The social life of bears

The Daroji Bear Sanctuary near Hospet in Karnataka turned out to be a wonderful place to see sloth bears (Melursus ursinus). I’d never noticed the long sickle shaped claws and sharp teeth in such detail before. Their long and curved claws led to their mis-classification as sloths in the 18th century, hence their “common” name. There is nothing sluggish about them. Bears being the secretive animals they normally are, I don’t expect to see their behaviour in so much detail elsewhere.

A mother and child made an appearance on the hillside first. The cub was old enough to pad along with its mother, exploring around its mother’s path. Cubs remain with their mothers until they are two years old. In this part of the country they are born in winter, so this one was probably not more than a year old.

I always wonder why the bears have this thick coat. The sloth bear evolved in the Deccan plateau, the same region where I was now watching them, perhaps less than 5 million years ago. This is a period during which the weather cooled on the average, and forests were replaced by grasslands and scrublands. On the other hand, the Indian Ocean monsoon had already set in, so the interior of India would perhaps been dry and warm when it was not wet and warm. As I watched the mother and child feeding, I wondered how they could stand the weather.

A solitary juvenile made an appearance without upsetting the mother and cub. I’d always thought of sloth bears as solitary creatures, so this was a little surprising to me. These bears become sexually active at about the age of three, so there is a year when they have left their mother but are not seeking mates. The new bear approached quite close to the cub without the mother being perturbed. I wondered whether the adult female was the mother of this juvenile, but there was no way to tell.

After a while another adult and a cub appeared. The two cubs started playing together without the adults becoming aggressive. This was a complete surprise to me. Cubs of sloth bears remain with mothers; the father does not play a role in rearing the cubs. So this was not a family group; it was two different families, and a third juvenile, perhaps an older offspring of one of the two adult females. I have no idea whether such groups have been recorded.

There is a lot of literature on the foraging and feeding behaviour of sloth bears, but assemblies of so many of them in one place is not mentioned. Is it so common that no one remarks on it? Unlikely, since some sources remark about their solitary habits. Has the relatively small size of this sanctuary changed their behaviour, and made them more social? Possible, since territorial behaviour is not mentioned in any article on sloth bears. It would be interesting to see whether any field scientists are studying this population of bears.

Bear with me

Sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) are secretive animals. The Family and I have been doing wildlife trips in India for around fifteen years, but in all these years the number of photos of bears I’ve got can be counted on the fingers. When we heard about the Daroji Bear Sanctuary near Hospet in Karnataka, we were ready to go. This is a small reserve by any standards, only about 8.3 square Kilometers in area, but an important one for the preservation of bears. This landscape would have had a large population of bears historically. As the land began to fill up with farms, the need for a sanctuary became clear, and Daroji was notified 25 years ago.

One wonderful thing in this place is a hide. We got permission to drive into a parking lot inside the sanctuary one afternoon, and then were conducted to the hide by two park rangers. The hide faced a clearing beyond which was a small hillock and a meadow with a water hole. The ground here was teeming with termites, which the bears love to eat.

The bears made an appearance as the sunlight began to pick up a slight golden tinge. I quickly realized that they were not bothered by us sitting inside the hide. It was a great opportunity to take videos of their behaviour. This one shows a mother with a cub and another juvenile. One of them digs into a termite mound, getting the insects all over its paws, and then falls back to lick them off. If this makes you think of bears as jokers, then let the video play. When the mother senses some danger to the cubs (and a peacock calls somewhere nearby) she rears up on her legs and gets ready to charge. You wouldn’t want to be in the way.

In spite of the discomfort of about six of us crowded into a small hide full of mosquitoes, this was an experience I’m happy to have gone through. I doubt that I will ever get a better view of sloth bears.