Shrinking Population of Sloth Bears

sloth bears
Shrinking Population of Sloth Bears

-Dr. Arvind Singh

The Sloth bear is a species of bear found wild in the Indian sub-continent. It is also known as the Stickney bear or Labiated bear. The scientific name of the Sloth bear is Melursus ursinus and vernacularly it is called Bhalu. The sloth bear is the state animal of Bihar. Historically, human beings have drastically reduced their habitat and diminished their population by hunting them for food and product. Sloth bears have been used as performing pets owing to their tamable nature. 

Due to the reduction in population Sloth bear is listed as ‘Vulnerable’ species in Red List of Threatened Species of International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). The species which are likely to move into the endangered category is the mid-term future if the causal factors continue to operate are known as vulnerable species. However, endangered species are those species that are facing the threat of extinction.

Distribution Range:

The Sloth bear is endemic to the Indian sub-continent and found in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. In India, Sloth bears are distributed from the Southern tip of the Western Ghats to the foothills of the Himalayas. They are absent in the high mountains of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir and the northwestern deserts of Rajasthan. In Nepal, Sloth bears are mainly restricted to Terai, the southern strip of lowland forest and grasslands bordering India. In Bangladesh, a few isolated populations occur in Chittagong and Sylhet region of eastern Bangladesh. Sloth bears in Sri Lanka are mainly confined to northern and eastern lowlands.

Physical Characteristics:

Sloth bears are characterized by their lankier builds, longer, shaggier coats (that form a mane around the face), pale muzzles and long white sickle-shaped claws. Adult Sloth bears are medium-sized with an average weight of around 130 kg. They are 60-90 cm high at the shoulder and have a body length of 1.4 – 1.9 m. Females are smaller than males and have more fur between the shoulders.

The muzzles of the Sloth bear are thick and long, with small jaws and bulbous snouts with wide nostrils. Sloth bears have the longest tail in the bear family which can grow to 15-17.5 cm long. The ears are large and floppy. Sloth bear is the only bear with long hair on its ears. The fur of Sloth bear is black. The coat is long, shaggy and unkempt and is especially heavy behind the neck and between the shoulders forming a mane which is about 30 cm long. The belly and under legs are almost bare.

Habitat and Ecology:

Sloth bears prefer a wide range of habitats in India which includes wet and dry tropical forests, scrublands, savannas and grasslands. They are primarily a lowland species. Most Sloth bear range in India and Nepal is confined to habitats below 1500 m, although the species may occur as high as 2,000 m in the forest of Western Ghats. 

Sloth bears subsist primarily on termites, ants and fruits. They locate termite mounds by smell. It possesses several morphological and physiological adaptations to a myrmecophagous (feeding on ants and termites) niche. In tropical dry deciduous forest of Central India they feed on fruits of Ziziphus nummularius (Jharber) and fallen petals of Madhuca longifolia (Mahua). Sloth bears are extremely fond of honey. Hence they often attack the honeycomb for honey.  

Adult Sloth bears travel in pairs with males being gentle with cubs. They may fight for food. They walk in a slow shambling motion. They are excellent climbers and are good swimmers. Sloth bears have a great vocal range. They are mostly nocturnal (active at night time) or crepuscular (active at twilight).

The breeding season for Sloth bears varies according to location. In India they mate in April, May, and June and give birth in December and early January. The gestation period is of 210 days. Female typically give birth to one or two cubs in caves or in shelters under boulders. Cubs are born blind and open their eyes after four weeks. Cubs typically ride on mothers back during their first nine months. Cubs remain with their months for 1.5 – 2.5 years.

Threats to their Survival: 

Habitat loss, poaching, diminished food resources, increased human population, capture of live cubs for use as dancing bears are the threats to the survival of Sloth bears.

Habitats of Sloth bear have been lost, degraded, and fragmented by the over harvest of forest products (fuel wood, timber, fodder, fruits, honey), establishment of monoculture plantations, expansion of agricultural areas, human settlements and roads. They are vulnerable to habitat loss because of their reliance on lowland areas.

Sloth bears are poached for commercial trade and for local use as well. The male reproductive organs of the Sloth bears are used as aphrodisiac, bones, teeth and claws are used to ward off evil spirits. The fat of the Sloth bear is used as indigenous medicine and for hair regeneration.

The capture of live cubs for use as ‘dancing bears’, is a significant threat in some parts of its distribution range.


An estimated 20,000 Sloth bears exist in the wild in South Asia. Their range reduction indicates that their population has declined by 30 – 49% over the past 30 years largely as a result of habitat loss, exploitation for parts and systematic elimination as a pest.

Sloth bears in India are reported to exist in 174 protected areas which include 46 National Parks and 128 Wildlife Sanctuaries.

The sloth bear is listed on Appendix I of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and is protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act.

The following actions are needed to conserve Sloth bears in India.
  1. To check the habitat loss of Sloth bears.
  2. To restore the degraded habitats of Sloth bears.
  3. To put complete ban on practice of bear dancing entertainment.
  4. To reduce the Human – Sloth bears conflict.
  5. To strictly enforce the Wildlife Protection Act and CITES.


It can be concluded that the population of Sloth bear is shrinking chiefly due to habitat loss and exploitation. If the present trend of population reduction would continue then this wild species may soon reach to endangered category. Therefore it is the need of the hour to conserve the Sloth bears by checking their habitat loss and by strict enforcement of Wildlife Protection Act and CITES.

Dr. Arvind Singh is M. Sc. and Ph.D. in Botany with area of specialization in Ecology. He is an active Researcher having four dozen published Research Papers in the journals of national and international fame.

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