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15 March 2015 / leggypeggy

Sloth bears—shaggy, crabby and cute

sloth bear

Our second sloth bear is oblivious to our presence

You’ve probably heard of Baloo, the bear in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book, written in the mid-1890s.

Baloo and Bagheera, the panther, save Mowgli, the young boy, from Shere Khan, the tiger. In the jungle book stories, the pair are conscientious mentors who strive to teach Mowgli the Law of the Jungle.

In Disney’s 1967 movie, The Jungle Book, Baloo is still Mowgli’s friend and mentor, but he’s much more relaxed. Rather than serious, this bear is cuddly, fun-loving, easy-going, irresponsible and ticklish. He sings and dances, with ‘The Bare Necessities’ being especially popular.

While Baloo is identified as a bear, there’s some disagreement as to whether he’s a sloth, brown or Asian bear. Kipling refers to him as being brown in colour, but all the other descriptions point to him being a sloth bear.

Baloo, sloth bear

Surely Baloo was a sloth bear

So I’m going to stick with Baloo being a sloth bear.

Maybe that’s because we have all so desperately wanted to see and photograph a sloth bear in India. It’s been a mission ever since Poor John glimpsed one in Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan in November 2013.

At that time, six of us saw it, but it whizzed by so quickly that we didn’t get any photos and we could ‘bearly’ describe what we had seen. It was black, furry, shaggy, speedy and low to the ground.

So since this current trip began, with five of the same six people on board, we’ve been hanging out for a decent sighting of a sloth bear. How many sloth bears will we see today?, has been a question to start each safari drive.

We’ve seen and photographed countless animals, but sloth bears have eluded us. That is until we got to the state of Chattisgarh.

Our first camp was at a lodge near Barnawapara. Nothing about the first safari there was promising. About 4:30am, an hour before the drive was to begin, it started to rain—heavily. Good grief, most of the animals we wanted to see don’t like being out in the rain. Leopards shelter under dense brush and sloth bears lurk in caves, all waiting for it to clear.

We decided to drive to the main gate, about 40 minutes away, on spec. It was still drizzling when we arrived and there was unanimous agreement that we wait until afternoon.

gaur herd

Our first glimpse of the gaur herd

On the way back to camp, we were most surprised to see—no, not a sloth bear—a herd of gaur. Apparently they don’t care about rain. It was a great sighting and we spent 15 minutes or so just watching them plod along in the forest to the side of the road.

We saw plenty of gaur in November 2013, and I wrote about them then. But this was our first sighting on this trip. And we were thrilled to see so many of these enormous beasts. They are also known as bison and Indian cattle, and are the largest cattle in the world.

Anyway, the herd of gaur made the outing worthwhile and we returned to camp with big smiles and hoping the weather would clear for an afternoon drive. By 2:30pm, we decided it was worth another try, so headed back to the main gate.

sloth bear, India

Our first sloth bear sighting

About a kilometre short of the gate, there it was—a sloth bear scrounging around in the shrubs and leaves in search of ants and termites. We were spellbound.

It shambled slowly, about 15 metres from us, partially hidden by all the undergrowth and poking its nose where it did belong. We didn’t get very good pictures, but we watched for five minutes or so before it shuffled down the far side of the embankment and was gone.

Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow! We’d seen a sloth bear and we hadn’t even started the safari drive.

After the sloth bear ambled off we headed on to the main gate to get a guide and driver and board our Gypsy (small 4WD). As we came back out the gate, a fellow pointed excitedly over his shoulder into the bushes.

The Gypsy stopped and we all squinted into the undergrowth to see—another sloth bear. We watched for quite a few minutes—the sloth bear ignored us—and we probably could have watched for many more. But along came a group of nosey, giggling and curious teenagers on their way home from school.

Some were on foot, others on bicycles, and they began to approach the bear. It scared the dickens out of the poor thing. It barreled out of the scrub, across the road and into the forest.

sloth bear on the run 1

Sloth bear on the run 1

sloth bear on the run 2

Sloth bear on the run 2

Sloth bear on the run 3

Sloth bear on the run 3

Sloth bear on the run 4

Sloth bear on the run 4

Bummer! All we could think was that this had been a great start to a safari, and hoped it was a good omen for what was to come.

As it turned out, we didn’t see any more sloth bears or any of the hoped for leopards, but we managed to get very close to a couple of gaurs and then another herd of them.

It was only after these encounters that we heard that gaurs had attacked a couple of people in recent times—killing one man. The ones we saw didn’t seem at all concerned by our presence.

