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Tuesday March 28th, 2023

Bear Necessities

Clues point to sloth bear as prototype for Mowgli’s laid-back chum in The Jungle Book, though Baloo is no look-alike in Disney’s classic animation

Anyone who goes to Yala a lot knows that its premium safari prey isn’t leopard but sloth bear. Two families we know saw bear on visits during November and heard that sightings are up due to low Covid-time traffic. I have seen leopard numerous times but bear only four. From fifty metres, early morning on our first-ever safari, we spied a mommy and two cubs: the largest grouping of sloth bear you’re ever likely to see. They quickly disappeared in the scrub and could not be found again despite half an hour’s search.

On our most recent safari, we stumbled across one right alongside the jeep track, ambling in the opposite direction. Our eyes leapt from their sockets. Unfortunately, our over-keen driver backed up at high speed, spooking it off into opaque brush. But we backed some more to a gap where it re-emerged briefly before veering off. Fumbling with my camera, I managed only one clear shot: its rear end moving quickly away. But that was better, come to think, than snapping it moving swiftly in our direction. Sloth bears harm humans far more than do any of their ursine cousins, probably more than all of those cousins combined.

Take the brown (grizzly) bear of North America and Siberia, for example. It kills at a higher clip per animal than do North American black bear. At 750,000 individuals, blacks as an entire species kill less than one person per year, browns numbering 200,000 kill perhaps about the same, perhaps as many as six. But the 10,000 to 20,000 remaining sloth bear kill more than a dozen per year, 20 to 240 times more per animal than browns.

All bear species fall within the Carnivore order of mammals, which divides between ‘dog-like’ (Caniformia) and ‘cat-like’ (Feliformia) families. Caniformia tend to prevail in northern Eurasia and North America, Feliformia in south Asia and Africa. There are exceptions of course, sloth bear among them, with its range confined to the Indian subcontinent. Modern Caniformia include weasels, minks, wolverines and otters, among others. Today’s bears represent the closest living cousins of pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, walruses and their ilk), who started to sea some 50 million years ago (mya), leaving behind the land-bound Caniformia of that era.

True to form, a raccoon-like ancestor of modern bears emerged in North America 35 mya before crossing to Eurasia via the Bering land bridge. At 15 mya and rather confusingly both ‘beardogs’ and ‘dog-bears’ prowled the land. In North America and once thought ancestral to today’s bears, ‘bear-dogs’ (Amphicyons), some of them huger than today’s polar bear, dined mightily on prey, with berries and roots on the side. Forebears (get it?) neither to bears nor to dogs, as experts now think, they fell extinct at maybe six mya, losing out to competing carnivores. In North America and Eurasia, ‘dog-bears’ (Hemicyons) moved and hunted like dogs, though they gave rise fairly directly to modern ‘true bears.’ Some as large as grizzlies, they reached exceptional speeds chasing down prey on their long legs, perhaps hunting in packs. Intensely carnivorous with flesh-slicing teeth, they shunned the omnivore proclivities of their modern descendants.

Among the six modern ‘true bears’ (including polars, browns, American blacks, sun bears and Asian blacks), sloth bear may have been the earliest to emerge and may be the most genetically distinct and separate in ancestral lineage. It thrived in rainy subcontinental forests. Early forms emerged 5-7 mya, with its modern body type and diet consolidated by 2.5 mya. Unique among bears, that diet pivots on ants and termites. The only animal known to hoover up termites by suction, sloth bear use their massive specialized claws to rip mounds apart and then curve their stretchy lower lips into a vacuum tube, sucking bugs in their thousands through a gap left by an absence of front teeth, making plenty of noise as they do so. They close off their nostrils to improve suction and avoid inhaling the wiggly mites. Their thick shaggy coats, so warm-seeming for the Subcontinent, help prevent bee stings (they love honey) and insect bites, including those from bugs they are trying to eat. Absence of thick fat prevents overheating. They do, however, like to cool off in streams and ponds.

Sloth bear pursue solitary lives, except when mommies nurture cubs. That bond remains close and affectionate for two or three years. Cubs commonly ride on mommy backs where thick fur makes it easy to get up and hang on. When not scarfing down termites and ants, sloth bear sample seeds, roots, nuts and grubs, sometimes carrion and small prey. They climb trees nimbly to snack on berries, especially the ironwood berry known as ‘palu’ (of which more below). Their comfort clinging to trees led zoologist George Shaw to name them ‘bear sloth,’ which got reversed when closer study revealed them not to be sloths at all. For cubs too young to forage, mommies regurgitate a half-digested mix of jack, wood apple and honeycomb. This hardens into a dark yellow circular bread-like substance for little ones to eat. Forest people in India find this ‘bear’s bread’ quite tasty.

Clues point to sloth bear as prototype for Mowgli’s laid-back chum in The Jungle Book, though Baloo is no look-alike in Disney’s classic animation. ‘Baloo’ almost certainly relates to ‘palu,’ sloth bear’s cherished berry as well as to ‘bhalu,’ a Hindi word for sloth bear. Sloth is the only bear found in the Seoni region where Kipling places the Mowgli stories. Baloo’s cheerful slacker lifestyle jives with sloth bear stereotype. Signature song ‘Bare Necessities’ praises ‘fancy ants’ (‘try a few’). Jungle is where ‘a bear can rest at ease,’ except for that menacing tiger antagonist, Shere Khan (‘sher’: Punjabi for tiger).

In the Ramayana, Jambhavan—divine king of bears—pops out of Brahma’s yawn and sets about helping Rama find the kidnapped Sita and battle demon king Ravana. In so doing, he prompts Hanuman’s great leap to Lanka.

Jambhavan is the sole character from the epics to meet both Rama and Krishna. In the Mahabharata, he kills a lion who had killed King Prasena while stealing a gem worn round the king’s neck while hunting. Jambhavan takes the gem. Krishna, having earlier bid unsuccessfully to buy the gem from Prasena, becomes a suspect in the murder/theft so he tracks Jambhavan to his cave, where he finds Jambhavan’s children playing with the gem. After several weeks of fighting, Jambhavan tires and, when it dawns on him who his adversary is, hands the gem over along with his daughter Jambhavati, who becomes one of Krishna’s consorts.

Lankan children shrink from tales of Mahasona, former human warrior Ritagala Jayasena, who loses his head in a drunken brawl with giant rival warrior Gotambara. A deity takes pity on the decapitated one and quickly attaches a bear’s head, hastily placed backwards. The resulting demon, pike in one hand, a buffalo from which he drinks blood in the other, rides a pig in search of human prey. He takes possession of human souls sometimes and must be expelled by exorcism. The Lankan Army Long Range Reconnaisance Patrol goes by the nickname ‘Maha Sohon Brigade.’ In a Lankan video game, children carry torches through a night forest hoping to avoid or defeat Mahasona, who deals stunning blows with his huge claws while defending his hidden treasure from the prying kids. Players can take roles either as kids or as Mahasona himself.

Sri Lanka boasts its very own sloth bear subspecies, of which perhaps less than 500 animals exist today, their numbers dwindling rapidly in recent decades. They inhabit mainly dry zone wilderness, in sharp contrast with the rain forest preference of their earlier development. Despite their declining population, bears attack people here with rising frequency, perhaps doubling every five years, leaving those living near them a false belief that their numbers are actually on the rise. The 2000-2004 period saw 91 attacks on Lankans. The reason for dwindling bear population and spiking attack incidence turns out to be one and the same: human encroachment on bear habitat. That encroachment lies both in deforestation, mainly clearance for agriculture, and in gathering of forest products for household use. Expanding human population pushes bears into shrinking pockets of suitable territory and brings people into denser proximity with preserved areas. This dynamic has already rendered sloth bear extinct in Bangladesh and possibly Bhutan.

