Bear Species
Sloth Bear
( Melursus ursinus )

Sloth Bear (Melursus ursinus)  © Lara Schneider
© Lara Schneider

Physical description and lifespan

The sloth bear is medium sized bear; adult males average 80–145 kg, while females usually weigh 55–95 kg.

This species is typically black in colour, although occasionally brown or reddish brown. Sloth bears often have a white chest blaze. They are characterised by very long, shaggy hair around the back of the head and on the neck, growing to 15–30 cm. The muzzle is long and grayish-coloured with lips that can be thrust forward and a long, flat tongue. The lower lip can be stretched over the outer edge of the nose.

Sloth bears have two characteristic physical features that have been evolved for feeding on ants and termites: very long, ivory coloured front claws (measuring 7 cm) and a distinct dental arrangement lacking the usual two upper, medial incisors.

The sloth bear lifespan may approach 30 years in the wild.

Distribution

The distribution of the species is restricted to the Indian subcontinent, including India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and the island of Sri Lanka.

Behaviour

Sloth bears are not territorial and do not appear to be aggressive towards other bears. They do maintain temporal avoidance from other bears much of the time, but have been observed in small groups of five to seven. These small groups are not always associated with concentrated food supplies, suggesting that the behaviour may be a predator defence strategy.

The activity patterns of adult females accompanied by cubs are diurnal (occur in the daytime), while those of adult males and females without cubs are primarily nocturnal.

Reproduction

The breeding season for sloth bears occurs primarily from May to July and births occur mainly from November to January (although have been observed as early as September in Nepal). The average litter size is two, but occasionally one to three cubs are born in a single litter. The interval between litters varies from two to three years.

Conflict with humans

Sloth bears are known to raid agricultural crops including maize, potatoes and yams, and to feed extensively on fruit crops.

Sloth bears can be aggressive towards humans, but avoid contact with people when given the opportunity. However, the perceived threat of bear attacks has made conservation efforts more difficult and resulted in the killing of sloth bears.

2008 conservation status

Sloth bears are classified as ‘VU’ (vulnerable) on the IUCN 2006 Red List – a result of significant population decline across their range associated with the loss of habitat and a decline in its quality.

Sloth bear populations are expected to decline by more than 10 per cent in the next ten years. Poaching for body parts is a significant threat to sloth bear populations, as is the live capture of young bears for display.

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