By Shyamala Ratnayeke

Sloth bears, Melursus ursinus, evolved in the Indian subtropics and were once widespread in the lowlands of India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. The one subspecies, Melursus ursinus inornatus, is found in Sri Lanka (Pocock, 1941). The sloth bear has vanished from much of its former range and may no longer exist in Bangladesh. Today, the vast majority of sloth bear range remains in India, where bears occupy suitable habitats throughout the peninsula and up to the Himalayan foothills, where the range overlaps with that of the Asiatic black bear, Ursus thibetanus (Johnsingh, 2003). Reliable density estimates are unavailable, but the largest populations of sloth bears probably occur in the foothills of the Western Ghats and the Indian central highlands (Yoganand et al., 2006). In Sri Lanka, sloth bears range where sufficient areas of forest and scrubland remain in the dry zone lowlands (Ratnayeke et al. 2007a, Ratnayeke and van Manen 2020).

Sloth bears lack the adaptations of a typical mammalian predator, yet are greatly feared among rural human communities and are responsible for more attacks on humans than any other species of bear (Can et al., 2014). In a five-year period,Rajpurohit and Krausman (2000) reported 735 human casualties of sloth bear attacks in the Indian states of Madhyar Pradhesh and Chhattisgarh, 48 of which were fatal. Bargali et al. (2005) reported a further 126 human casualties and 11 fatalities from sloth bear attacks in less than two years in the North Bilaspur forest division of Chhattisgarh. The frequency of such attacks is lower in Sri Lanka; Ratnayeke et al. (2014) reported 271 human casualties and three deaths from sloth bear attacks, with 226 of those records from 1980 to 2004.

Conflicts between bears and humans occur globally for a variety of reasons. Bears damage human property, kill livestock, and raid agricultural fields. In South Asia, the root cause of conflict is the expansion of human populations into bear habitat (Can et al., 2014). Sloth bear attacks have profound consequencesfor people. For sloth bears, theconsequences are also severe, because humans kill bears out offear, in self-defence, or in retaliation, and every bear attack erodes local support for their conservation (Chauhan, 2006; Ratnayeke et al.,2006). The tragic consequences of such encounters exemplify one of the most difficult challenges of conserving large dangerous species like the sloth bear. In this article, I review data on sloth bear attacks based on a study conducted in 2004 (Ratnayeke et al 2014), and propose ways to increase human safety in areas occupied by sloth bears.

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Trends in sloth bear attacks in Sri Lanka

Between 1990 and 2004, sloth bear attacks in Sri Lanka doubled approximately every five years, increasing from 27 (1990–1994) to 44 (1995–1999) and to 91 (2000–2004). Sloth bear attacks also increased exponentially with rural human population size, a likely result of encroachments into bear habitat and increased human activity in forests occupied by bears.
Sloth bear attacks (1938-2004) per five-year interval as a function of rural human population size. (Adapted from Ratnayeke et al., 2014).
Of 271 people attacked by bears, 98% were men who were mostly subsistence farmers but used local forests for fuel, bushmeat, and additional sources of income.

All but three attacks occurred in forests remote from human settlements. We obtained no reports of bears entering village compounds to attack livestock or raid agricultural fields. Reports from India confirm, also, that the principal form of human-sloth bear conflict is in the form of attacks on humans, and that most sloth bear attacks occur in forests (Rajpurohit & Krausman, 2000; Chauhan, 2006; Dhamorikar et al., 2017). Yet, in situations where habitat is greatly fragmented and degraded, bears may be forced into village compounds to survive. One such example is the North Bilaspur division in Chhattisgarh, India, where sloth bears commonly enter village compounds and raid crops (Bargali et al.2005).

Characteristics and outcomes of sloth bear attacks, Sri Lanka

Most attacks (i.e., 95%) involved just one adult bear, even if two or more adult bears were initially encountered. Only a small number of the victims could confirm the bears’ sex. Four attacks were by adult females and 28 by adult males. Sloth bear cubs were present at 82 attacks, of which 72 involved only one adult bear, presumably the mother that carried out the attack. Cubs participated in four attacks! Thus, females may be as likely as males to attack, especially if they are accompanied by cubs.

Sloth bear attacks are typically accompanied by loud, deep-throated barks. The mode of attack may vary, with the bear sometimes rearing up on its hind legs, but most involve a rapid charge where the bear barrels into its target. People who attempt to run from an encounter may be pursued and attacked. Most attacks last less than a few minutes, followed by the bear running off, but a few accounts involved a prolonged fight between the man and the bear, sometimes including dogs that accompanied the man. The vast majority of injuries result from bites and lacerations from claws, with bites causing the most severe injuries, including broken limbs, skull fractures, and the loss of scalps, eyes, or other portions of the face.