People who live near Subcontinental forest fear sloth bear way more than tiger. Unpredictable, sudden, speedy and ferocious, sloth bear attacks are anything but slothful. They are purely defensive, however, never predatory. Humans range through forest in search of firewood, honey, mushrooms and other forage. With their superb sense of smell, bear often do their termite harvesting at night and then sleep, sometimes with cubs, during the heat of the day when humans stumble across them. Poor in eyesight and hearing, bear startle easily and react with extreme aggression. They will even charge tigers, sometimes with cubs on back, sometimes standing up on hind legs so as to intimidate. Tigers wisely shun combat and move away. (Search out a tiger-bear video from this past July 21.) Elephants, on the other hand, quickly charge bears to drive them off. In Sri Lanka, leopard-bear conflict sometimes happens in wildlife reserves. In one episode at Yala, a bear slew a leopard in a fight, but was so badly wounded that rangers put it down.

No one reading this article will ever go foraging through bear territory. Those who do so in their lives at jungle edges should bring companions and make constant noise so that shy bear receive notice to move away. When they notice a bear noticing them, they should back away slowly if possible. Bears run much faster than we can. If charged, they should drop to ground, curl up and try to cover face and neck, many experts advise, contending there are no known fatalities among those who have done so. Unfortunately, however, one Indian study finds a somewhat higher incidence of serious injury among those who ‘play dead’ over those who fight or flee. Horrific maiming, limb loss and disfigurement may spell ‘social death’ worse than the actual.


  • Biodiversity Education and Research (BEAR): conservation initiative centered on Wilpattu
  • Dilmah Conservation
  • Wildlife SOS
  • International Association for Bear Research and Management

Revenge killing of sloth bear isn’t hard to understand. Habitat separation and village safety training should be ramped up instead, of course. Besides their sheer fascination and our culpability in their demise, sloth bear warrant better protection for a third reason as well: their status as a ‘keystone’ species, one whose decline or disappearance could send disaster cascading through an ecosystem. Bear copiously disperse partly-germinated and well-fertilized fruit seed through their droppings, supporting food chains crucial to many. And without bears, termite numbers would soar. That’s good, right, because termites digest dead wood and cycle nutrients into re-use? Not so fast. Termite over-abundance can produce too-rapid digestion of dead trees still standing, called ‘snags.’ Holes and cracks in such trees provide shelter, protection and feeding opportunities for birds, mammals, reptiles and other creatures. By keeping termites in check, bear help maintain such micro-habitats. All this gives ‘bear necessities’ new meaning, no?

Lawyer and writer Mark Hager lives in Pelawatte with his family.

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Sri Lanka stocks weaken for the second session on profit taking

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s stocks closed weaker on Tuesday for the second consecutive session mainly driven by month-end profit-taking by investors, according to brokers.

The main All Share Price Index (ASPI) closed down 0.56 percent or 51.81 points to 9,233.40.

The market has been on a downward trend since last week as investors are adopting a wait-and-see approach until more clarity is given regarding local debt restructuring after the International Monetary Fund approved the extended loan facility.

“The market is down as the selling trend continues,” said Ranjan Ranatunga of First Capital Holdings, speaking to EconomyNext.

“As there is a price decline in all shares across the board, combined with the month ending followed by margin calls, the market continued on a downward trend.”

The market generated a slow and thin turnover of 860 million rupees.

The main contributor to the turnover is Lanka IOC, following news that the Sri Lanka cabinet has granted approval for three oil companies from China, the United States, and Australia in collaboration with Shell Pl to lease 150 fuel stations for each company to operate in the local market.

The fears of debt restructuring mainly affected the banking and financial sectors, which dragged the index down for the day.

The market saw a net foreign inflow of 30.9 million rupees, and the total offshore inflows recorded so far in 2023 are 1.01 billion rupees.

The most liquid index, S&P SL20, closed 0.81 percent or 21.68 points down at 2,656.30.

