Bears & Others Carnivores, an edition of the iconic Wide World of Animals series was one of my favorite books growing up.
I would read it and gaze at the photos for hours while imagining encountering these creatures in the wild.
One photo, however, always made me chuckle a little.
It was a sloth bear, native to India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal and it looked like someone gave a really bad poodle hair cut to a skinny black bear.
Sloth bears are indeed unusual with a shaggy black coat, long, curved claws, and a pale-colored “v’ or “y” pattern on their chest. These bears typically weigh between 200-300 pounds at adulthood and specialize in eating fruit, termites, and honeycombs.
The name sloth bear comes from the original western description of the species according to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.
The first valid scientific description of this species was by George Shaw in 1791. He called it Ursine bradypus, ursine meaning bearlike and bradypus meaning slow foot. Bradypus is also the genus of three species of sloth. At the time, Shaw thought that the bear was related to a sloth. Time and additional specimens eventually revealed the true taxonomic relationships, but the confusing common name remains.
Although the name implies the slow, chill nature of a sloth, these bears are anything but that.
There are more attacks from sloth bear any other bear species as they are easily agitated and live in a region where there are huge human populations moving in and out of their forest habitat.
In a 2018 study entitled Sloth Bear Attacks on Humans in Central India: Implications for Species Conservation researchers Singh, Sonone, and Dharaiya, noted an increase in sloth bear attacks in India.
Sloth bears are known for their aggressive and unpredictable behavior. More human fatalities and injuries have been attributed to sloth bear attacks than all recorded incidences of wildlife attacks in Buldhana Forest Division of Maharashtra, India. We interviewed 51 victims that were attacked by sloth bears between 2009-2017 to better understand the reasons for the attacks.
Thirty-four of the attacks (66.7%) resulted in serious injuries, and there were seven human mortalities (13.7%) reported. Most attacks occurred close to agricultural fields (66.7%) and during midday (1100–1400 hours).
More attacks (64.7%) occurred when a person was working or resting in the field, or retrieving water for the field followed by attacks while watching over grazing livestock (13.7%). Individuals aged 31 to 40 years (35.3%) were the most common victims of sloth bear attacks. Half of the attacks were during monsoon season (July to October, 51%) followed by summer (March to June, 35%) and winter (November to February, 14%). In 39% of cases, a single bear was involved while females with 2 cubs were found to be involved in 37% of attacks.
According to the International Union For Conservation Of Nature (IUCN), sloth bears population status is “vulnerable”, meaning they are not yet threatened or endangered but a variety of factors could change that quickly.
One of those factors is conflicts with people. It can be hard to get people behind an animal that attacks and sometimes kills people but it can be done especially when measures can be taken to greatly reduce incidents.
The odd sloth bear is not likely to become the symbol of any sports franchise or restaurant chain but they certainly deserve to be conserved and managed like all other bear species.
I still laugh a bit thinking about the photo of the extra poofy-haired sloth bear in my book as a kid but after learning more about them I wouldn’t want to laugh in their presence.
They might not take too kindly to that.
(For more information on sloth bears and bear conservation go to www.beartrust.org.)