Melursus ursinus 

Scope: Global
Language: English

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Taxonomy [top]

Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family
Animalia Chordata Mammalia Carnivora Ursidae

Scientific Name: Melursus ursinus
Species Authority: (Shaw, 1791)
Common Name(s):
English Sloth Bear
French Ours prochile lippu, Ours lippu de l'Inde
Spanish Oso Perezoso
Bradypus ursinus Shaw, 1791
Taxonomic Notes:

This species was initially classified in the genus Bradypus, as it was thought that it was related to South American sloths, due to the absence of the two first upper incisors. Debate persists as to whether this species should be in the mono-specific genus Melursus, or in Ursus (Pagès et al. 2008, Krause et al. 2008, Kitchener 2010).

Two subspecies have been recognized. There is some evidence that they are distinct genetic clades (Fain et al. 1994). Melursus ursinus inornatus only occurs on the island of Sri Lanka and is physically smaller with shorter and sparser hair than its mainland (M. u. ursinus) counterpart.

The principal colour phase is black, with a white or cream/yellow crescent on the chest. Rusty brown phases are also known. The species is often confused with the Asiatic Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus), due to similar appearance.

Assessment Information [top]

Red List Category & Criteria: Vulnerable A3c ver 3.1
Year Published: 2016
Date Assessed: 2016-03-18
Assessor(s): Dharaiya, N., Bargali, H.S. & Sharp, T.
Reviewer(s): Garshelis, D.L. & Steinmetz, R.
Contributor(s): Joshi, H.

There are no reliable large-scale population estimates for Sloth Bears, nor any reliable large-scale estimates of population change. Since the total occupied area in India has been variously estimated at between 200,000 km² (Johnsingh 2003, Akhtar et al. 2004, Chauhan 2006) and 400,000 km² (Sathyakumar et al. 2012), or even more (Puri et al. 2015), it is impossible to gauge population trend from changes in occupied area. However, there is, throughout most of the range, a clear trend in deterioration of habitat, which has caused Sloth Bear populations to decline (Akhtar and Chauhan 2008). This deterioration in habitat is expected to accelerate in the future.

Habitat outside of protected areas is under severe and growing pressure due to demands for natural resources and the ever increasing populations of both humans and livestock in the region (Akhtar et al. 2006a). This problem is compounded by many factors including that in India, where the vast majority of Sloth Bear habitat is located: 1) the per capita forest area is only one-tenth of the world’s average; 2) there is a demand–supply gap for construction timber leading to over-harvesting and degradation of natural ecosystems; 3) an estimated 78% of forests are subjected to heavy grazing causing degradation of forest habitat; and 4) vast stretches of forest are still diverted for a variety of developmental and infrastructural projects (Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India 2009). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO 2015) reported that India had a 0.3% rate increase of forest area during 2010-2015, due to afforestation. However, the type and location of all the forest planted is unspecified. Much of this afforestation effort is occurring in more urban areas and it is not known how much is accessible to Sloth Bears.

The human population growth in India is presently the greatest threat to Sloth Bears. It drives the loss and degradation of habitat and is likely the cause for growing human-bear conflicts in the country. The population of India is expected to increase by 366,000,000 people (roughly 30%) over the next 30 years  (US Census bureau, International database This extraordinary population growth is likely to have major direct and indirect impacts on Sloth Bear populations, especially those existing outside protected areas. The human population growth of India is particularly alarming because 90-95%of the range of Sloth Bears is in India. Likewise, Ratnayeke et al. (2007) predicted a future decline in Sloth Bear numbers in Sri Lanka due to burgeoning human densities and commensurate habitat deterioration and increasing conflicts.

The recent extirpation of Sloth Bears in Bangladesh (Islam et al. 2013) highlights serious concerns over persistence of small, isolated Sloth Bear populations, especially outside of protected areas, where half or more of the populations exist. Sloth Bears are particularly vulnerable to loss of habitat because of their reliance on lowland areas, which tend to be the places most readily used and developed by people. Moreover, the aggressiveness of this species makes them incompatible with high human populations (Ratnayeke et al. 2014). Given the lack of effective measures to control the rate of habitat loss and exploitation, Sloth Bear populations are expected to continue declining, at an increasing rate, resulting in a >30% loss over the next 30 years (three generations).

Previously published Red List assessments:

Geographic Range [top]

Range Description:

The Sloth Bear’s historical distribution includes a large portion of India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, as well as the southern lowlands of Nepal and presumably Bhutan. Some unverified reports suggested that they once occurred in the western-most corner of present day Myanmar (Erdbrink 1953), but this was never confirmed and seems unlikely based on the mountainous habitat. Historically this species overlapped the distributions of Asiatic Black Bears (Ursus thibetanus) in northern India (Bargali et al. 2012), and with both Asiatic Black Bears and Sun Bears (Helarctos malayanus) in northeastern India (Choudhury 2011). Historical records are confusing, though, because Sloth Bears and Asiatic Black Bears look alike and were often not reliably distinguished.

At least 90% of the present Sloth Bear range occurs in India. Within India their distribution is constrained to the south by the ocean, to the northwest by deserts, and to the north and east by mountains. Although Sloth Bears were once common and even abundant throughout the Indian Peninsula (McTaggart Cowan 1972, Krishnan 1972, Brander 1982), their range has shrunk and densities reduced due to continuous habitat loss and human-caused mortalities. Although still found scattered across much of its former range, their actual distribution is now highly fragmented and confined mainly to five distinct regions, namely northern, northeastern, central, southeastern, and southwestern (Garshelis et al. 1999a, Johnsingh 2003, Yoganand et al. 2006, Sathyakumar et al. 2012).

The northern distribution region occurs largely within the state of Uttarakhand (Bargali 2012), but also includes the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh and the northwestern tip of Bihar. This northern region borders the southern and western areas of Nepal and includes trans-border populations. However, the northern region remains completely isolated from the other population regions in India due to large scale forest removal and agriculture and human settlements.

The northeastern region is the farthest east that this species occurs and is perhaps the least understood region in terms of Sloth Bear distribution. The bulk of the distribution appears to occur in the state of Assam (Choudhury 2011, Sathyakumar et al. 2012), though Sloth Bears are also known from Manipur, Megalaya and Arunachal Pradesh (where it is very rare). The fact that the distribution of Sloth Bears in this region overlaps with that of both Asiatic Black Bears and Sun Bears has made reports of Sloth Bear occurrence less reliable.

The central region is the largest region. The bulk of the distribution occurs in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh, but includes the states of Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. Just south of this region, in the southern half of Andhra Pradesh, is the southeastern region, which occurs along the Eastern Ghats. It is not known whether bears move between the central and southeastern regions.

The southwestern area follows the Western Ghats and principally falls within the states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, where there may be a connection to the southeastern region. They have been observed up to 2,000 m elevation in the Western Ghats (A.J.T. Johnsingh, personal communication, in Garshelis et al. 1999a). They also stretch northwestward into Gujarat and Rajasthan.

In Nepal, Sloth Bears are most common within the narrow strip of lowland grassland–forest mosaic called the Terai. They also range into the lower Siwaliks (maximum elevation is unknown). The bears are mainly in protected areas in the central and western portions of the Terai. Since the mid-1980s, they were thought to have been extirpated from the Sukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve in western Nepal, an area containing the largest patch of continuous grassland in Nepal (Garshelis et al. 1999b). However, during a 2013 Tiger camera trap study in the reserve a photo of a Sloth Bear was captured. Then in 2014 Sloth Bear tracks and scat were recorded in the reserve as well (Babu Ram Lamichane, National Trust for Nature Conservation—Suklaphanta Conservation Program, pers. comm., 2015). Therefore, it appears that Sloth Bears have recolonized Sulka Phanta Wildlife Reserve, likely from adjacent Piliphit Tiger Reserve in Uttar Pradesh, India, which is known to have Sloth Bears (Sathyakumar et al. 2012); alternately, Sloth Bears persisted in such small numbers that they went undetected for several years (Johnsingh 2003). Some of the Sloth Bear populations in Nepal remain connected with the Indian northern region (Sathyakumar et al. 2012).

Sloth Bears have been extirpated from Bangladesh (Islam et al. 2013). The last documented records are from the mid-1990s (NCSIP-1 2001, Sarker 2006). Although they had been present in the southeastern, eastern and northeastern parts of the country, the forest patches in which they persisted have been largely removed (Sarker 2006).

Recent investigations suggest that if Sloth Bears occupy Bhutan, they are very rare. Garshelis et al. (1999a) mapped two populations of Sloth Bears in Bhutan, including Royal Manas National Park (RMNP) and Phipsoo Wildlife Sanctuary. Their range map was based on habitat-elevation information and purported documentation of presence.  However, due to frequent confusion in distinguishing Sloth Bears from Asiatic Black Bears, it is now apparent that this range map was wrong. Sloth Bears appear to have a much narrower range in Bhutan, if at all. One camera trap photo in RMNP, taken in 2009, 2 km from the Indian border, is the only current verified record of presence (Garshelis et al. 2015). Grasslands, which are preferred habitat for Sloth Bears (Garshelis et al. 1999 a,b; Choudhury 2011) are present in both RMNP and Phipsoo Wildlife Sanctuary, and both of these protected areas are connected to protected areas in India, known to contain sloth bears. However, it is not known whether a true trans-boundary population exists anywhere along this border, or if just a few vagrant bears occasionally come across to the Bhutan side (Garshelis et al. 2015).

Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankan Sloth Bear subspecies is distributed in the north and east sides of the island and is closely tied with forest cover (Ratnayeke et al. 2007a). Sloth Bears occupy roughly 17% of the island and there is still a high connectivity between occupied areas. However, recent civil war activities largely occurred in the northern and eastern sides of the island, which are home to the largest contiguous forest patches and which historically supported healthy Sloth Bear populations. These areas have gone largely unprotected and it is still unknown how sloth bear distribution may have been affected (Ratnayeke et al. 2006, 2007a).

Countries occurrence:
India; Nepal; Sri Lanka
Regionally extinct:
Additional data:
Upper elevation limit (metres):2000
Range Map:Click here to open the map viewer and explore range.

Population [top]


Information is available on the area of potentially occupied range in India (Chauhan 2006, Yoganand et al. 2006, Sathyakumar et al. 2012), Nepal (Garshelis et al. 1999a), and Sri Lanka (Ratnayeke et al. 2007a,b). The potential Sloth Bear distribution in India was estimated to be ca. 200,000 km² (Johnsingh 2003, Akhtar et al. 2004, Chauhan 2006) but the more recent National Bear Conservation and Welfare Action Plan 2012 (Sathyakumar et al. 2012) indicated that the occupied range is twice that large (400,000 km²). An even more recent survey suggested that Sloth Bears may occupy 52% of the land area of India (Puri et al. 2015). Notably, though, the latter study was based on very large sampling cells (2,800 km² across a sampling region of nearly 3 million km²), and any cell estimated to be occupied would have been considered as fully occupied; this would inflate the range area considerably. In short, the results of this study do not appear to reflect the reality of Sloth Bear distribution in India as they clearly do not occur in >50% of the land area. Additionally, the model predicts Sloth Bear occurrence in specific places where they are known to be absent, such as Gir Forest. However, the study does demonstrate that Sloth Bears can live in relatively small degraded areas.

Sloth Bears can occur at high densities. However, there are few reliable Sloth Bear density estimates: most estimates have been based on opinions gleaned from interviews and questionnaires (e.g., Yoganand et al. 2006). The one robust density estimate for this species, which was based on mark–resight of radio-collared bears, yielded an estimate of 27 bears/100 km² for Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal, and as high as 72 bears/100 km² in a core area of the park (Garshelis et al. 1999b). Gopalaswamy (2006) attempted a rigorous estimate based on presence-absence records at camera traps (as per Royle and Nichols 2003), but detection rates were too low to produce a useful estimate.

