Friday, July 4, 2008

Vanishing Species - The Sloth Bear

An Article by Mohan Pai

The Sloth Bear
(Melursus ursinus)
The “dancing” bear is now an endangered species.

Perhaps the most familiar of our region is the dancing Sloth Bear. He is also Baloo, the “sleepy old bear” from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.
Despite protection afforded under Wildlife protection Act 1972, about 1,000 bears are kept in captivity as dancing bears and 100 cubs are poached annually to replenish the supply.

Even though the sloth bears are protected by international and national laws, they face severe threats from various angles. The current population in the Indian sub continent is estimated to be a little over 4000 and the population is rapidly declining. Although some estimates place the figure at a higher level. The most important threat is the poaching of live bear cubs for Bear Dancing in India. The mother bear is often killed while trying to protect her cubs. The Adults are poached for their body parts such as gall bladder, bile, claws and genital organs which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Habitat destruction (illegal Quarrying, deforestation and mining, illegal tree felling etc) is further accelerating the rapid decline of this species. Shrinking habitat and encroachment by humans in forest areas has given rise to increasing incidences of man-bear conflicts in various parts of the country.

The body of the sloth bear is 150–190 cm long, covered in long, shaggy fur, ranging from auburn to black, with a distinctive "V” shaped white mark on the chest, a whitish snout and black nose. The snout is long with bare lips and a lack of upper incisors, adaptations for its insect-based diet. The front feet are turned inwards and have non-retractable, curved ivory claws that are adapted for digging. The males, weighing 80–140 kg, are larger than the females, which weigh only 55–95 kg. Its pug marks are very similar to a human footprint. The tail is 15-18 cm (6-7 inches) long, the longest in the bear family.
Female Sloth Bears typically give birth to two cubs after a seven month gestation, although singleton and triplet births are also known. The cubs remain in the den for two to three months, and continue to accompany the mother for at least a further two years.Because of their warm native habitat, Sloth Bears do not hibernate through the winter, as some more northerly species do.
The Sloth Bear does not move as slowly as a sloth, and can easily outrun a human. One theory has it that early explorers saw these bears lying upside down in trees and gave them their common name for the similarity to the way a sloth hangs in trees. Another claims that the Sloth Bear gets its name because its normal walk is more of a meandering shuffle. The shaggy coat, light-coloured muzzle and long claws are common qualities of a sloth.
The Sloth Bear primarily eats ants and termites, breaking into termite mounds with large powerful claws and eating the occupants. It may also eat honey, eggs, birds, flowers, tubers, fruits, grains and meat.
The animal's fondness for honey has caused it to be nicknamed the Honey bear. It has been known to scale the occasional tree to knock down a bee honeycomb, which it will then enjoy on the ground below.
The sloth bear is endemic to the Indian subcontinent and is found in a variety of habitats -from dry grassland to evergreen forests - but has a preference for tropical deciduous forests. Within that category, the Sloth Bear prefers dry deciduous forests and rocky outcrops to wet deciduous forests. Presently, its distribution range is shrinking and populations are becoming fragmented due to continuing habitat degradation and fragmentation.

Poaching and loss of his habitat and fragmentation of available habitat are the primary threats to the survival of the Sloth Bear on the Indian subcontinent. Predators such as the Leopard, wolves, and the Tiger may attempt to prey on the young, though the female Sloth Bear with young is exceptionally vicious regarding any threats to her young. Adults defend themselves quite well with their claws. Humans hunt the Sloth Bear primarily for its gall bladder, which is valued in eastern medicine. The Sloth Bear's current conservation status is Vulnerable.
Attacks on humans
Sloth bears are more feared than tigers, due to their more unpredictable temperament, said to be the most aggressive and least predictable of Asian bears. In Madhya Pradesh, sloth bear attacks accounted for the deaths of 48 people and the injuring of 686 others during five years from 1989.

Daroji Bear Sanctuary, Karnataka

Hampi near Hospet, in Bellary district is a renowned world heritage centre. The unique Sloth Bear sanctuary is situated very close to this heritage site. Situated only 15 kilometers from Hampi, Daroji Sloth Bear Sanctuary is the only sanctuary in North Karnataka. Though the sanctuary is relatively new, which began in 1994 in the eastern plains of Karnataka, it has proved to be a suitable habitat for the Indian Sloth Bears in a span of few years. The rock-strewn hillocks that stretch between Daroji of Sandur taluk and Ramasagar of Hospet Taluk in Bellary district have been the abode of Indian Sloth Bears since ages. In October 1994, the Government of Karnataka declared 5,587.30 hectares of Bilikallu reserve forest as Daroji Bear Sanctuary. However, at the time of declaration, the forest had nothing but barren stony hillocks and thorny trees. Owing to the arduous efforts of the staff and support of the surrounding villagers, the sanctuary has transformed into a lush green area boasting of a verdant forest with exuberant local species of flora and fauna. It is estimated that about 120 Sloth Bears are living in this sanctuary, apart from Leopards, Hyena, Jackals, Wild Boars, Porcupine, Pangolins, Star Tortoise, Monitor Lizard, Mongoose, Pea Fowls, Partridges, Painted Spur Hen, Quails etc. About 90 species of birds, and 27 species of butterflies have also been identified in this sanctuary in a preliminary survey. How do the Bears stay confined within the range of the sanctuary? According to Range Forest Officer Sangamesh N Matt, the sanctuary has innumerable wild fruit-bearing trees and bushes like kavale (carissa carandas), jane (grewia teliafolia), ulupi (Grewia salvitidia), nerale (Eugenea jambolana), bore (zyziphus jujuba), etc in its premises. These trees and bushes yield fruits one after the other. Also, the authorities have started raising orchards of custard apple (seetaphal), Singapore cherry, mango, banana, maize, etc within the ranges of the sanctuary. Bears are fond of termites and honey, which are also available in plenty here. There are waterholes too, for quenching the thirst of the wildlife. Mr. M. Y. Ghorpade, a well-known wildlife photographer and ex-minister of Karnataka has been the guiding force behind the development of this sanctuary.

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