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A large proportion of human injuries included broken bones in hands and forearms from attempts to fend off the bear. In the majority of events (n = 156;60%), the bear fled the site unhurt. In 17 attacks, dogs drove off the bear, in 61 attacks, bears were wounded and in 40 attacks, bears were killed.The fate of the bear was unknown/unreported in the remaining six attacks. Nine victims eventually played dead when they were too injured to fight off the bear, at which point the bear ceased the attack and left.

Seven individuals that successfully ascended trees during the attack sustained injuries, but instead of pursuing them up the tree the bear left the scene. Several individuals also described their companions escaping up trees and witnessing the attack from the “safety” of the tree. Although sloth bears frequently climb trees to feed or to access tree cavities, these events suggest that a sloth bear’s perception of a human as a threat diminishes when the human is no longer aground.

The human fatality rate from sloth bear attacks is greater in India (6%–8%; Rajpurohit & Krausman, 2000; Bargali et al., 2005) than in Sri Lanka (1%). The Sri Lankan subspecies of sloth bear is approximately two-thirds the size of sloth bears on the Indian mainland (Pocock, 1933), but body mass is not associated with fatal attacks by American black bears, Ursus americanus or brown bear, Ursus arctos (Herrero et al. 2011). Regardless, our data confirms that fatality rates approach 15% for bears involved in attacks; thus, humansloth bear conflicts are more lethal for bears than for humans.

Situations leading to attacks

Almost 80% of attacks recorded in our study occurred when people suddenly encountered bears at close range, less than 10 m (often closer) and in situations where boulders and thickets blocked a clear view of the bear. This element of surprise made it difficult for many victims to defend themselves with a weapon. In three attacks, hunting dogs encountered a bear and ran back to the owner with the bear in pursuit, putting the man directly in the path of an irate bear. Thus, even if they can help to drive off a bear, they can also precipitate attacks, or prolong their duration. Two attacks were precipitated by humans shooting at bears with the goal of averting a possible attack.

The majority of attacks (78%) took place between 0900 and 1600 hours, 17% at dawn or dusk, and the remaining 5% at night. Sloth bears are least active during the hottest parts of the day (Ratnayekeet al., 2007b) and I suspect that many attacks are precipitated by humans inadvertently approaching sleeping bears. For bears that are up and about, a common response to disturbance, such as an approaching human, is to take temporary cover rather than to flee the site. This behaviour is sometimes perceived as a calculated ambush (e.g., Nicholas, 1974), but a simpler, plausible explanation is that the bear panics and launches an attack when a person gets uncomfortably close.

Evidence suggests that sloth bear attacks are overwhelmingly defensive rather than predatory, and provoked when a bear is surprised by a potential threat at close range. This is further supported by reports of sloth bears ceasing the attack and leaving when humans play dead or escape up a tree. We received no reports of bears attempting to feed on an injured victim. Defensive attacks are typical of brown bears and usually result from sudden encounters between humans and bears, presumably because the bear perceives a threat to its personal space and safety (Herrero, 2002). Such attacks are generally brief and cease when the bear’s perception of the threat reduces (Herrero & Fleck,1990). Hunters and naturalists in Sri Lanka describe sloth bears as possessing poor vision and hearing; if so, a sleeping or foraging sloth bear is more likely to be surprised at close range and to attack (Storey,1969/1907; Phillips, 1984). Because Sloth bears rely mostly on scent to become aware of intruders, surprise encounters are more likely when people are upwind of a bear.

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Staying safe in bear country

A key finding in our study was that people who were alone, (or effectively alone because companions fled the scene), were far more likely to experience a severe attack with life-threatening injuries. For example, in the majority of attacks where people sustained serious injuries, they were alone. Conversely, in 63% of attacks resulting in relatively minor injuries, the victim of the attack was with one or more companions. Companions sometimes yelled or physically attacked the bear, but in many situations, the bear fled when companions merely ran to the scene.

In 10 attacks that resulted in serious injuries, companions were present, and one of them died as a result of trying to drive off the bear. This underscores the fact that sloth bears are capable of inflicting serious injury in a matter of seconds, and that coming to the aid of someone being attacked may entail substantial risk. Also, more than one bear may be involved in an attack and the propensity for aggression will differ among bears (females with cubs are likely to rank high on this scale).

So how does one weigh this conflicting information? Human companions do not guarantee safety, but our data confirms that the probability of experiencing a severe attack is significantly lower if one is not alone. Even if human companions do not actively attempt to drive off an attacking sloth bear, larger groups of people present a more intimidating front, which may discourage a bear from persisting in an attack. Analyses of attacks by brown bears and American black bears suggest, also, that larger human groups are more effective at intimidating and driving off a bear, regardless of whether a bear attack is defensive or predatory. Behaviors associated with predatory attacks are distinctly

