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The vanishing trails of Sri Lanka’s sloth bears (Commentary)

  • In Sri Lanka, the sloth bear (Melursus ursinus inoratus) is on the decline, its population dropping drastically over the years.
  • It’s among the most feared and misunderstood creatures on the island, and this fear often results in humans attacking these animals first, leading to bear deaths but also grievous injury or death to humans.
  • A threatened species, there are fewer than 1,000 sloth bears in Sri Lanka.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Bear! The very word may strike terror in the hearts of some, but unknown to many, this wonderful creature is on the brink of extinction in Sri Lanka, with its numbers very drastically reduced, its habitats decimated, and the hand of man firmly turned against him out of abject fear.

Many men of the jungle have told me they would rather face the charge of an elephant, as there is still some chance of escape. Whereas with the terrible “close quarters charge” of the sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), there is none. Add that to the distinct possibility of being blinded, disfigured, or losing a limb or two, the reasons for fear and animosity toward this creature are very clear. Yet the greatest fear that lurks among forest communities is of becoming “the living dead”: blinded, incapacitated, and totally dependent on others until death finally takes over, looked upon as a welcome relief from a lifetime of suffering.

To describe an animal with such a reputation as a “wonderful creature” would appear to be gross distortion of the truth. But it is the truth.

A content sloth bear is easy to identify, like this one relaxing after a hearty meal of termites. Image by Ranil P. Nanayakkara.

Gentle creatures of the wild

The sloth bear is a “gentle” beast who seeks to lead his life in his own quiet way, undisturbed, grubbing for worms, beetles and termites, breaking open the hard termite mounds with his steel-hard claws, or climb the Ceylon ironwood trees (Manilkara hexandra), known as palu, in search of its beloved berries.

Once the “inner bear” is satisfied, he would retire to his den or to some place of convenience, like a hollow log, or a crevice among boulders to contentedly suck his paws with a humming noise, perhaps to fall into deep snoring sleep. So deep is its sleep, especially with a belly full of palu fruit, that several villagers I know have strayed to within a few feet of the creature before the snoring alerted them of its presence.

A sloth bear digs up the soil in search of a tasty meal of ants. Image by Ranil P. Nanayakkara.

Such close encounters, fortunately for both parties, resulted in the respective parties “heading for the hills at great speed” in the opposite directions.

It is this very same habit of deep sleep, or being totally engrossed in sucking up termites with high relish, that brings about tragedy, both for the sloth bear and for the unfortunate human who unwittingly stumbles upon the animal. Surprised, the sloth bear hurtles off in the direction it is facing or charges the “attacker” with unbridled ferocity.

Few creatures can display the courage of a mother sloth bear defending its young to the death. The late Percy De Alwis, a former assistant director of Sri Lanka’s Department of Wildlife Conservation, recorded how a honey gatherer was charged by a very determined and aggressive sloth bear. The man managed to thwart the sloth bear with a well-placed blow by a billhook to the head. The sloth bear staggered, fell, picked itself up, and ran into the jungle on uncertain feet, screaming, while the man, dropping his gourd full of honey and the billhook, ran in the opposite direction for dear life.

Going back to the same spot the next day to collect his belongings, the man was surprised to find them where they had fallen. However, a low noise from a partly rotten log nearby alerted him, and on investigating with great caution, expecting a charge at any moment, he was confronted with a pathetic sight: there, within the hollow log, lay a bear, its head caked with dried blood, while two tiny balls of black fur were trying to suckle from their dead mother, crying all the while for her lack of response. In its dying moments, the sloth bear had dragged itself back to the cubs it had defended with its life.

The cubs were more fortunate. They were handed over to De Alwis, who brought them up with love and care. Named Kalu and Zimbo, they became a source of much interest and amusement, not to mention a few scary moments, to visitors of Sri Lanka’s northern Wilpattu National Park.

Poised to run: A sloth bear keeps watch in preparation for retreat. Image by Ranil P. Nanayakkara.

Interestingly, each displayed its own individuality, a feature recorded by D.J.G. Hennessy in Green Aisles in respect of his own two pets, Yakka and Dikky, who similarly came to him as orphans. Such cubs appeared to have bonded very closely to their masters, displaying much affection, showing great concern at his absence, and tracking their way back through as much as 32 kilometers (20 miles) of jungle to be with their beloved master.

De Alwis records that Kalu and Zimbo, abandoned at Kali Villu in an attempt to revert them back to the wild, found their way back through the jungle to nearby Maradanmaduwa a couple of days later, to greet De Alwis with much affection, clasping him around the legs with much heaving and pulling, obviously overcome with joy at finding the master and very proud of their feat!