But sloths bears, which are native to the Indian subcontinent, are another thing. Remember the helpful Baloo of The Jungle Book and the fun-loving and carefree Baloo of the Disney movie?

Don’t be fooled. Most writings refer to the sloth bear’s aggressive and grumpy disposition. If you get in their way, they would just as soon rip off your face.

According to Robert Armitage Sterndale, in his Mammalia of India from 1884, the sloth bear is ‘more inclined to attack man unprovoked than almost any other animal, and casualties inflicted by it are unfortunately very common, the victim being often terribly disfigured even if not killed, as the bear strikes at the head and face.’

Sloth bear feeding

Sniffing for ants

But they are cute. As I mentioned before, they are black, furry and shaggy, with a cream-coloured muzzle, white claws and a whitish V or Y-shaped mark on the chest. They are mostly nocturnal, and feed on fruit, flowers, honeybee colonies, ants and termites. Their sharp, curved claws and sheer tenacity allow them to destroy termite mounds so they can suck out the residents.

I was impressed to learn they could easily wreck a termite mound. In four hours. four of us with an axe couldn’t break through one in Kenya to make an ad hoc pizza oven.

Sloth bears have a lanky build and average about 130 kilograms (290 pounds) in weight and 60–90 centimetres (2–3 feet) in height. They can run faster than humans, climb smooth trees and hang upside down. They don’t hibernate.

Their sharp teeth and generally crabby disposition mean that tigers usually give them a wide berth. Elephants and rhinoceros (yes, there are rhinos in India) do not like them and may charge at them.

Funnily enough, sloth bears can be tamed. There is a history of them being kept as pets and in the 20th century as many as 800 were performing as dancing bears. This practice was banned in 1972, but the last dancing sloth bear was not freed until 2009.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the sloth bear as vulnerable and estimates there are 20,000 left on the Indian subcontinent and in Sri Lanka.

I feel blessed to have seen two. Even if the dense forest meant I didn’t get great photos.

P.S. The camel I rode in the Thar Desert was named Baloo. I’ve learned that the word stems from ‘bhalu’, the Oriya language’s word for sloth bear.

P.P.S. Stay tuned for more pics of the gaur.

P.P.S. Heading into the Sundarbans early tomorrow. It’s the largest block of tidal mangroves in the world. We’ll be out of touch for at least three days, maybe more.

15 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Dorothy webster / Mar 15 2015 7:04 am

    Loved the sloth bears I think they look cute. Sounds like they know how to take care of themselves when those other animals all give them a wide berth. That should help to stop them dying out.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Mar 15 2015 10:47 am

      They can definitely defend themselves against being eaten. It’s humans encroaching on their land that is the biggest risk.

      Like

  2. susan@marsha'sbungalow / Mar 15 2015 8:45 am

    Any type of sloth, even a sloth bear, that runs is marvelous just for defying the stereotype. 8)

    Like

  3. Curious to the Max / Mar 15 2015 10:33 am

    Guess that besides most adult humans even sloth bears don’t want to mess with teenagers!

    Like

  4. Mike / Mar 15 2015 1:33 pm

    The bear does kind of look slothy doesn’t it? Ruppled-up look, you know? Great post as usual. Love those animals!

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Mar 18 2015 4:05 am

      They look well and truly sloth-y and messy. I love them too.

      Like

  5. Sy S. / Mar 15 2015 2:32 pm

    Wow, the Sloth Bear is another interesting animal most of us are not aware of… Googling Images I only see black Sloth Bears, not brown. Glad you kept your distance, nice shots.

    Like

    • leggypeggy / Mar 18 2015 4:07 am

      Yep, all sloth bears are black. That’s why there is some question about Kipling’s description. He described Baloo as being brown, which is not sloth bear colouring. But all his other descriptions applied to sloth bears. Of course, we’ll never know what he meant.

      Like

  6. hiMe / Mar 29 2015 1:10 pm

    Wow, I was breathless to see your close-up pictures of sloth bear as well as the gaurs and learned that they can be dangerous.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Mar 13 2016 5:00 pm

      They can be very dangerous, but this one ran away from us.

      Like

  7. Ray / Mar 9 2016 2:05 pm

    Glad you were able to get some photos of the sloth bear. You can so tell how it got its name!

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Mar 13 2016 5:01 pm

      We felt so lucky to see one let alone get pics.

      Like

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  1. No leopards, no sloth bears, but a fantastic cup of chai | Where to next?

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