How to make peace with the world's deadliest bears

Sloth bears feed on ants and termites, but often attack people when startled. As human populations in India grow, violent conflict is rising.

Photograph by Thomas Rowell
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A rescued sloth bear living at the Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Center in India. The animals look unassuming and even cute, but they startle easily and have large claws.

Photograph by Thomas Rowell

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.

The bears, found in 19 of India’s 36 states and territories, are being squeezed on all sides by a growing human population. In 1990, the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed sloth bears as “vulnerable.” Today, the bears’ status remains unchanged, though they have since been extirpated in Bangladesh, and presumably Bhutan. India serves as the final stronghold for the species, with small populations in Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Range of the sloth bear (Melursus ursinus)

Possible range

Source: IUCN

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.

Another factor is the sheer number of people who live alongside sloth bears. India’s population has nearly doubled since 1980; the country is expected to become the world’s most populous nation within the decade, and to reach a population of 1.5 billion by 2050. Urbanization is gobbling up what precious wilderness remains, and sloth bears haven’t benefited much from the conservation projects protecting other dynamic species.

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.

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These bears, which have more than 75 acres to roam at India’s Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Center, were all rescued from some kind of human conflict. Some were permanently injured in traps, some were spared from performing in “dancing bears” shows, and others were suspected of attack. Twice a day they gather to eat porridge made by keepers. Though they live alone in nature, at this center they peacefully co-exist and some even form close bonds.

“It was all broken”

In Madhya Pradesh, one of India’s least developed states with 80 million people, rural residents rely on forest products to survive. People living near protected areas such as the state’s nine national parks and six tiger reserves frequently travel through buffer zones abutting settlements to search for mushrooms, fuelwood, tendu leaves for cigarettes, and sweet mahua flowers which they ferment for liquor. This puts the foragers in the path of the sloth bear, which often dwells in the fragmented edges of wilderness areas to avoid tigers.

By the Jamunia River, on the outskirts of Kanha Tiger Reserve, I meet Zeenal Vajrinkar. A young, energetic biologist from Maharashtra, she would guide me through the surrounding villages where many attacks had taken place.

For three days, we traveled down bumpy dirt roads clogged with cows and goats, past rice fields, troupes of langur monkeys, and sun-dappled sal trees, stopping to speak with men and women who still bore the scars from the bears.

Mahasingh Meravi, a frail man in his late 40s, had ventured into the forest about a mile from his house in Beltola to collect mushrooms. When he surprised a sleeping mother bear, she caught him by his upper thigh with her dull teeth and bit deep. Mahasingh escaped and climbed a tree; after the bear left, he hobbled home. For two months, he could barely walk.

Evansingh Meravi, 50, in the tiny village of Bandaniya, had traveled into the forest during the monsoons with friends to gather mushrooms. The group split up, and as Evansingh headed down a steep hill, he spotted two sloth bears walking up the slope. He tried to scramble up a tree, but he fell down and the bears attacked, nearly killing him. The mauling left his arm dangling precariously from his shoulder, he tells me. “It was all broken.”

Nearby, in a 6,000-square-mile corridor between Kanha and Pench tiger reserves, Corbett Foundation researchers interviewed more than 150 attack victims to better understand conflict between sloth bears and humans. They found that more than 80 percent of sloth bear attacks in this area occurred in forests. The majority happened during the collection of non-timber forest products; the remainder took place at the edge of forests or in adjacent fields.

After a sloth bear attack, people feel they have little recourse. Attack victims are entitled to financial compensation from the state, but find the money difficult to obtain when they lack a bank account or the literacy skills to file a report. One man named Evansingh Meravi still had metal rods protruding from his mangled elbow months after he was attacked. He couldn’t afford the six-hour return trip to the hospital in Jabalpur to have them removed, he said.

To get retribution for bears’ attacks, some people kill them. Villagers have stoned, electrocuted, and poisoned sloth bears that come near settlements. In the state of Odisha, 87 sloth bear deaths were recorded between 2014 and 2018. Ten of these were ascribed to retaliation by humans; another 42 deaths were attributed to “unknown” causes. Most deaths are never documented at all.

Searching for solutions

India has designated some areas specifically for the protection of sloth bears. Gujarat, a western state bordering Pakistan and the Arabian Sea, is home to two of three Indian refuges dedicated solely to the bears’ survival. Here, there are no tigers to vie for conservation dollars.

Jessore Sloth Bear Sanctuary, one of the refuges, is testing a variety of solutions that could be implemented elsewhere in India. Across the 70-mile arid reserve, the forest department has created artificial waterholes, constructed bear dens, and translocated termites to feed the animals.

Every day, contingents of women in colorful saris plant and water cassia and ziziphus trees in nurseries, growing crucial food for the bears. By giving the animals an ideal habitat that’s off limits to people, conservationists hope the bears won’t be tempted to wander into outside villages.

One of the most pressing concerns in Jessore has been the lack of water. Gujarat has experienced severe heat waves in recent years. Villagers and farmers say the sloth bears are increasingly leaving the sanctuary in search of water. In June 2019, after the bears attacked four people, the local government replenished water holes with a tanker. But researchers hope to find a long-lasting, natural solution to the bear’s water woes.

Nishith Dhairaya, a biologist at Hemchandracharya North Gujarat University and co-chair of the IUCN Sloth Bear Expert Team, successfully urged the forest department to create concrete wells fed by pipelines across the dry landscape. But he wants to do more; one of his key research projects is mapping water availability in Jessore’s forests. He and his team of graduate students have surveyed water points throughout the reserve, making note of how frequently the bears appeared to be using the water holes.

“No one knows the water needs of sloth bears,” says doctoral candidate Arzoo Malik. Once they establish that baseline, it might be possible to engineer the drought-stricken landscape to naturally retain water, and therefore bears.

Changing attitudes

Across India, attitudes toward wildlife are in flux. Ravi Chellam, a prominent Indian wildlife biologist who spent years working with the Wildlife Institute of India, says he believes the country is doing relatively well when it comes to coexisting with dangerous wildlife. In North America, a black bear or grizzly bear responsible for a single human fatality would be swiftly euthanized. That’s not the case in India.

“The fact there is free-ranging wildlife at all in this country is a success… given the size and the diversity of the population, development and growth, and land conflicts. I think, as Indians, we do not get enough credit for this,” he says.

A short distance from Pinky Baiga’s village, Harendra Singh Bargali and I visit a group of children. Bargali asks how many of them have seen a sloth bear. Three of the boys shoot up their hands. They point to the woods behind the lime-green houses of the village. One boy says he saw a bear at a distance while grazing his goats, but knew to slowly back away without making a sound.

“That’s why he survived,” Bargali says. The youngsters also know other tricks, like avoiding going in the forest alone.

Bargali asks the children what they think should be done with the animals. The evening light glows on their eager faces. They shrug. In so many words, they say: What can be done besides giving them space?

“The forest,” one says, “is better with wildlife.”

Gloria Dickie is a journalist based in British Columbia, Canada. She is currently writing a book on the threats facing the eight species of bears for W.W. Norton. This story was supported by a National Geographic Society storytelling grant. With additional reporting by Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava.