While the character Baloo the bear plays a prominent role in Rudyard Kipling’s classic The Jungle Book, bears are not otherwise typically associated with Indian wildlife. That is unfortunate because the Indian Subcontinent in fact has four bear species, including its very own signature bear: the Sloth Bear.
Endowed with a long black coat including a notably shaggy mane around the neck and ears, it has an appearance that might to our eyes seem unkempt (and comical!) compared to other bears. It also has prominent, curved claws, which might account for the “sloth” moniker- those claws make this bear an able climber.
What is perhaps most remarkable about this bear are its feeding habits. Like all bears (more or less) it is omnivorous, but its dietary specialty is ants and termites, which it licks and sucks out of their nests and tunnels. Its skull is particularly suited to the task as it lacks the two inner incisors on its upper jaw. This leaves a permanent gap through which it may suck insects from a cavity, with the assistance of its long lips. It can also close its nostrils to prevent any wayward insects from crawling in!
The Sloth Bear lives alongside the Bengal Tiger and Leopard in nature reserves we visit but is a challenge to see, and we’re more likely to see its tracks. However, we have seen it in both India and Sri Lanka in recent years.