Om Gosatkar, Member, Youth for Nature Conservation Organization
Sunil Rathod, Maharashtra Forest Department
Nisha Singh, Wildlife and Conservation Biology Research Lab

Hot summer days in central India drive animals to shrinking water holes, which provide excellent opportunities for viewing. On one such day we rode through Melghat Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra, to view wildlife, especially hoping to see a sloth bear (Melursus ursinus).

For the past 7 years, I (OM) have been associated with Youth for Nature Conservation Organization (YNCO). I am interested in mammal ecology, wildlife conservation, human–bear conflict, and am involved in awareness programs for school children and villagers and training programs for Maharashtra forest department staffs. YNCO is a non-government organization from Amaravati, Maharashtra, working on wildlife issues under the guidance of Dr. Swapnil Sonone, member of the IUCN/SSC Sloth Bear Expert Team. The organization works on issues about conflicts with sloth bears, developing mitigation measures in and around Melghat Tiger Reserve.

The scenic beauty of Melghat Tiger Reserve with rugged habitat in Maharashtra, India. Photo credit: Om Gosatkar

The scenic beauty of Melghat Tiger Reserve with rugged habitat in Maharashtra, India. Photo credit: Om Gosatkar

“Melghat” refers to a land where several mountains adjoin. It is hilly terrain of the Satpuda mountain range, with a dry deciduous forest dominated by teak (Tectona grandis; locally known as Sinpa) trees. Melghat is well known for its wilderness and great landscapes, providing good habitat for sloth bears and other wildlife. Project Tiger has made it a heaven for wildlife enthusiasts. We often visit Melghat, and have seen sloth bears many times during our field work. But this trip provided us with a chance to witness an event and behavior that we had not previously seen, and which has rarely been described in the literature.

It was about 11:00 in the morning of May 22, 2018, when I started off into the field accompanied by a forest guard and other forest laborers. We drove 40–60 km on a track in the forest by safari vehicle. We came across a number of dholes (Cuon alpinus), sambar (Rusa unicolor), barking deer (Muntiacus muntjak), Indian gaur (Bos gaurus), and many bird species. As evening fell (17:30–18:00), we decided to return to the base station. Just then, I glimpsed some movement in the branch of Arjun tree (Terminalia arjuna), 15–18 m above the ground. Looking closer, it was a sloth bear, or bana (as called by the local tribe). The bear was moving towards a honeycomb hanging from the underside of a branch.

We were quietly observing the bear’s activities from 60–70 m away when we noticed 2 cubs on the ground playing in the dry stream bed under the tree. They seemed to be waiting for the mother to dislodge and drop some pieces of the honeycomb. But our vehicle scared them, and they ran off, while the mother remained intent at getting to the honeycomb. She seemed unaware of us.

Persistent efforts made by the mother sloth bear to break off honeycomb on the tree while being stung by swarming bees. Photo credit: Om Gosatkar

Persistent efforts made by the mother sloth bear to break off honeycomb on the tree while being stung by swarming bees. Photo credit: Om Gosatkar

Persistent efforts made by the mother sloth bear to break off honeycomb on the tree while being stung by swarming bees. Photo credit: Om Gosatkar

Persistent efforts made by the mother sloth bear to break off honeycomb on the tree while being stung by swarming bees. Photo credit: Om Gosatkar

Sloth bears climb trees, but they are not as adept at tree climbing as some other bear species. Their long rather straight front claws, which are adapted for digging into termite or ant colonies, are not perfected for climbing. They can often appear awkward. In this case, the bear worked its way out on the branch and spent 6–7 minutes trying to break off the honeycomb, using her paws and snout, while trying to balance on the branch by wedging her hind limbs in a crotch. Meanwhile, she was contending with bees swarming and stinging her snout, which she occasionally brushed away with a free paw.

Finally she was successful in breaking off a few pieces. She also sucked out the honey periodically. This honey feeding event was recorded and posted on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKEvicMlzYg&feature=youtu.be).

The diet of sloth bears is known to vary seasonally and geographically, sometimes being mainly insects and sometimes mainly fruits (Laurie and Seidensticker 1977, Baskaran et al. 1997, Joshi et al. 1997, Seidensticker et al. 2011, Sukhadiya et al. 2013). Melghat is filled with fruiting species as Madhuca indica, Zizyphus mauritiana, Miliusa tomentosa, Murraya koenigii, Carissa carandas, Cordia dichotoma, Emblica officinalis, Ficus religiosa, F. benghalensis, Cassia fistula, Syzygium cumini and Mangifera indica although most of these fruits are available for a limited period of months (May–August or December–February).

It is also often reported that sloth bears are especially fond of honey and honeycombs, which are found typically in trees. In a memorable scene in the movie The Jungle Book (2016), the sloth bear “Baloo” convinces the human boy Mowgli, who is an adept climber, to retrieve a honeycomb for him far up a cliff face (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLlsrug1NQE).

Sloth bear retreating from tree after noticing our presence. She quickly slid down the tree leaving characteristic sliding marks. Photo credit: Om Gosatkar

Sloth bear retreating from tree after noticing our presence. She quickly slid down the tree leaving characteristic sliding marks. Photo credit: Om Gosatkar

We have found traces of honeycomb in sloth bear scats many times but because this substance is well digested, it is difficult to assess how important it is in the diet. This was our first instance of seeing a sloth bear feeding on a honeycomb. Claw marks of bears on M. indica, T. tomentosa, S. cumini, F. benghalensis and Bombax ceiba were often seen as high as 20–25 m in honey-bearing or fruit-bear trees during our field surveys. In all cases, we observed long marks on the trees, from the bear sliding backwards as it came down. This was described from direct observations by Laurie and Sedensticker (1977). We observed and recorded that behaviour in this instance (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dVT7qwAVDnA&feature=youtu.be). We do not know, though, if her retreat down the tree was hastened by her seeing us.
Within seconds, she was on the ground, looked in our direction, and quickly left without consuming the pieces of honeycomb on the ground. Leaving an indelible mark our memories, we were fortunate to see another sloth bear in the road, 2–3 km away, on our way back.

Although others have observed sloth bears feeding on honeycombs in trees, I wanted to write about it because the experience so impressed me. One often hears of single incidents that shape people’s life, and for me, this was certainly one, increasing my desire to learn more about this species.

Literature Cited
Baskaran, N., N. Sivaganesan, and J. Krishnamoorthy. 1997. Food habits of sloth bear in Mudumalai wildlife Sanctuary, Tamil Nadu, Southern India. Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society 94:1–9.
Joshi, A.R., D.L. Garshelis, and J.L.D. Smith. 1997. Seasonal and habitat-related diets of sloth bears in Nepal. Journal of Mammalogy 78:584–597.
Laurie, A. and J. Sedensticker. 1977. Behavioural ecology of the Sloth bear (Melursus ursinus). Journal of Zoology (London) 182:187–204.
Seidensticker, J., K. Yoganand, and A.J.T. Johnsingh. 2011. Sloth bears living in seasonally dry tropical and moist broadleaf forests and their conservation. Pages 217–236 in W.J. McShea, S.J. Davies, and N. Bhumpakphan, editors. The ecology and conservation of seasonally dry forests in Asia. Dry forests of Asia: conservation and ecology. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.
Sukhadiya, D., J.U. Joshi, and N. Dharaiya. 2013. Feeding Ecology and Habitat Use of Sloth Bear (Melursus ursinus) in Jassore Wildlife Sanctuary, Gujarat, India. Indian Ecological Society. 40(1):14-18.

Om Gosatkar

Member, Youth for Nature Conservation Organization
Amravati, Maharashtra, India
Email: gosatkarom@gmail.com

Sunil Rathod

Round Officer
Maharashtra Forest Department
Chikhaldara, Maharashtra, India
Email: sunildevrathod1@ gmail.com

Nisha Singh

Project Leader
Wildlife and Conservation Biology Research Lab,
HNG University, Patan (Gujarat), India 384265
Email: nishanicky1210@gmail.com

originally published in International Bear News 2018 Fall Vol. 27 No. 3 on pages 59-60