Attempts have been made to apply estimated densities in various protected areas to all occupied areas to obtain a range-wide population estimate. Depending on methods and data employed in this process, range-wide estimates have varied from <10,000 to >20,000 bears (Garshelis et al. 1999a, Chauhan 2006, Yoganand et al. 2006, Sathyakumar et al. 2012). None of these estimates are considered reliable enough to track changes in population size, especially since the total range area is not well defined. Estimates for individual Indian states are also not reliable enough to track population trends (Sathyakumar et al. 2012).

The population of Sloth Bears on the island of Sri Lanka is equally not well understood. Santiapillai and Santiapillai (1990) tentatively reported a population of 300–600 bears for the island. Ratneyeke et al. (2007a) estimated, based on home ranges of radio-collared bears that Wasgomuwa National Park alone may support more than 100-150 sloth bears. This national park only makes up roughly 5% of the known Sloth Bear range in Sri Lanka and therefore the population likely well exceeds the previous estimate.

Increased habitat fragmentation and a decrease of occupied habitat have been observed in many parts of the Sloth Bear range (Akhtar and Chauhan 2008, Bargali 2012, Bargali and Sharma 2013). However, rigorous assessments of population change are rare. Jhala et al. (2011) compared occupancy of Sloth Bears in select areas from 2006 to 2010, during a comprehensive Tiger survey across India, and reported five decreasing, four increasing, and three stable bear populations; although the methods and short time span between surveys probably precluded a reliable indication of population trend.

Current Population Trend:Decreasing
Additional data:
Population severely fragmented:No

Habitat and Ecology [top]

Habitat and Ecology:

Sloth Bears subsist primarily on termites, ants, and fruits. Sloth Bears are the only species of bear adapted specifically for myrmecophagy (ant and termite-eating; Garshelis et al. 1999a, Sacco and Van Valkenburgh 2004). Like other myrmecphagous mammals, they have especially small home ranges compared to other ursids (Joshi et al. 1995, Ratnayeke et al. 2007a, Akhtar et al. 2006b). The ratio of insects to fruits in the diet varies with the seasonal and geographical availability of each food (Baskaran et al. 1997, Joshi et al. 1997, Bargali et al. 2004, Sreekumar and Balakrishnan 2002, Mewada and Dharaiya 2010, Sukhadiya et al. 2013). Fruits may comprise 70‒90% of the diet during the fruiting season, whereas termites and other insects may comprise >80% of the diet the rest of the year (Ratnayeke et al. 2007b, Seidensticker et al. 2011, Yoganand et al. 2012).

Sloth Bears occupy a wide range of habitats on the Indian mainland including wet and dry tropical forests, savannahs, scrublands, and grasslands (Joshi et al. 1995, Sreekumar and Balakrishnan 2002, Akhtar et al. 2004, Yoganand et al. 2006, Seidensticker et al. 2011, Ramesh et al. 2012). They are primarily a lowland species. Most Sloth Bear range in India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka is limited to habitats below 1500 m, although the species may occur as high as 2,000 m in the forests of the Western Ghats (Johnsingh 2003, Seidensticker et al. 2011). In Sri Lanka, Sloth Bears are confined to the remaining dry forests in the north and eastern parts of the island, mostly below 300 m (Ratnayeke et al. 2006). In areas where forest cover is sparse but daytime temperatures are high (a large part of the range), the bear is principally nocturnal or crepuscular and shelters in rock outcrops, thickets, and tree cavities during the heat of the day. Although some Sloth Bears may be active during the day in protected areas (Joshi et al. 1999), they tend to be almost exclusively nocturnal in disturbed and fragmented forests interspersed with human habitations (Akhtar et al. 2004; Bargali et al. 2005, 2012).

