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The Sloth Bear In India

Ecology, Behavior, and Conservation

wbear_crop_bright12BB.JPG - 61.8 KFrom 1996 to 2000, we investigated the behavioral ecology of sloth bear in Panna National Park, central India.


Project investigators:

  • A. J. T. Johnsingh, Ph. D. (resume)
    • Dr. Johnsingh heads the wildlife biology faculty of the Wildlife Institute of India. With his extensive experience in wildlife research spanning three decades, he guides this premier institution in India in conducting field research and training wildlife professionals. He is a pioneering wildlife biologist of the country and has inspired and trained several field biologists. Major research projects he has conducted and guided include field studies on the dhole (Cuon alpinus), tiger (Panthera tigris), Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica), Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), Nilgiri langur (Presbytis johnii), grizzled giant squirrel (Ratufa macroura), goral (Nemorhaedus goral), Himalayan ibex (Capra ibex sibirica), Nilgiri tahr (Hemitragus hylocrius), and masheer (Tor putitora and Tor kudrii), the salmon of India, in addition to this study on the sloth bear. His main interests center around endangered species conservation, biodiversity conservation through protected area management, eco-tourism and training wildlife managers.

This work has been supported by:

  • The Wildlife Institute of India
  • The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Office of International Conservation)
  • The National Geographic Society
  • The Chicago Zoological Society
  • USACERL (U.S. Army Construction Engineering Research Laboratory)
  • John Sheldon Bevins Memorial Foundation (International Association for Bear Research and Management)

Main aspects of the study:

Introduction to the study

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The sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) is endemic to the Indian subcontinent. It possesses several morphological and physiological adaptations to a myrmecophagous (feeding on ants & termites) niche. Presently, its distributional range is shrinking and populations are becoming fragmented concurrent with continuing habitat degradation and fragmentation associated with human use. Studying the ecology and behavior in an area impacted by humans will lead to an objective assessment of how the various impacts affect bear populations and behavior. This will in turn result in an objective plan for the conservation of this species.

Panna National Park - The study area

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Panna National Park is located in the state of Madhya Pradesh encompassing 543 km2 of forest area and has substantial populations of other wildlife species. It is especially rich in predators: tiger, leopard, wolf, wild dog, jackal, Indian fox, hyena, ratel, three species each of small cats, mongoose, and two species of civets are all found there. About 10,000 people and 20,000 cattle use the resources of this forest area.

Conflict between sloth bears and humans

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For those who frequent forests in India, sloth bear present a considerable danger - worse than that of tigers or leopards. These villagers are carrying two men who were badly mauled by a sloth bear near Panna National Park that morning. To understand the nature and extent of this problem, we have interviewed residents from surrounding villages. On the basis of these findings and our knowledge of sloth bear movements and habitat use, we have developed recommendations aimed at minimizing these encounters.

Status and distribution of sloth bear in India

pres_ext.jpg - 66.0 KWe sent a questionnaire to forest, sanctuary, and national park managers, wildlife biologists, and to non-governmental organizations to assess the current status and distribution of sloth bear in India. We received over 300 responses and have compiled these to evaluate the range of sloth bear and problem areas. We estimate that the total number of sloth bears in India is between 10,000 and 15,000. (Sloth bear are also found in Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka).

Monitoring methods for sloth bear

wpitBB.JPG - 188.7 KSloth bear are often nocturnal and occur at low densities, so determining how many bears are found in a particular area or monitoring their status is difficult. Together with our intensive studies on individual radio-collared bears, we have been evaluating means of determining their relative abundance. We have concentrated on indirect means of detecting bears, namely the pits left from their excavation of ant or termite nests (such as the one shown here) and scats (defecations). By running transects through areas where the density of bears is known, we will evaluate the utility of pits and scats as indices of bear density. These methods will then be incorporated in a survey protocol for use by ourselves and others for surveying various locations around India.

Habitat evaluation

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Individual sloth bears in Panna use relatively large areas (40 to 100 km2) to meet their annual requirement of resources. This could be due to low productivity of the habitat, patchy resources, or habitat conditions that existed in the recent past. We assessed the abundance of food and other resources of sloth bears, and human disturbance levels throughout the study area. This will help us identify the ways to improve the habitat for sloth bears in Panna and also to develop a protocol to evaluate the status of sloth bear habitat elsewhere in its range.

Maternal care and denning

beargadu_crop_100BB.jpg - 76.2 KSloth bears do not hibernate, but females sequester themselves in dens for up to eight weeks without emerging. We used automated telemetry recorders to monitor this and other aspects of the denning behavior of sloth bears. At Panna, these dens are caves formed by rock fissures along escarpments. When cubs are small, they are often carried on the mother's back, an unusual practice for bears, but one found in other animals that feed on ants and termites.

Activity periods: thermoregulation or predator avoidance?

Bearonrock_cropBB.jpg - 68.9 KAt Panna National Park, sloth bear are mostly nocturnal or crepuscular (active at twilight). Do they do this to avoid the hot Madhya Pradesh sun? Or, to avoid predators like tigers or humans? By placing temperature recorders in dens, at other resting sites (in thick vegetation) and in the forest, we can evaluate the degree to which our radio-collared bears distribute their activity in response to ambient temperatures. With knowledge we have gathered from radio-collared tigers and observations on human activities in the park (such as livestock grazing and gathering firewood), we can also assess the bears' response to these influences.

What do sloth bears eat (and why)

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Sloth bear are known for their propensity for eating ants and termites, and also eat various fruits from forest trees and shrubs. The availability of these foods varies through the year. Ant and termite colonies are more abundant and nutritious when there is brood inside during the monsoon and the following cool season. Each fruiting plant has its season. We will examine how the availability and distribution of food resources affects their use by sloth bears as they consume them to provide for their nutritional needs throughout the year. 

Home range, movements, and social spacing

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This bear is just leaving its den for an evening of foraging. By keeping track of such ramblings, we are addressing many questions about sloth bear movements and habitat use, such as:
  • To what extent are bear movements influenced by the availability of different types of food?
  • In what ways are a bear's movements affected by the movements of other bears?
  • How much space does a bear use? Does this change when a female has cubs?