In our jungles there is not a creature, including man that the sloth bear would back down from in any confrontation. Many records exist of sloth bears standing up to Sri Lanka’s top predator, the leopard, and the latter being the one to retreat. Yet the bear rarely seeks conflict with fellow jungle dwellers, preferring peaceful coexistence.

Gentle and shy in nature, a provoked sloth bear is an ugly sight as it can ferociously attack its opponents. The first sign of resistance is the typical low growl to threaten people off. Image by Ranil P. Nanayakkara.

Predator-less living

Sri Lanka’s distinct subspecies of the sloth bear, M. u. inoratus, has no predator here, though in India, tigers are known to kill sloth bears, some even becoming habitual bear killers. Some tigers are said to have evolved a specific procedure for the kill, causing a disabling injury with a surprise attack, then retreating to a safe distance while the unfortunate bear exhausts itself struggling to escape. Once weakened, the tiger gives the coup de grâce with no danger to itself, before making its meal. These tigers appear to be well aware of the ferocious defense that sloth bears can put up and which can result in disabling injuries to themselves. Injuries of that nature spell doom to humans. Leopards, too, are said to kill sloth bears in India, but I have no knowledge of actual kills in Sri Lanka, though many confrontations are recorded.

Veddas, a minority indigenous group in Sri Lanka, had their own methods of avoiding sloth bears, whom they come across frequently in their forays to hunt and gather food. Approaching likely places where sloth bears may be found, they tap tree trunks and boulders with their axes, and utter cries to give warning of their arrival, so that the animal has adequate time to retreat without feeling threatened, which would result in a precipitate charge.

With the passing of these true children of the jungle and the advent of the urbanized colonist, alien to the ways of the jungle and its denizens, much conflict arose. That the Veddas looked upon sloth bears as a feared and hated enemy is well reflected in the very abusive name given to the creature. Many claim that mantras or sacred utterances send a sloth bear scampering away in fear, but it is more the vociferous, aggressive utterances, the bold front and the sound of the hated human voice that puts it to flight, given an avenue of escape. If not, there is no escape.

Moving with surprising but rolling ungainly speed, it will be upon the man, rising on hind legs to rake the great claws across the face, wiping away half the face and perhaps an eye in one stroke, baring the skull in the process, biting, scratching, clawing, accompanied by demonic roars all the while. Suddenly, the attack is over and the animal runs screaming away from the scene of mischief with loud wails and roars as if it is he who had been attacked, leaving behind a man so horribly disfigured, mutilated and broken, but more often than not, barely alive.

A sloth bear relaxing in the deep jungles of eastern Sri Lanka, by Ranil P. Nanayakkara.

Unkind folk tales

Folklore and legend, too, have been unkind to the sloth bear, for it stands demonized. While other animals have been connected with benign deities and spirits, not so the sloth bear.

The elephant is associated with Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of wisdom, the peacock with Lord Skanda, the cobra with the mythical Nagas, and many others are looked upon benignly as creatures of the Pansiya Panas Jathaka or the 550 reincarnations of Siddhartha, in his quest for Buddhahood. The sloth bear, however, is linked to “the evil lord of the burial spaces,” the dreaded Mahasona, who sports a gaping bear’s head fixed “back to front” and walks the jungle paths at night searching for human prey, bringing pestilence, disease and death to terror- stricken villagers in the remote corners.

There is also the legend that two giant warriors of the fabled King Dutugemunu, Gotaimbara and Ritigala Jayasena, who came into conflict and fought for several hours, both being exponents of martial arts. Gotaimbara finally leapt into the air, dealing a flying kick that shattered the head of Jayasena, whose lifeless body fell to the ground. Lord Saturn, passing that way, came upon the wife of Jayasena, weeping disconsolately by the dead body of her lord, and felt a deep pity.

Making an astrological calculation, he found that Jayasena could be brought back to life if the first head found in the auspicious direction were cut off and fixed on the dead body. This had to be done before the auspicious hour expired. Lord Saturn hastened in the prescribed direction, but found no human head, and time was fast running out when he came across a sloth bear whose head he cut off. Rushing back, with the last few seconds running out, he fixed the head onto the body, bringing life to it. But in his great haste, he had put the head on backward.

Springing back to life, Jayasena, realizing the hideous transformation he had undergone, ran away with bloodcurdling screams to hide in the cemeteries, away from humans, devouring the corpses brought there and to forever seek vengeance from humans. Little wonder, then, that the sloth bear is looked upon as “the devil incarnate” by the superstitious!

Sloth bears are watchful creatures. Image by Ranil P. Nanayakkara.

