Sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) are creatures of the tropics and one of four bear species found in India. These large, black, silky-haired ursines are native to the Indian subcontinent and found all over the country, from the Western Ghats in the south to the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India (but are largely absent in the Northeast). They are what scientists call “myrmecophagous”, meaning they eat ants.
These forest-dwelling bears spend most of their waking hours with their nose to the ground, sniffing soil and leaf litter for telltale signs of ant and termite colonies. When they do find an ant nest, sloth bears use their long, slender claws to burrow into the mound, then stick their snouts into the hole, and suck the insects into their mouth (like Balloo did in the film, The Jungle Book). In addition to protein-rich insects, sloth bears also have a fondness for honey, sugar-rich fruit, and the petals of flowers, especially those of the mahua tree.
And yet, these are among the most feared animals in the country, allegedly responsible for numerous violent encounters with human beings. The internet is rife with accounts of human-bear conflict, some more gruesome than others, but like all matters of wildlife conservation, the reality is not black and white.
In the book, Mammals of South Asia, Dr K Yoganand et al write that though the geographical range of sloth bears has not changed, “the present range has shrunk along its peripheries and has become fragmented overall.” Many believe that the conflict between humans and sloth bears is a result of this habitat loss. They say that today, about ten per cent of India’s remaining forests are considered secure for the species.
The physiology and behaviour of the species is another consideration: sloth bears have notoriously bad eyesight and react aggressively when startled in their habitat. “Conflict can occur when people enter woods for fuel and forage, or when bears are forced to travel through human settlements in search of food and water,” writes Gloria Dickie in an article for National Geographic titled How To Make Peace With The World’s Deadliest Bears.