Sloth Bears: They Eat Ants, but Take on Tigers

Still used as “dancing bears,” they can hold their own with the big cats but not with human expansion

"The bear is smart," says T.R.K. Yoganand, a biologist with the Wildlife Institute of India. "After all, you don't see any tigers riding motorcycles in the circus." Yoganand, whose friends all call him "Yoga," has spent the past four years studying sloth bears in India, and when he has seen bear meet tiger, the result is often a draw.

When bear meets human, however, it's often a different story. The sloth bear is very aggressive, says Smithsonian zoologist John Seidensticker, a veteran of years of fieldwork on the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. "In some areas more people are injured in encounters with sloth bears than tigers." The frowsy ursid is also the original dancing bear, "taught" for centuries to perform by the Qalandars, an itinerant people who roam the country entertaining crowds with performing animals, rope climbing, trapeze walking, puppetry, magic tricks and music.

The site of Yoga's study is Panna National Park, some 200 square miles of sloth bear habitat, sheltering 30 to 40 of the animals. It is also home to a considerable number of humans. The government plans to remove all people living in the park, but it has no timetable. Yoga chose Panna as his study site in part because of the presence of humans, so that he can create for his country a sloth bear conservation plan. For, while in any single bear-human encounter the bear usually wins, often by gruesomely mauling the individual, the species as a whole is fighting a losing battle against human encroachment.

Yoga maintains that the sloth bear is a shy creature. Time and again the bears have run off after making a bluff charge at him. "Do they think that I'm another bear . . . or do they wonder, now what is this fellow up to?" Writes author Adele Conover, "In the end it may not matter what these creatures 'think,' as their future is inextricably linked with humans who, for the most part, view bears as competitors, threats, or opportunities to make money."

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