Studies in Nepal and Sri Lanka suggest that Sloth Bears avoid areas where human disturbance is high, so crop depredation by Sloth Bears is uncommon (Joshi et al. 1995, Ratnayeke et al. 2007a). However, in some parts of India, Sloth Bears routinely raid peanut, maize, and fruit crops (Chhangani 2002, Akhtar et al. 2004, Bargali et al. 2004).  In some of these areas the habitats are severely degraded and affected by human exploitation, including the extraction of several food sources of the Sloth Bear.

Sloth Bears typically breed May through July, and females give birth, usually to one or two cubs, from November to January (Laurie and Seidensticker 1977, Iswariah 1984, Gopal 1991, Joshi et al. 1999, Chauhan et al. 2003, Spady et al. 2007). Cubs often ride on the mother's back during their first nine months, presumably to reduce the risk of predation. Cubs remain with their mothers for 1.5-2.5 years resulting in a 2 or 3 year interbirth interval (Joshi et al. 1999).

Generation Length (years):10

Use and Trade [top]

Use and Trade:

Poaching of Sloth Bears for trade in parts has been reported (Servheen 1990, Garshelis et al. 1999a, Sathyakumar et al. 2012), but its current extent and impact on bear populations is uncertain. Compared to other Asian bear species, commercial trade in Sloth Bear parts appears to be relatively low (Burgess et al. 2014). Poaching also occurs for local use: male reproductive organs used as aphrodisiac; bones, teeth and claws used to ward off evil spirits; bear fat used for native medicine and hair regeneration (Santiapillai and Santiapillai 1990, Seshamani and Satyanarayan 1997, Chauhan 2006). Occasional rashes of poaching incidents have been reported. For example, in Madhya Pradesh in 2014, at least eight male bears were found professionally poached, as indicated by the skilful removal of their reproductive organs, gall bladders and claws (Basu 2014, Naveen 2014). Two of the dead bears were found near the buffer area of Khana Tiger Reserve, while the others were found in less protected forests in the state. The manner in which the bear parts were removed led many to speculate that that the poaching may be taking place on a larger scale and that the parts may have been removed for illegal international trade.

The capture of cubs, which often includes the killing of the mother bear, for use as street-show "dancing bears" (Seshamani and Satyanarayan 1997) used to be a threat in some parts of India, but has been controlled to a significant level (D’Cruze et al. 2011). This practice has been illegal in India since 1972, though it continued in earnest until 2009. However it persists to a small degree in southern Nepal. It is unclear if the practitioners were always in Nepal or if they crossed the border to Nepal from India due to the political pressure to end the practice in India. Several dancing bears have been confiscated at the Nepal-India border while they were being brought into India (K. Satyanarayan, Wildlife SOS, personal communication, 2015). Additionally, a cub was rescued that was being smuggled into Nepal with clear signs that it was to be sold for use as a dancing bear (Wildlife SOS 2015).

Threats [top]

Major Threat(s):

Major threats to this species are habitat loss or degradation (often related to human population growth), retaliation from human‒bear conflicts, and (to a lesser degree) poaching (Johnsingh 2003, Chauhan 2006, Yoganand et al. 2006, Bargali et al. 2012, Bargali and Sharma 2013). Habitat has been lost, degraded, and fragmented by overharvest of forest products (timber, fuelwood, fodder, fruits, honey), establishment of monoculture plantations (e.g. teak, eucalyptus), over-grazing, extraction of minerals, quarrying, settlement of refugees, and expansion of agricultural areas, human settlements, and roads (Santiapillai and Santiapillai 1990).

In some parts of the range, encounters between people and Sloth Bears have led to numerous serious human injuries and many deaths (Rajpurohit and Krausman 2000, Bargali et al. 2005, Dharaiya and Ratnayeke 2009, Ratnayeke et al. 2014). Such incidents occur where people frequently use bear habitat, and where the habitat has become severely degraded, prompting bears to seek food and water in closer proximity to humans. Most attacks occur when people and bears surprised each other in thickets or around rock outcrops, where visibility is obstructed: the bear(s)—sometimes multiple adult bears are involved—rush at, pursue, and knock down the person, and often attack the face. Bears that attack or threaten to attack people may ultimately be killed. Sloth Bear attacks outside protected areas are increasing, and hostility of local people towards bears has made bear conservation more difficult (Bargali et al. 2005, Dharaiya and Ratnayeke 2009, Mardaraj 2014). Increasing numbers of Sloth Bear attacks appear to be related to rising human populations (Ratnayeke et al. 2014).

The only natural (non-human) threats to Sloth Bears are Tigers (Panthera tigris) and possibly Leopards (P. pardus). The threat of Tiger predation may account for the aggressive nature of Sloth Bears (Joshi et al. 1999). Sloth Bears have been observed fending off Tigers, but they are also occasionally killed by Tigers (Gopal 1991).

Conservation Actions [top]

Conservation Actions:

Sloth Bears are listed in Appendix I of CITES and are completely protected under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. They are also protected to varying degrees by national laws in the other range countries. However, they can be killed to protect life or property.

Sloth Bears are reported to exist in 174 Protected Areas (PAs) in India, which include 46 National Parks and 128 Wildlife Sanctuaries (Chauhan 2006). Populations appear to be reasonably well protected when inside these PAs, but face deteriorating habitat conditions outside (Santiapillai and Santiapillai 1990, Akhtar et al. 2004, Dharaiya, 2009). Reduced cover and food resources outside PAs (Akhtar et al. 2004) have led to increased human–bear conflicts, including frequent maulings (Bargali et al. 2005). It is estimated that half to two-thirds of the Sloth Bears in India live outside PAs. Roughly half the occupied range in Sri Lanka occurs outside PAs (Ratnayeke et al. 2007b).

Human-bear conflicts, both crop raiding and bear attacks, are a growing concern for this species. Given the aggressive nature of this animal, and the increasing number of encounters between bears and people, these bears are widely feared. Although education may help reduce human-bear conflicts and enhance a conservation ethic among locals, the root of the problem is largely related to the expansion of human settlement and deteriorating habitat, which increases the chance of interaction between people and bears. Thus, habitat improvements (government or community-based reforestation) would be helpful in alleviating such conflicts. Potential solutions to this problem have not been studied in depth and further research on this issue is critical to getting this problem under control. The planting of fruit trees, to provide both food and cover, has been undertaken in several states in India.

Other projects to help ameliorate human-bear conflicts will probably need to be implemented for a number of years to produce useful outcomes; long-term funding will thus be needed to advance the science of human-bear conflict resolution. Where sufficient human resources and funding exist, conflict rapid-response teams (staffed by NGOs, government personnel, and local people) can be effective. Safety guidelines can be devised and disseminated, based on knowledge of bear behaviour and ecology, to help people avoid bears or minimize chances of being attacked. Better methods to deter bears are also needed. Additionally, educational efforts to increase awareness and promote greater tolerance are likely to be keys to success.

Aside from the global Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan for this species, published by the IUCN in 1999 (Servheen et al. 1999), India developed a National Conservation Action Plan for bears (Sathyakumar et al. 2012). This action plan was developed through a wide range of consultations with stakeholders and covers all four species present in India. The plan emphasizes mitigation of human-bear conflicts, increased habitat management, enhanced research and information gathering, capacity building, and improved communication and education. Priority actions in the action plan include: strengthening methods of crop and livestock protection; reducing bear-caused human injuries, creating rapid response teams to investigate conflicts with bears (and possible claims for monetary compensation); enhancing human tolerance toward bears; identifying critical habitats and corridors used by bears, especially those outside PAs; increasing habitat protection and restoring degraded habitats outside PAs; reducing dependency of local communities on resources needed by bears; discouraging shifting agriculture; developing methods to track population size and trends; involving communities in bear monitoring programs; equipping forest and wildlife staff with adequate knowledge and modern equipment to manage all types of human-bear interactions; and developing an advocacy program for bear conservation through active communication to the public and pressure on corporations and politicians.

Citation: Dharaiya, N., Bargali, H.S. & Sharp, T. 2016. Melursus ursinus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T13143A45033815. . Downloaded on 18 January 2017.
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