porcupines, rusty-spotted cats, and other animals.
She will eventually give birth to one or two cubs, or even rarely three in a litter. She will remain in the den until her offspring are around 9 to 12 weeks old, during which they will then leave and explore the outside world.
4. They’ll Fend Off Tigers
Sloth bears, believe it or not, have a few predators they must look out for. Predators such as leopards and dholes (a type of wild dog) may prey on cubs and even subadult bears. The tiger however remains the top natural predator of the sloth bear. Tigers usually stay away from sloth bears, preferring to avoid them. However, certain individuals have been reported to target sloth bears as their prey. Sloth bear fur has even been found in tiger feces.
The sloth bear is a challenging animal to hunt, as though not usually aggressive, it can become very dangerous if threatened. This bear can inflict serious wounds from their sharp claws alone and will also stand on its two legs to intimidate the big cats. They will not hesitate to fight back, especially if it has cubs. Young and/or inexperienced tigers will avoid or flee from sloth bears.
5. Sloth Bears Need Our Help
Currently, the sloth bear has been listed as a Vulnerable species by the IUCN Red List as of the 2016 assessment. Though not currently considered endangered, its wild population is decreasing and could potentially become endangered in the future. The Sri Lankan subspecies is already considered an endangered species.
Human-wildlife conflict is the most prominent threat to the sloth bear’s existence, along with poaching and habitat destruction. As residential and agricultural areas expand and encroach into their habitat, sloth bears are increasingly crossing paths with humans. Though usually shy, sloth bears are easily spooked and will aggressively defend themselves against potential threats (as mentioned earlier with tigers). Due to this, bear attacks on humans are not uncommon but have given them an undeservingly poor reputation in some parts of their range.
Sloth bears are also poached for their claws, meat, organs, and other body parts for food and traditional medicine. Bear gallbladders are highly prized for their supposed medicinal value, despite having no scientific evidence that backs up such claims. Cubs are also sometimes captured alive for the illegal pet trade. Though outlawed throughout various countries, sloth bears are sometimes captured for bear dancing. Street performers will force a bear to ‘dance’ by shoving rope through its snout and then is tugged by the nose. Beatings and other forms of abuse are also commonplace.
Fortunately, conservation programs are working hard to save the sloth bear from its demise. Organizations, such as Wildlife SOS, are working to protect and conserve habitats and to educate local people on how to coexist with sloth bears and other animals safely.
Many people don’t know what a sloth bear is, being overshadowed by its more famous cousins.