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Sloth Bears
Field Dispatch  

Nose to Nose with Sloth Bears

The front end of a sloth bear is unmistakable. From its shaggy black head protrudes a long whitish muzzle. The three-inch-long front claws are ivory white. These are the tools of this specialized bear's trade: feeding on termites and ants by ripping up their mounds and nests.

The species has been studied for almost ten years by Indian researcher K. Yoganand—"Yogi" to his friends. Scientific blunders can live on forever. When 18th-century European museum curators were first sent specimens of a large furry mammal with long curved white claws, they named it "bear-like sloth" because its claws resemble those of South American sloths. Later taxonomists realized that the species was a tropical bear unrelated to sloths, but its wrongheaded name remains—the sloth bear.
Ranging India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and possibly Bangladesh, these 150- to 300-pound (70- to 140-kilogram) bears feed on fruits and insects. They sound like bellows when using their flexible snouts and lips to blow away dirt and suck up termites and ants. But don't be misled: This frowsy, gentle-looking bear can be ferocious, occasionally mauling or killing villagers who enter the forest. Yoganand often talks with villagers to help minimize conflicts. "Attacks can be prevented if people avoid certain places."

One goal of his research has been to track the roamings of a dozen radio-collared bears in the dry deciduous forests of India's Panna National Park. He's discovered that some bears have home ranges of up to 40 square miles (100 square kilometers). His conclusion: "We need to protect large patches of their habitat and maintain links between those patches. Unfortunately sloth bears have to compete with charismatic species such as tigers. The bears get far less attention than they deserve." 
—John L. Eliot

Did You Know?

A Tiger of a Bear
Insect-eating bears killing humans? It's true, it can happen. Unlike meat-eating leopards and tigers, which inhabit the forests of the Indian subcontinent along with sloth bears, the bears don't see humans as a meal. But if a bear feels threatened, it will launch a swift and vicious attack that will send even a hungry tiger running.
Such ferocity doesn't help unsuspecting people who surprise a bear in the forest. Three-inch-long (eight-centimeter-long) digging claws with 150 to 300 pounds (70 to 140 kilograms) of angry bear behind them can leave devastating wounds. Often when humans stumble upon a tiger or a leopard, the big cat will run away—providing it's not hunting. A startled bear, however, will attack. That, plus the horrific wounds they can inflict, explains why people in some areas of India are more afraid of the insect-eaters than the carnivores.
K. Yoganand of the Wildlife Institute of India is working to reduce human-bear conflicts by educating villagers. "Oftentimes sloth bear attacks can be prevented if people are careful and avoid certain places."
Dancing Bears
There is hope for the cruelly treated "dancing" sloth bears that are made to perform on the roadsides of India. The captive bears, estimated to number about a thousand, are caught as cubs and raised by the Qalandar people. To control a bear, its owner forces a rope through the bones of its mouth, nose, and muzzle. A tug on the rope is all it takes to make the animal "dance" in pain. 
One pioneering Indian organization, Wildlife S.O.S., is working with the Qalandars in an attempt to rescue and rehabilitate the bears. Often with no other source of income, the Qalandars see little other choice but to engage in their traditional trade. To combat this, Wildlife S.O.S. offers to train the owners for other livelihoods—if they surrender their bears.
For more information on Wildlife S.O.S. and its bear sanctuary, go to
—David O'Connor

Web Links

The Sloth Bear in India
Check out National Geographic Society grantee Cliff Rice's website about sloth bears.
Wildlife S.O.S.
Learn how sloth bears are being saved from the cruel practice of "dancing."

Free World Map

Brown, Gary. The Great Bear Almanac. Lyons & Burford, 1993.
Conover, Adele. "Sloth Bears: They Eat Ants, but Take on Tigers." Smithsonian (January 2000).
Craighead, Lance. Bears of the World. Voyageur Press, 2000.
Seidensticker, John. "Sloth Bears." Zoogoer (March/April 1999), 18-24.
Servheen, Christopher, Stephen Herrero, and Bernard Peyton. "Bears: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan." IUCN Bear Specialist Group, 1999.
Yoganand, K. "A Sloth Bear Saga." Zoogoer (November/December 2001), 17-9.


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