Common sloth bear in Bannerghatta National Park Zoo (Rameshng – Creative Commons Licence)
Accepted scientific name: Melursus ursinus ursinus (George Shaw, 1791)
Description: Long, shaggy typically black pelage, the fur being particularly long around the neck and back of the head. Brown, reddish brown and albino bears have been recorded. The bears have a broad, white chest blaze and muzzle. Adaptations for digging and consuming ants and termites include long (6cm to 8cm) slightly curved front claws with inward turning front paw, a broad palate, protrusible lips, and the lack of the two upper middle incisors. Adult males generally weigh 80kg to 145kg, and adult females 55kg to 95kg.
Range: Patchy distribution throughout the Indian sub-continent, mainly in forested areas. Not found in the mountain regions of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, the northwestern deserts of Rajasthan, and the non-forested area of southern India. In Nepal the bears are isolated from other populations and are mainly found in the Terai lowland forest and grasslands bordering India.
For an up to date and detailed map of the distribution of Melursus ursinus click here to open the IUCN species page.
Habitat: Common sloth bears are found in forests, scrub areas and, during the dry season, grasslands.
Status: Protected under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act which prohibits hunting but allows bears to be killed in self-defence or, in special circumstances, where damage has been caused. Listed in Appendix I of CITES. The population appears to be falling and sloth bears are described as “vulnerable” in the IUCN Red List.
Life span: Up to 40 years in captivity, likely to be significantly less in. the wild.
Food: The bears are omnivorous and fruit and termites form major parts of their diet. In those areas where bears eat greater quantities of fruit (up to 90 percent of their diet) human land use and presence may well be causing them to avoid termite colonies. They also eat other insects and larvae, leaves, flowers, honey, eggs, small mammals and carrion.
Behaviour: Mainly nocturnal common sloth bears often sleep in caves during the day. Whilst sloth bears do not hibernate they are much less active during the rainy season. They are excellent climbers. Although they have a keen sense of smell their eyesight and hearing seem relatively poor. Whilst generally solitary except for mothers with cubs and during mating, there is some evidence that the bears are not territorial and will sometimes associate with one another. Males have been observed in the company of females with cubs. Mating commonly occurs during May to July but does vary by region. Research indicates that in India mating most commonly occurs in June. Most births occur from September to January following a six or seven month gestation period. Females usually give birth in a cave or in a shelter built on the ground, usually to one or two cubs but sometimes to three. Cubs remain with their mother for 18 months to two years, during which time she will not become pregnant again.
Threats: Habitat loss and poaching are the major threats to the common sloth bear. Historically bears have been poached to be used as captive dancing bears but this is declining and in 2012 it was announced that all Kalandar tribesmen had ceased the practice of keeping dancing bears. Poaching still occurs to obtain bear parts for use in medicine and bears are also hunted and killed due to their reputation for aggression towards humans and for crop destruction.
Life and struggles of the sloth bear in human-dominated areas: excellent article published in Mongabay on 27 November 2020.
Page updated 19 February 2021