Sloth bear attacks: regional differences and safety messaging

Seasonality of human–bear conflict

On the Deccan Plateau and Gujarat, most sloth bear attacks occurred in winter, which differs significantly from the seasonality of attacks reported by other studies. Unlike other study areas, people on the Deccan Plateau and in Gujarat are more active in the forest in winter when monsoons and crop harvests have ended. The higher incidence of attacks during monsoons in central India correlates with the increased presence of people farming and protecting crops from cattle depredation, as well as from bears and other wildlife species grazing in nearby forested areas5, 16,17,18. The Kanha–Pench Corridor study was the only one which documented an increase in sloth bear attacks during summer. This increase is concurrent with an increase of people in the forest that collect mahua flower (Madhuca spp) and tendu leaf (Diospyros spp)19. In Sri Lanka, most attacks occurred in the dry season, coincident with the highest levels of human activity in forested areas. People in Sri Lanka enter forests for alternative sources of income as agriculture activity declines during the dry season4.

Across all studies, the majority of sloth bear attacks are correlated with the time of year when human activity is greatest in bear habitat. However, the time of year that the peak of human activity occurs in sloth bear habitat varies by region. We conclude that the seasonal activity of bears plays a much smaller role on attack rates than the seasonal activity of humans. Consistent with findings in other studies, human incursion into bear habitat is the primary factor responsible for precipitating conflict21.

Time of day influences on human–bear conflict

Most studies attributed the time of day that attacks occurred to when most humans were active in the forest4, 17,18,19,20. However, the Deccan plateau differed in that the majority of attacks occurred after dark when fewer people were active in or near the forest. Working in agricultural areas after dark is a more common practice on the Deccan Plateau than for the other study areas due to the availability of electricity and artificial lighting, though even with artificial lighting human activity after dark on the Deccan Plateau is still substantially less than during daytime. While a contributing factor, we do not feel that the increase in nighttime activity on the Deccan Plateau fully explains the significant increase in attacks during that time period as compared to other areas. We suspect that sloth bear activity patterns on the Deccan Plateau, and how bears use their environment, accounts for the shift in attack timing.

Sloth bears, though potentially active throughout the day, are predominately crepuscular and nocturnal17, 22,23,24. During daytime, sloth bears seek shelter in naturally occurring caves, crevices between big boulders, the spaces between tree roots, beneath fallen trees, or under bushes1, 25,26,27,28. On the Deccan Plateau, however, sloth bears utilize rocky caves almost exclusively for daytime denning29. A cave reduces chance encounters with people and predators while providing a modicum of security, hence the lower incident rate for areas with naturally occurring caves.

Conversely, studies conducted in Sri Lanka, Maharashtra and the Kanha-Pench corridor documented more attacks during daytime when people are more active but sloth bears are less active4, 5, 19. Large areas where sloth bears are located in Sri Lanka do not have caves for resting, though they do have dense vegetation and tree cavities (S. Ratnayeke, personal communication July 28, 2020). The Dnyanganga Wildlife Sanctuary, in the state of Maharastra, is mostly lower plains forest without rocky caves (N. Dharaiya, personal communication June 25, 2020). The Kanha-Pench corridor landscape is largely comprised of sal (Shorea spp) and teak (Tectona spp) forests largely devoid of caves30. The role of caves in minimizing daylight sloth bear attacks may be best exemplified by an attack in Sri Lanka as quoted in Ratnayeke et al.4:

“I was following two of my companions and saw a black form lying at the foot of a clump bushes, about 10 m from me. I called out to my companions. Before I knew it, the impact of the charging bear knocked me off my feet. It happened so fast, I didn’t see the bear coming… just dust, flying leaves, and the screams and roars of the bear.”

