Friday, March 25, 2011

Sloth Bear

When you think of large predators, especially in India, one usually thinks of a Bengal tiger. Last night I was watching National Geographic and they were talking about a species of bear in India and Sri-Lanka called the Sloth Bear. Although not actually related to the sloth, this bear, appears slow, has long curved claws like a sloth, and feeds primarily on ants and termites. What really caught my attention however was the aggressive nature of the sloth bear, and how it is known throughout India as one of the most dangerous animals in the country. The sloth bear is known to attack completely unprovoked, and usually charges humans on sight. The really scary part is that this particular bear always goes for the face. Attack victims usually have their noses, ears, lips, and eyelids torn off. Even survivors are usually maimed for life.

It may be my own morbid curiosity, but really I think it's my fascination with bears (and animals in general), but after learning a little about this savage little known bear on the television I immediately had to know more. I picked up my laptop and did some research and found some really interesting stuff. First of all it's not that big for a bear. They typically weigh around 200 pounds, the largest adults topping out at around 300, which is smaller than even the American black bear. What sets the sloth bear apart however is it's aggressiveness and fierce reputation among the Indians. In fact I read on one website that Indians fear the sloth bear more than Bengal tigers and the country’s dozens of killer snakes, including pythons, Russels vipers (which in itself is amazing because this snake kills thousands of people worldwide every year), and even cobra's. In fact in Mammalia of India, Robert Sterndale writes:

The sloth bear is also 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. Blanford was inclined to consider bears more dangerous than tigers...

This fearsome reputation no doubt is a direct result of the animals aggressiveness and tendency to maul the face, but sloth bears apparently also have a taste for limbs. Instead of killing the human victim outright sloth bears will gnaw, chew, and suckle on the limbs, while the victim is still alive and pinned underneath. Oddly enough sloth bears don’t actually eat the victims, but instead run away after a good mauling. Scientists say this is because sloth bears view humans not as prey, but as predators, and that this behavior is also exhibited toward Bengal tigers and Indian leopards.

Numbers for the entire country of India seem non-existent but some regional statistics are:

  • In the Indian State of Madhya Pradesh between 1989 and 1994, sloth bears killed 48 people and injured 686 others.

  • In the Indian State of Chhattisgarh between 1998 and 2000, sloth bears attacked 137 people and killed 11.

Now, there are 28 states and 7 territories in India, and over one billion people. Though the sloth bears range is limited due to habitat loss, and the fact that they prefer lower, heavily wooded areas, one can still imagine that the number of sloth bear attacks on humans per year is probably pretty high, just based off of those numbers.

I said before that sloth bears generally don't eat their human victims, but I did find one notorious case of a man-eater known as “The Sloth bear of Mysore”. This one bear mauled 36 people, killing 12. Eventually after several unsuccessful hunts, the bear was finally shot and killed. I won't go into details, but the story is well documented and can be read about here:

It's amazing how many people die in India every year from wild animals. I could have sworn the documentary I was watching last night claimed something like 20,000 people every year are killed by wild animals. I couldn't find anything to support that (although admittedly I don’t have the resources of National Geographic) but I did find a very interesting New York Times article from 1882 that gave a figure of 21,990 deaths in 1880. The animals listed as responsible are more of the usual suspects, tigers, wolves, and snakes (being the big one), but no sloth bears. You can read the article here:

Considering that India now has over a billion people it's not really hard to imagine that with such a plethora of deadly animals that number could be accurate even today. Especially considering that rural India is still very much 3rd world. Lacking modern emergency services, or even communications and transportation systems, one can easily see how someone in India could die from an infection or broken leg, let alone a wild animal attack.

Anyways, I just thought it was interesting that there existed this bear that I'd never heard of that was so notorious. Oddly enough, one of the things I read is that sloth bears are easily tamable. I know, it doesn't really jive with their reputation, but apparently they are even trained to dance. It's actually quite cruel. They are poached as cubes, their nose is pierced and a rope passed through it for easy control. You can read about it here:

I don't know where I'm going with this, and am really just thinking out loud. You know whats really funny though? I actually think about stuff like this all the damn time.

Here are my other references I used: