How To Make Peace With The World’s Deadliest Bears
Pinky Baiga slowly pulls back the white scarf that covers her dark hair. Her eyes are cautious, and her anguish is palpable: There are deep gashes across her scalp, ragged pink lines extending from forehead to crown. Two months ago, Pinky was mauled by a sloth bear. The teenager had been gathering firewood with her…
Pinky Baiga slowly pulls back the white scarf that covers her dark hair. Her eyes are cautious, and her anguish is palpable: There are deep gashes across her scalp, ragged pink lines extending from forehead to crown. Two months ago, Pinky was mauled by a sloth bear.
The teenager had been gathering firewood with her parents in a forest near Bandhavgarh National Park, in central India. When she turned a corner, wood balanced on her head, she came face to face with a sloth bear. The frightened animal attacked and nearly scalped her before running off. She received stitches to close her wounds and spent 10 days in the district hospital recovering.
As Pinky tells her story, dusk settles. Outside the mud and brick house that she shares with her parents and ten siblings, men of the village herd their dirt-covered cows down the narrow lane. At 17, she should be getting married soon, according to local custom. But now she can barely leave her bed.
“I hate the bear,” she says.
Stories like Pinky’s are common. Over the past two decades, sloth bears have mauled thousands of people, killing hundreds. Though the Indian government doesn’t tally up attacks at the federal level, it’s fair to say from state data that the sloth bear is one of the deadliest animals in India, and is responsible for more human fatalities per capita than any other type of bear.
Only about 10 percent of India’s remaining forests are considered secure and suitable for sloth bears. Conflict can occur when people enter those woods for fuel and forage, or when bears are forced to travel through human settlements in search of food and water.
Meanwhile, conservation agendas in India prioritize the needs of the charismatic tiger over those of other species. Without aggressive action by federal and state governments, the problem is likely to worsen. Deadly incidents have reached critical levels. People are sometimes killing bears in revenge. And scientists are searching for solutions that keep the bear in mind.
Behind the name
Few Westerners have even heard of a sloth bear, perhaps one of the greatest misnomers in the animal kingdom. The bears aren’t slow—they can run faster than humans—and they aren’t related to sloths. They also weigh a couple hundred pounds, on average.
It’s thought that early European explorers spotted the animals hanging from trees and reasoned they must be related to the sloths of South America. In 1791, European zoologist George Shaw bestowed the erroneous name “bear sloth” (which was later reversed). A more accurate designation might have been “anteater bear,” as the creature feeds on termites and ants, slurping the insects up through its long bulbous snout and extended lower lip.
It’s estimated that fewer than 20,000 sloth bears remain in the wilds of Asia—and yet the species typically kills more than a dozen people each year. By comparison, brown bears, which outnumber their cousins about ten-fold, kill an average of 6.3 people annually in a huge range that spans more than 40 countries.
Across India, forestry officials report a steady increase in bear-human conflict. In the southwestern state of Karnataka, home to the burgeoning tech city of Bengaluru, officials recorded 300 attacks between 2014 and 2018. During a single day in 2017, sloth bears mauled 11 people, one fatally.
Scientists offer various theories to explain the bears’ behavior. Perhaps they’re used to dealing with tigers and leopards and thus unleash the same ferocity on humans. Perhaps they choose fight over flight because, though their long claws are ideal for digging, they don’t allow adult sloth bears to escape danger by climbing trees. Perhaps their violent toll on humans is greater because they don’t bluff charge humans as much, but initiate a physical attack almost immediately.
Many of India’s newer protected areas have been created or expanded to address the habitat and food needs of tigers. Unlike sloth bears, the big cats have seen their numbers increase modestly. The two species can come into conflict; tigers can kill young bears.
“We need to manage the forests with the bear in mind,” says Harendra Singh Bargali, deputy director of The Corbett Foundation, a non-partisan conservation group, and co-chair of the IUCN’s Sloth Bear Expert Team. “Nobody knows what’s happening with [them], but there are 50 tiger reserves in India.”
In 2012, the Indian government released a national welfare and conservation action plan for sloth bears, but hasn’t enforced it, say biologists who study the species. In the 2016 IUCN assessment, scientists predicted that the bear’s populations will decline by more than 30 percent over the next 30 years due to habitat loss and human exploitation of the bear’s food sources.
While some of the conflict is difficult to avoid due to expanding human populations, many sloth bear attacks and deaths can be prevented by taking precautions, experts say: Making noise while in the forest to avoid startling the animals, traveling in groups, and, if attacked, playing dead and covering one’s head.