Had this bear been in a cave rather than the shade of a bush, it likely would not have felt threatened and reacted defensively. We speculate that during daylight on the Deccan Plateau, sloth bears rest securely within a cave and are not threatened by humans passing nearby. We know that farmers and livestock herders work in relatively close proximity to known den locations without fear of being attacked (S. Shanmugavelu, pers. observation). Clearly, caves afford a level of protection and separation that benefits both bears and humans. Consequently, we suggest this is the most likely explanation as to why there are relatively few attacks on the Deccan Plateau during daytime.

Season and sloth bear safety messaging

Bear attack research and safety messaging often recognizes a seasonal component17,18,19,20, 31 (e.g., more sloth bear attacks occur during the monsoon season than during other seasons). Sloth bears are active year-round, and the rate of attacks is strongly correlated with the level of human activity in the forest. Similarly, in Alaska, Smith and Herrero32 reported that human-brown bear conflicts were strongly seasonal in their occurrence. Additionally, they reported that attacks occurred most often when both people and bears vied for the same resource, such as salmon or ungulates. Farther north, human-polar bear conflict peaks when bears are on land awaiting freeze up in the fall33. Not infrequently, sloth bear safety messaging amounts to little more than general statements such as “when in the forest or in sloth bear country be aware”. In other words, an individual’s odds of being attacked by a sloth bear while in the woods may not significantly vary regardless of season. But, where it has been found to vary by season, this information should be conveyed to the public.

Time of day and sloth bear safety messaging

Sloth bear research and safety messaging often reports and warns of the “most dangerous” time or times of the day to be active in the forest17,18,19,20, 31, 34. Sloth bear attacks, like grizzly bear or American black bear attacks33, can occur anytime, day or night6. However, due to an abundance of naturally occurring caves on the Deccan Plateau, stumbling across a sleeping sloth bear mid-day is much less likely to occur than it is in Sri Lanka or in the Kanha-Pench corridor. Therefore, regional sloth bear safety messaging should acknowledge this significant difference which will promote bear safety.

The Corbett Foundation31 and Dharaiya et al.34 do an admirable job of focusing their safety messaging to a specific regional group of people in their respective publications. This type of regional messaging is necessary for optimizing sloth bear safety messaging efficacy. However, there is also value to non-site-specific sloth bear safety messaging. The short film “Living with Sloth Bears”35 intentionally addresses general safety messaging that applies to sloth bears across their entire range. Consequently, in the making of this film, we purposely avoided referring to the timing of attacks, seasons or time of day, or other aspects of human-bear conflict because we were aware of significant differences with respect to these variables between locations.

Yet another aspect of bear safety messaging is to keep it simple so that a person, under duress, will remember what to do in the event of a bear encounter Attempting to recall the details of an extended message, especially when being threatened by a bear, can be difficult, if not impossible. Therefore, the trend has been to keep bear messaging as simple as possible and we agree with it. However, teaching people that work in bear habitat the most likely times of day encounters occur can be beneficial. In summary, there is a time and place to provide detailed information that is regionally specific, and other situations in which to keep messaging simple.

Sloth bear denning ecology on the Deccan Plateau and its role in human–bear conflict

The Deccan Plateau is known as high quality sloth bear habitat, as evidenced by the relatively high density of bears in this area (S. Shanmugavelu, pers. observation). While there is ample food on the Deccan Plateau, the abundance of caves there sets it apart from other areas within the specie’s range. Sloth bears use only caves or cave-like structures on the Deccan Plateau for resting (Shanmugavelu et al. In Print). Caves provide protection from the elements, such as the heat of the day or severe storms, as well as protection from potential predators. Sloth bears do not have many predators and while a cub or very young bear may be at risk from leopards (Panthera pardus) or wolves (Canis lupes pallipes), the only natural predator of adult sloth bears is the Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris). Tiger scat studies revealed that sloth bears can comprise up to 2% of a their diet36,37,38,39. Tigers no longer occur on the Deccan Plateau, but the abundance of caves in the area undoubtedly historically benefited sloth bears, perhaps facilitating a higher density than would have been otherwise attainable. Presently, however, an increase in human population and habitat loss represents greater threat to the species.