Sri Lankan Sloth Bear
@ WWW Virtual Library Sri Lanka

(Lakshman Nadaraja; @ The sloth bear (Ursus ursinus), formerly found in most dry zone low country jungles, is now confined to pockets of relatively undisturbed forest. It seems that with encroachment and the general disturbance of our forests, the sloth bear is among the first animals to disappear.

Although they are omnivorous, the bears' selective feeding habits seem to demand a large extent of healthy forest. It does not hunt, fish, browse or graze. What it does demand, however, is an apparently endless diversity of fruit, flowers, seed pods, yams, grubs, insects, honey and insect larvae. It is therefore the disappearance of suitable habitat that poses the greatest threat to the sloth bear's survival in Sri Lanka. An example is the area that is now occupied by the Udawalawe National Park. Although this once supported a healthy bear population, the extensive felling of trees in catchment areas, made worse by replanting with exotic tree species during the formation of the reservoir, resulted in the bear population, the extensive felling of trees in catchment areas, made worse by replanting with exotic tree species during the formation of the reservoir, resulted in the bear population crashing dramatically. Even if sloth bears are reintroduced to this National Park, it seems doubtful whether they would survive, given the Park's poor habitat quality at present.

Unfortunately, we have very little scientific data on the sloth bear in Sri Lanka. Its population dynamics, breeding patterns, feeding requirements, range, size, etc., are all largely unknown. It the species is to continue to survive in Sri Lanka, we desperately need to protect quality habitats and undertake the scientific study these magnificent bears.

The fun on the female bear is usually thicker than on the males. She has a dense tuft of hair between her shoulders, which makes it easy for the cub, who travels on her back, to hold on. This particular cub would climb up her rear leg and down her foreleg, tail first, while she moved around grubbing.

The mother bear and cub were passing under a stand of palu trees and feeding on the fallen fruit. Then, the female climbed the tree, closely followed by her cub. They both fed on the ripe palu, the bear cub adeptly picking the fruit himself, for about half an hour. Then they backed down the tree and ambled into the scrub.

The sloth bear has a very sensitive and flexible nose and is able to fashion its lips into a tube like form, so the lips function rather like a vacuum-cleaner nozzle. Because of the soft texture of the termite mound, and the higher than usual water table that could result in the termites and their larvae coming closer to the surface, I have frequently encountered bears at these mounds sucking furiously and noisily with their muzzles deep into the soil.

Recently, while examining sloth-bear scats in some national parks during a period of extreme drought, no rain having fallen for more than two months, I noticed that termite remains were much in evidence. Another detail is that scats which contain termite remains contain very little else; on the other hand, scats containing fruit remains rarely have termite remains in them.

One December morning a few years ago, I witnessed the unusual sight of a sloth bear feeding on a buffalo calf.

I came upon a fresh leopard kill about 5 metres off the Talgasmankade road in yala National Park. The leopard had obviously been disturbed by our approach and had not consumed any part of the kill; it had, however, made an incision about 10 cm wide in the skin of the stomach. As the leopard was not in evidence, we left the area, but returned at around 2.30 that same afternoon.

We spotted the leopard, a young male, on a tamarind tree about 50 metres into the jungle. I parked the jeep about 30 metres from the kill, and whiled away the time taking photographs of the leopard on the tree. Suddenly, I heard rustling sound coming from behind the jeep. A sloth bear was approaching the kill, downwind, and therefore oblivious of my presence. The leopard, seeing the bear, slipped down the tree and went towards the dead calf, obviously anxious to protect its spoils.

The bear took no notice of him, but kept sniffing the air and following the drag-mark made by the leopard earlier on, which meant he was not taking the most direct path to kill. The leopard sped towards the bear, belly to the ground, making low snarling, hissing sounds. The bear did not relent however, even as the big cat sprang at him thus three more times. Outdone, and in no mood for a fight, the leopard retreated to a small hollow in the thorny scrub.

The bear did not bother to pursue him. The confrontation had been a noisy one, but with absolutely no physical contact. The bear then opened up the calf's stomach and began sucking on the gory juices. Then, using his paw, he tore out the intestines and ate them. Next, while holding down the carcass with one paw, he opened out the young buffalo's chest with a single sweep of the other paw and fed on the heart and lungs, sucking up all the blood in the cavity. It was interesting to note that he did not eat any of the 'flesh' (muscle). After feeding for about an hour and a half, the bear sat down patiently, cleaned his paws and face, rolled on the sandy road, and then ambled off in the same direction from whence he had come.

Some minutes after his departure, the leopard came out of the thicket and started feeding. We left him to his meal.

'Palu' trees come into fruit during the months of May and June. The bears feed on the fallen fruit, but more often one finds them sitting clumsily on a convenient branch, breaking off the smaller branches and picking out the berries. You will notice, if you watch them for some time, that they take on a glazed and somewhat inebriated look as they feed, sometimes emitting a loud scream, seemingly quite helplessly. It is also interesting that bears have a liking for the fruit of dan trees. I have heard reports of as many as five bears on a dan tree that was inexplicably favoured over an adjacent dan, also in fruit.

@ WWW Virtual Library Sri Lanka