Nisha Singh, Wildlife and Conservation Biology Research Lab
Jignesh Rot, Wildlife and Conservation Biology Research Lab
Swapnil Sonone, Sloth bear Expert Team, IUCN Bear Specialist Group
Nishith Dharaiya, Co-chair Sloth Bear Expert Team, IUCN Bear Specialist Group

Sloth bears are known to feed on termites, ants, honey, and fruits. The mixture of these items varies by area and by season. However, since they specialize on ants and termites, which tend to be common across their range, sloth bears seem less prone than the other omnivorous bears to seeking out human-related sources of food. Sloth bear conflicts with people generally have more to do with bear attacks, or actions related to fear of attacks, than to property damage. Situations that lead to encounters between sloth bears and people often result in such conflicts, with bad outcomes for people and bears (Bargali et al. 2005, Akhtar 2006, Dharaiya and Ratnayeke 2009, Ratnayeke et al. 2014).

Main wooden door (left) and iron security gate (right) broken by the bear to enter the house and temple, respectively. Photo credit: Nisha Singh

Main wooden door broken by the bear to enter the house and temple. Photo credit: Nisha Singh

Main wooden door (left) and iron security gate (right) broken by the bear to enter the house and temple, respectively. Photo credit: Nisha Singh

Iron security gate broken by the bear to enter the house and temple. Photo credit: Nisha Singh

Sloth bears in Maharashtra state, India, generally fit this pattern: recently, human maulings have increased drastically. We were investigating this during this year (since April 2017) when we became aware of an atypical conflict situation, which we describe here. We were conducting research in Buldhana wildlife division, in mid-northern Maharashtra. The division comprises 840 km2 of forest, with 3 wildlife sanctuaries (Amba Barwa, Dnyanganga and Lonar WLS) along with patches of unprotected forests.

Villagers reported that on June 8, 2017, a bear had visited the village of Nandri and entered a house by breaking the wooden door. We looked around the house and found that before breaking the door, the bear had searched for other possible ways of entering the house, as evident by many claw marks on the earthen outer walls. Inside, nearly every household article was damaged by the bear. We found an empty, bitten cooking-oil container, and the walls and floor of the house were wet with the splattered oil. We found a fresh bear scat just outside the house, containing seeds of Aegle marmelos.

The house (20°36’48.2” N, 76°17’31.6” E) was well separated from the rest of the houses in the village. A Ficus benghalensis tree close to the house had several bear claw marks from about 6 months before, suggesting bears had visited this site previously, although villagers noted that this was the first incidence of such a break-in. The house owner had been away to attend a wedding ceremony in a nearby village when the incident occurred.
A second similar incident occurred in a temple (20°35’18.4” N, 76°24’22.8” E) located near a dam in the territorial forest close to the Dnyanganga WLS. This happened on the night of June 10. A bear broke the 1.6-m high accordion-style iron security gate. Inside the temple we found nearly everything destroyed, and again observed a broken oil container, and oil-stained walls. The bear’s pugmarks were still visible on the floor, smeared in the oil. Outside was a freshly opened anthill.

Items damaged by sloth bear inside the house (left, chewed oil container) and temple (right). Photo credit: Nisha Singh

Items damaged by sloth bear inside the house (chewed oil container). Photo credit: Nisha Singh

Items damaged by sloth bear inside the house (left, chewed oil container) and temple (right). Photo credit: Nisha Singh

Items damaged by sloth bear inside the temple. Photo credit: Nisha Singh

Temples are known to have fruits (mostly coconuts) and oils offered by pilgrims (for use in lamps), and according to the local people, bears regularly visited these temples at night to feed on the offerings. Whereas such behaviour might seem natural for an Asiatic black bear (although this area is well south of their geographic range), this behaviour is quite atypical of sloth bears.

It seems reasonable to conclude that the main attractant in these 2 cases was the oil (probably groundnut or cottonseed). Although no human attack or causalities occurred, the boldness of the bear(s) is alarming. We could not determine whether this was the same individual bear at both sites, or why it was so motivated to break in –– was there a shortage of natural foods, or had this bear previously tasted and liked the oil?

Whatever the reason, it is likely that word of this will spread, and the reputation of sloth bears further tarnished, thus increasing the chances of villagers reacting even more negatively toward bears that they encounter in the future.

Literature Cited
Akhtar, N. 2006. Human-sloth bear conflict: a threat to sloth bear conservation. International Bear News 15(4):15–17.
Bargali, H. S., N. Akhtar, and N. P. S. Chauhan. 2005. Characteristics of sloth bear attacks and human casualties in North Bilaspur forest division, Chhattisgarh, India. Ursus 16:263–267.
Dharaiya, N. and S. Ratnayeke. 2009. Escalating human–sloth bear conflicts in North Gujarat: a tough time to encourage support for bear conservation. International Bear News 18(3):12-14.
Ratnayeke, S., F. T. van Manen, R. Pieris, and V. S. J. Pragash. 2014. Challenges of large carnivore conservation: sloth bear attacks in Sri Lanka. Human Ecology 42: 467–479. DOI 10.1007/s10745-014-9643-y

Nisha Singh

Wildlife and Conservation Biology Research Lab
Department of Life Sciences
HNG University, Patan (Gujarat)
India 384265
Email: nishanicky1210@gmail.com

Jignesh Rot

Wildlife and Conservation Biology Research Lab
Department of Life Sciences
HNG University, Patan (Gujarat)
India 384265

Swapnil Sonone

Member: Sloth bear Expert Team, IUCN Bear Specialist Group
Youth for Nature Conservation Organization
Amravati, Maharashtra, India
Email: drssonone@gmail.com

Nishith Dharaiya

Co-chair Sloth Bear Expert Team, IUCN Bear Specialist Group
Wildlife and Conservation Biology Research Lab
Department of Life Sciences,
HNG University, Patan (Gujarat)
India 384265
Email: nadharaiya@gmail.com

originally published in International Bear News 2017 Fall Vol. 26 No. 3 on pages 20-21