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different to those that are defensive. For example, silent and prolonged stalking of
the human is often associated with predatory attacks by American black bears,
often with fatal results (Herrero et al., 2011). In contrast, defensive attacks are of
short duration and are rarely fatal, even though injuries are often non-trivial.
Our data suggest several measures to reduce the probability of bear attacks. Bears
frequently sleep in dense thickets and rock outcrops during the day. Humans
moving through these types of habitat on foot or bicycle should be acutely aware of
a possible encounter with a bear. The potential for surprise encounters will decrease
if humans travel in large, noisy groups. Although fear of bears greatly tests human
courage, in the vast majority of attacks, the presence of another human may be
the most effective mitigating factor. Staying in close-knit groups and not fleeing an
encounter will reduce the likelihood and duration of an attack. Herrero et al. (2011)
recommend that bears reacting defensively to humans are given as much space
as possible. If the opportunity is available, a person should attempt to move out
of the way or ascend a tree. Should the bear charge, a united front of two or more
people facing off an oncoming bear is far more likely to thwart physical contact than
running. Running from a bear will likely stimulate a chase response.
Finally, a person ambushed at close range, or knocked down by a charging bear, may decrease the risk of serious injury by attempting to protect Vulnerable body parts, such as the face and neck (Herrero, 2002). People attacked by brown bears are advised to ball up tightly, knees and elbows meeting at forehead, and hands locked around the back of the neck. In short, behaviours that pose little threat to the bear and that simultaneously protect vital parts of the body may be the best way to survive an attack. Although this approach has not been tested for sloth bears, the majority of sloth bear attacks (80%) result from sudden encounters and possess many characteristics that are similar to brown bear attacks (Herrero & Fleck 1990; Herrero, 2002). The effectiveness of this technique during sloth bear attacks merits investigation.

Reducing human-sloth bear conflict

Sloth bear attacks can have profound effects on victims. Apart from the physical mutilation and scars, which are sometimes severe, many victims reported the loss of vision or hearing, speech impairments, and the inability to use tools effectively because of improperly healed fractures. Within rural farming communities, physical disabilities such as these can significantly mar the quality of life and livelihood of survivors. Reducing the frequency of bear attacks is an essential conservation goal that would help reduce bear mortality and encourage a positive change in human attitudes towards sloth bears.

Conservation outreach programmes targeting rural people who use forests occupied by bears are needed to discuss methods to reduce the severity of attacks or prevent them altogether. Our results underscore conventional gender roles in Sri Lankan rural societies where men are more likely to venture farther into the forests and more likely to go alone. Outreach efforts should focus on these groups and in portions of sloth bear range where the potential for conflict is greatest.

In the 15 years preceding our survey, most bear attacks occurred in areas under some degree of protection, although, between 1983-2008, most of the northern and eastern provinces were under control of Tamil separatist groups. Bear attacks were common near the periphery of large national parks, which are important source populations for sloth bears. Outreach efforts should target villages on the periphery of these important protected areas. The potential for conflicts to intensify will be greatest where the use of forests for swidden agriculture and other forms of subsistence becomes necessary because of poverty and landlessness. Several districts displayed high rates of conflict, especially Horowpothana and Kebethigollawa, where bear attacks in the early 2000s and preceding decades were high.

The timing of bear safety programmes is an important consideration. In the dry-zone lowlands, farmers are more likely to engage in forest activities during the dry season when agricultural fields require less attention. The potential for bears to enter villages or to frequent the periphery of villages may also be greatest when sources of water in forests have dried out. Phillips (1984) remarks that bears may travel long distances in search of water, and Dharaiya and Ratnayeke (2009) describe examples of how drought may lead to conditions that precipitate attacks. Creating water sources within bear habitat may reduce the likelihood of bears moving into high-risk areas close to villages in search of water.

Sri Lanka is among several nations that lack formal initiatives and scientifically informed action plans to manage human bear conflicts (Can et al., 2014). Because sloth bear attacks occur mostly in situations where rural people enter forests or protected areas to obtain resources, often illegally, many attacks are not officially reported and victims of bear attacks are not compensated. Neglecting to address the risks faced by people using bear habitat will reduce tolerance for bears, create resistance to conservation efforts, and intensify illicit and inhumane retaliation against bears. Although legally protected, the sloth bear’s reputation for launching attacks on people suggests that it remains very much at risk from experienced hunters and forest users who know how to dispatch bears should they be encountered.

In stark contrast to the colonial period, when sloth bears were persecuted and indiscriminately slaughtered by hunters who staked out waterholes (Storey, 1907; Spittel, 1924), most rural people kill bears only when they perceive a direct threat to their safety. The most severe contemporary threats to sloth bears are human encroachment into bear habitat and human-inflicted mortality arising from fear. One possible approach is for natural resource agencies to find ways to keep humans and sloth bears well separated. However, reversing perceptions of sloth bears through outreach efforts that work to increase human safety in bear habitat may be more realistic and effective in the long term.


*Associate professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Sunway University, Malaysia. Email: shyamalar@sunway.edu.my





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Courtesy – Loris Magazine  VOL – 29 ISSUE 2






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