Sloth bear (Melursus ursinus)

Also known as: honey bear, labiated bear, lip bear
French: Ours Lippu De L'Inde, Ours Prochile Lippu
Spanish: Oso Perezoso
GenusMelursus (1)
SizeHead-tail length: 1.4 - 1.9 m (2)
Shoulder height: 60 - 90 cm (2)
Male weight: 80 - 145 kg (2)
Female weight: 55 – 95 kg (2)

The sloth bear is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List  (1), and is listed on Appendix I of CITES (3).

The small sloth bear is unique amongst the bears, as insects are its main food source (4). It has a long, shaggy, coat with particularly long hair over the shoulders (5), and is typically black, although some individuals with cinnamon or reddish coats have been seen (5) (6). A distinctive pale whitish or cream marking on the chest forms a ‘U’ or ‘Y’ shape (2), and the relatively long, mobile muzzle is also pale in colour (5) (6). The snout of the sloth bear, along with its bare lips, and lack of upper incisors, are adaptations for its insect-based diet. The front feet are turned inwards and have large and slightly curved ivory-coloured claws for digging (5).

The sloth bear is found on the Indian subcontinent in Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. Two separate subspecies are recognised: the Sri Lankan sloth bear Melursus ursinus inornatus and the Indian sloth bear M. u. ursinus (5).

Sloth bears are found in a wide variety of habitats on the subcontinent, from grasslands and thorn scrub to evergreen forest (5).

Sloth bears are mainly solitary except for mothers with their cubs. They occupy home ranges that are marked by stripping bark from trees, although intruders appear to be tolerated. Adults are generally active throughout both the day and night, except for females with cubs, which seem to restrict their activity to daylight hours. The mating season is recorded to run from June to July, although it may run year-round in some areas. A number of males will follow a receptive female around for days, mating with her in turn, and generally lacking aggression between each other (5). Females give birth (usually to two cubs) after a gestation period of around six to seven months (5) (6), in a den located in the base of a hollow tree. She will remain with her cubs for the first three months and once they are able to leave the safety of the den they will spend the majority of the time riding on her back. Cubs stay with their mother for up to 2.5 years and females therefore only breed at two or three year intervals (5).

Sloth bears are unique amongst bears in that the majority of their diet is composed of insects, particularly termites and ants (5). Breaking open a termite mound with its strong front claws, the sloth bear will then insert its snout and blow away earth and dust before sucking the termites into their mouth (4). The lack of upper incisors creates a channel through which the bear sucks insects, and they are able to voluntarily close their nostrils, which prevents the inhalation of dust (5). Sloth bears also feed on honey, enduring the stings of bees to obtain honeycombs (2), as well as eggs, carrion, vegetation and fruits when in season (6).

Sloth bears are the most widespread bears in the Indian subcontinent and were once so numerous that they were easily speared from horseback. As the human population exploded, the bear's traditional habitat was cleared for timber, agriculture and development. Fragmented populations remain in protected areas. In India, bears are poached for their gall bladders and other parts which are prized in traditional Chinese medicine; it is estimated that parts from up to 1,500 bears a year were sold in Japan in the late 1970s. Sloth bears were the original 'dancing bears' and are were also used in bear baiting; the capture of live bears continues to this day. Where they come into contact with humans, these bears have an aggressive reputation and individuals may be killed in retaliation for attacks or for damage to crops (5).

Sloth bears are protected under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, and although they do not receive legal protection in Nepal, the level of hunting appears to be low (5). International trade is prohibited by their listing on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (3). Sloth bear populations have benefited where they occur within reserves established to protect other more high profile species, such as tigers and elephants; they occur within Ranthambore National Park in India and the Royal Chitwan National Park, Nepal. The conservation of these unique bears may need to be directly managed however, if their last strongholds are to persist (5).

For further information on the sloth bear and its conservation see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (February, 2008)
  2. Macdonald, D.W. (2006) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. CITES (November, 2002)
  4. Integrated Sloth Bear Conservation and Welfare Project (February, 2008)
  5. Servheen, C., Herrero, S. and Peyton, B. (1999) Bears: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. Available at:
  6. International Association for Bear Research and Management (February, 2008)