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Fast Facts:

  • How did sloth bears get their name? A member of the British Museum originally classified sloth bears as a member of the sloth family. In 1810, a live sloth bear was shipped to Paris, the species was re-classified as a bear, and the name changed to sloth bear.

  • The sloth bear is one of eight species of bears found throughout the world. Bears are found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. The other seven species of bears are: the spectacled bear, the Asiatic black bear, the brown bear (including grizzlies), the polar bear, the sun bear, the sloth bear, and the giant panda. Koalas are sometimes referred to as 'koala bears', but they are marsupials, not bears.

Sloth Bear

Scientific Name: Melursus ursinus
Classification: Phylum Chordata; Class Mammalia; Order Carnivora; Family Ursidae
Status: Sloth bear populations are declining in the wild. Sloth bears are listed as threatened with extinction by CITES, The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. CITES is a United Nations treaty that provides a means for regulating international trade in wild animals and plants.
Habitat: forests and grassland areas
Range: India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka
Height: 2.5 to 3 feet at the shoulder
Weight: 175-310 pounds. Males are generally heavier than females.
Body Length: 5 to 6 feet
Lifespan: 20-30 years
Diet: Termites make up a large portion of the sloth bear's diet. Sloth bears will also eat other insects, fruit and other plant material, honey, eggs, cultivated crops, and carrion (animals that are already dead).
Print Fact Sheet Sloth Bear

Social Structure & Behavior:

Little is known about the social organization and behavior of sloth bears. Some research indicates that they are generally solitary and maintain small territories. Studies in Nepal indicated that while the bears displayed some territory marking behaviors such as clawing trees, individual bears usually did not react aggressively to other bears entering their marked area. Sloth bears have several vocalizations that range from roars and howls to softer huffs and gurgles.

Although females may begin breeding at 4 years of age, they do not necessarily produce cubs in their first breeding season.  Mating usually occurs between May through July. However, in Sri Lanka, sloth bears have been known to mate at all times of the year.

Mating pairs form for only 1-2 days, and gestation will last between 6 and 7 months. The gestation period includes time for the process of delayed implantation. After a successful mating and egg fertilization, the developing embryo stops developing and is not implanted in the uterus until later. Once implanted, the embryo resumes development.

Cubs are usually born between late December and early January – during the dry season. A female sloth bear usually gives birth to 2 cubs. The tiny cubs typically weigh only 11-18 ounces each and are kept in dens for protection. As the cubs grown older and gain strength, female sloth bears often carry the cubs on their back. They cubs hang onto the female's long, shaggy fur. Cubs usually stay with their mother for 2-3 years.

Threats To Survival:

Sloth bear populations are declining due to habitat loss and poaching for the medicinal market.  Bear gall bladder has been used by traditional Chinese doctors since the sixth century A.D. and is believed to help cure fever, intestinal, liver, and cardiac-related illnesses. Bear gall bladders have sold for as much as $20 (U.S. dollars) per gram - that's more than the price of gold (WWF).

Unfortunately for bears, a compound, ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA), found in the bile salts contained in their gall bladders, has proven medicinal properties. In fact, a synthesized form of UDCA is manufactured and prescribed in the United States to dissolve gallstones. The synthetic UDCA provides an alternative to killing bears for their gall bladder bile salts.

Unfortunately, many traditional medical practitioners in the Orient view these substitutes as inferior to the real thing, and often continue to seek out bile salts from bears instead of the synthesized version. In Asia, bear farms have been established where bile is extracted from live bears through a tube inserted in the gall bladder. However, some groups question the conditions under which many of the animals are kept. Others would argue that by continuing to supply the market with bear bile salts, these farms are only encouraging the demand for these products and discouraging the use of alternative forms.

Efforts to save the Sloth Bear:

The American Zoo and Aquarium Association's SSPs (Species Survival Plans) are special programs designed by a team of zoo and wildlife professionals to help sloth bears, and many other endangered species. The SSPs outline breeding plans, work to increase public awareness and education, help conduct research, and in some cases, organize programs to reintroduce captive-bred wildlife into secure habitats. The sloth bears at Rolling Hills Refuge are part of the SSP for the species.

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