Understanding bear behvior

Such are the legends and beliefs that demonize and vilify this “gentle creature of the forests.” In truth, sloth bears are wonderful and caring parents displaying much affection to their young.

Etched in my memory is a wonderful moonlit night I spent 12 meters (40 feet) up in a hut built among the entwining branches of three huge trees at the edge of a paddy field from which the harvest had been gathered several weeks previously. In this remote corner of Sri Lanka’s North Central province, there was said to be a herd of elephants that regularly visited the field, attracted by the new growth springing from the stubble of paddy, along with deer and many other visitors.

Alone, armed with nothing more than a torch and a billhook for defense, I had climbed into the hut to enjoy the bright light of the full moon that turned the little field and the surrounding jungles into ever-changing shadows of fantasy, to watch the denizens of the surrounding forests appear from time to time engaging in their chores of existence, to enjoy the cool breeze that blew through the clear night and to be at peace with myself.

Sitting at the edge of the platform, my feet dangling high above the ground below, the roof being only a couple of feet above not permitting one to stand inside, I watched the creatures come and go. Around 2 a.m., a cry from the jungle was answered by another, and presently, three blobs of black moved onto the threshing floor about 23 meters (75 feet) away, unaware of my presence.

It was most fascinating to watch the mother sloth bear rootling around, stopping now and then, often with one forepaw in the air, to look around for the two cubs who were indulging in a game of their own. If they strayed too far from mom, they would be called back with a low sound. The cubs would run around the mother, chasing, then try to climb onto her back, while the mother very patiently put up with the cubs at play. The concern of the female was quite evident, as was the love with which she moved them aside from time to time, so that she could continue with her feeding.

Running, wrestling, rolling around, cuffing each other in a mock fight, the cubs enjoyed playing before it was time to go, the mother carefully shepherding the two young ones, still bent on play, toward the bushes. Finally, tired of their play, they hitched a ride on mother bear’s back and faded quietly away into the shadows.

Bear watching: Researcher Ranil P. Nanayakkara during a field survey in Wilpattu, in northern Sri Lanka. Image by Biodiversity Education and Research (BEAR) .

Encounters in the wild

The sloth bear is a peculiar creature, able to evoke a variety of human emotions. It is hated, feared, avoided, killed at will, but still there are those that look upon them as fellow beings, treat them with respect, cohabit peacefully, show deep affection toward the often misunderstood animal, and others who are keen to conserve the species and its habitats.

One gloomy monsoon afternoon at the historic Magul Maha Vihara in eastern Sri Lanka, I was shown a sloth bear asleep on the fine warm dust on the floor of a rocky crevice around 27 meters (89 feet) from the ancient rock shelter that was the abode of the lone human caretaker of the ruins. This bear was said to be a “habitual” there and quite undisturbed by human presence.

Another, a huge, fine young male who frequented the vicinity of a water hole in northern Wilpattu, became quite an attraction to the visitors and the staff. As then-warden M.M.D Perera recorded, it suddenly fell ill. The body was found a day later, floating on the water. Perera says: “I recollect how the tracker Karunaratne wept over his death,” evidence of the affection felt by a grown man of the jungle, to whom death was an ever-present certainty, daily witnessed.

For others, the encounter with a bear is a life-changing occurrence, not only by way of disfigurement, disability and blindness, but also as an event precipitating an extreme attitudinal change and all-encompassing compassion. D.J.G. Hennessy, intrepid jungle man, hunter of rogue elephants, having shot at a family of bears at night over a water hole, followed the blood trail and recorded the painful cries he heard. “The harsh scream of the peafowl, from the leafless trees they love so well, brought in the Dawn.

“I found her lying in a pool of blood on a game track a hundred yards away, her tongue lolling out of her mouth. Keeping watch over her still body was a cub, who, at our approach, rose up on his stumpy little hind legs and snorted defiance at us before scampering into the jungle, crying pitifully for the one who in his small world was everything. That is why I became a protector of the wild.”

Creatures of unbridled courage, sloth bears are fast retreating along with their forest habitat, against the tide of urbanized man. The world will be a poorer place if they fade away into extinction.



Ranil P. Nanayakkara is a conservation biologist and sustainable tourism specialist working in Sri Lanka. A member of the IUCN/SSC Sirenia Specialist Group, Nanayakkara is the co-founder and principal scientist at Biodiversity Education and Research (BEAR) and takes time off to conduct workshops on responsible whale watching in a bid to create awareness among tour operators and whale watchers and runs a sloth bear conservation initiative in Wilpattu, in northern Sri Lanka.



Banner image of a sloth bear relaxing in the deep jungles of northern Sri Lanka, by Ranil P.  Nanayakkara.

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