Nothing slothful about a threatened bear

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Melursus ursinus, or the sloth bear, is not generally aggressive. But poaching and habitat destruction coupled with its poor eyesight and hearing make it a belligerent customer when humans get too close to it.

While thankfully today one does not see so many sloth bears being debased as performance animals, it continues to be poached for its body parts — in particular, its gall bladder, which is often used in traditional medicine.

Once when I was a teenager, the rhythmic roll of a drum and the shrill notes of a pipe attracted my attention on a dusty street corner in Tiruchy. Intrigued, I joined a small crowd of curious onlookers to find a bare-chested tribal and his teenaged son lording it over a scrawny-looking sloth bear — the cynosure of all eyes. It had lost a good deal of its fur, possibly due to malnutrition, and looked a pathetic apology of a bear — ragged and famished.

Without further ado, the youngster piped up a popular Tamil cinema tune and the man prodded the bear into action. Chained to a stake, it performed the semblance of a ‘dance’ — trotting around in a circle on its hind legs and raising its forepaws now and then. Soon the show ended, the crowd cheered and rained down coins while Bruin took a breather.

In retrospect, the bear’s timidity in the presence of its cane-wielding master was touching — indeed ironic for an animal of its ferocity. As was common in those distant days, it had apparently being captured as a cub and trained to be a performer — a means of livelihood for the exploitative tribal. Thankfully, one doesn’t see such debasing ursine shows any longer, though the sloth bear is still believed to be targeted by poachers for its body parts — in particular, its gall bladder which is used in traditional medicine. However, persecution is nothing new to the bear: it has been harassed by sadists right from medieval times when bear-baiting was a popular sport in England and the Continent.

European zoologist George Shaw is believed to have given the sloth bear its name, having mistaken it to be a tree sloth because it sometimes hangs upside down from tree branches much like the latter. Far from being slothful, however, it’s perfectly capable of outrunning a man and attacking him if it considers him a threat to its cubs.

Known as ‘karadi’ in Tamil and Malayalam, the sloth bear is an ungainly creature, dishevelled in appearance, with a shaggy black coat that’s quite dense around its shoulders. It is believed that this serves as a shield to protect it from being bitten by its favourite food — insects in general and bees in particular. The sloth bear also has a prominent light-coloured snout and a white-hued patch on its chest. It’s endowed with large feet and long, curved white claws that look quite fearsome, designed as they are for digging out grubs and tearing apart termite mounds.

The height of a sloth bear varies from 60 to 90 cm. and its body length from 1.4 to 1.9 metres, the female being smaller than the male. Adult males weigh between 80 to 190 kg while adult females range between 60 to 120 kg.

Many believe that a sloth bear that stands up on its hind legs is being aggressive while others opine that it’s just trying to get a better view of its surroundings or checking the air for the scent of food or danger. It has a well-developed sense of smell but its sight and hearing are poor.

Mainly nocturnal in its habits, the sloth bear is usually a loner except during the breeding season and when raising its cubs. The gestation period is around seven months with a litter consisting of 1 or 2 (sometimes 3) cubs born in a cave. The cubs reach adulthood within 2 to 3 years. The mother carries its young on its back and the cubs often ‘hitch a ride’ when she walks, runs or climbs trees. Sloth bears, incidentally, are agile climbers.

 

The IUCN has classified the sloth bear as vulnerable mainly due to habitat loss and poaching. Degradation and loss of forests (caused by fire, overgrazing and over-extraction of forest resources) are believed to have resulted in a 40% decline in the sloth bear’s population over the last 30 years.

 

The sloth bear usually spends the day snoozing in a cave, preferring one near a river bank. Unlike other bears, it doesn’t hibernate but does have a period of comparative inactivity during the monsoon. Omnivorous, its diet consists of a good deal of insects and termites — it locates the latter by smell and is an excellent termite hunter. It also relishes honeycombs, sugarcane, flowers, fruits, eggs and sometimes even carrion.

The sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) is found mainly in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, though it’s now feared to have become extinct in the latter. It inhabits dry as well as moist forests and sometimes lush grasslands where boulders, shrubbery and trees provide shelter and cover. Its average lifespan in the wild is estimated to be 20 years though it’s known to live as long as 40 years in captivity.

The IUCN has classified the sloth bear as vulnerable mainly due to habitat loss and poaching. Historically, man has drastically reduced its habitat and population by hunting it for sport and food. Degradation and loss of forests (caused by fire, overgrazing and over-extraction of forest resources) are believed to have resulted in a 40% decline in the sloth bear’s population over the last 30 years. Conservationists and wildlife scientists now opine that the Western Ghats and the forested highlands of Central India are perhaps the only remaining strongholds of the species, its distribution across the rest of the country being isolated and sparse. The population of the sloth bear in India is now conservatively estimated to be anywhere between 6,000 and 11,000.

Apart from man, the only threats the sloth bear faces in the wild are from the tiger, leopard and occasionally the wolf. To avoid a confrontation with these nocturnal predators, the female and its cubs will sometimes switch to a diurnal routine. Nevertheless, should it run into a predator, the mother will defend its young truculently, using its long and sharp claws to deadly effect.

The sudden appearance of a full-grown sloth bear can be quite disconcerting to one who’s not familiar with it, for it’s quite redoubtable — to say the least — with its shaggy hulk and constant snuffling. Generally, it’s not aggressive but its poor eyesight and hearing allow unsuspecting humans to draw near unwittingly. Feeling thus threatened, it will vigorously defend itself, and can be quite a nasty attacker in these circumstances. Many claim that, belying the prefix ‘sloth’ in its name, the sheer speed of its attack is surprising.

In the Buldhana Forest Division of Maharashtra, sloth bears are known to be particularly aggressive and unpredictable in their behaviour. Here, more human fatalities and injuries have been attributed to their attacks than all other recorded incidents of wildlife attacks. And, quite intriguingly, all these ursine attacks were basically unprovoked.

In Munnar the story is told of a British tea planter who once encountered an irate bear in a tea field. Unarmed, he took to his heels with Bruin in hot pursuit. As he fled for dear life, he somehow recalled an old tried-and-tested hunter’s ruse. He quickly tore off his jacket and tossed it behind him. Curious, the bear stopped to sniff it over — and in the meantime the planter made good his escape.

Karadiparai — which literally translates to “Bears’ Rock” — is a wooded area located amidst a cluster of cardamom plantations about 10 km from Munnar. In the 1950s and ’60s it was reputed to be a favourite haunt of sloth bears — they would congregate there to sun themselves on the massive outcrop of boulders, thus giving the place its name. Today not a single bear is found anywhere in the vicinity thanks to the unfettered promotion of tourism.

Some years ago a large sloth bear was spotted sauntering around the golf course of the Kundale Club near Munnar. Only a few sightings have been reported since then though there’s definite evidence of the presence of the species in Munnar’s tea estates in the form of their spoor. Interestingly, another local planters’ club has the mounted head of a sloth bear on display — a relic of the British era when trophy-hunting was a sport.

Poaching, trade in body parts and capture of young cubs (to be trained and used as performing pets or for illegal export) continue to be the bane of the sloth bear, threatening its steadily decreasing population. Compounding matters further are the ongoing habitat destruction and fragmentation that are slowly displacing it from its forest abode and bringing it into conflict with humans. If these knotty problems are addressed with the commitment, determination and sincerity that they merit, there’s still hope for not just the sloth bear but all our other endangered species of wildlife as well.

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