The market saw a turnover of 860 million on Tuesday, below this year’s daily average of 1.8 billion rupees.

Top losers were Vallibel One, John Keells Holdings, and Hatton National Bank.

Analysts said the downward trend is expected to continue for the rest of the week as profit-taking is expected to continue. (Colombo/March28/2023)

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Sri Lanka rupee closes weaker at 325/328 to dollar, bond yields up

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s treasury bond yields were up at close on Tuesday and the rupee closed weaker in the spot market, dealers said.

A 01.07.2025 bond was quoted at 31.20/60 percent on Tuesday, up from 30.75/31.00 percent on Monday.

A 15.09.2027 bond was quoted at 28.25/29.00 percent, up from 28.10/60 percent from Monday.

Sri Lanka rupee opened at 325/328 against the US dollar steady, from 322/325 from a day earlier. (Colombo/ March28/2023)

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Sri Lanka Telecom on track rating upgrade track on planned stake sale: Fitch

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka Telecom has been place on watch for a possible rating upgrade after the government, which has defaulted on its sovereign debt said it will sell down its majority stake.

“The rating reflects the potential rating upside due to weakening linkages with SLT’s parent, the government of Sri Lanka (Long-Term Local-Currency Issuer Default Rating: CC), due to the government’s plan to sell its 49.5 percent stake in the company,” the rating agency said.

“Fitch will resolve the RWP when the proposed disposal becomes practically unconditional, which
may take more than six months.”

The agency said it expect SLT’s revenue growth to slow to a low single-digit percentage in 2023 amid weakening consumer spending due to consumers increasingly prioritising essential needs, such as food and medicine, as real income has fallen significantly following the currency depreciation and unprecedently high inflation.

The full statement is reproduced below;

Fitch Places Sri Lanka Telecom’s ‘A(lka)’ Rating on Watch Positive

Fitch Ratings – Colombo – 27 Mar 2023: Fitch Ratings has placed Sri Lanka Telecom PLC’s (SLT) National Long-Term Rating of ‘A(lka)’ on Rating Watch Positive (RWP).

The RWP reflects the potential rating upside due to weakening linkages with SLT’s parent, the government of Sri Lanka (Long-Term Local-Currency Issuer Default Rating: CC), due to the government’s plan to sell its 49.5% stake in the company. Fitch will resolve the RWP when the proposed disposal becomes practically unconditional, which may take more than six months.

SLT’s ratings are currently constrained by its parent’s weak credit profile under Fitch’s Parent and Subsidiary Linkage (PSL) Rating Criteria. SLT’s Standalone Credit Profile (SCP) is stronger than that of the state, reflecting the company’s market leadership in fixed-line services, second-largest share in mobile, ownership of an extensive optical fibre network and a strong financial profile. The extent of SLT’s rating upside, following the proposed disposal, will depend on the credit profile of its new parent, the linkage strength with SLT according to our PSL criteria, and the proposed funding structure.


Disposal Plan: SLT announced on 20 March 2023 that the Sri Lankan cabinet has granted in-principle approval to sell the 49.5% stake in SLT held by the state. The disposal is part of a plan to restructure state-owned entities (SOEs) to improve the state’s financial position. SLT said steps have yet to be taken to identify potential buyers and it will take at least eight to 12 months to finalise the transaction. We believe the government will push through the disposal as SOE restructuring is an integral part of the IMF’s financial support to Sri Lanka.

Sovereign Ownership Pressures Rating: We assess the legal ring-fencing and access and control between SLT and the state as ‘Open’ under the PSL criteria, given the absence of regulatory or self-imposed ring-fencing of SLT’s cash flow and the government’s significant influence over the subsidiary’s operating and financial profile. SLT’s second- biggest shareholder, Malaysia-based Usaha Tegas Sdn Bhd with a 44.9% stake, has no special provisions in its shareholder agreement to dilute the government’s influence over SLT.

Higher Rating: However, the PSL criteria allows for a stronger subsidiary to be notched above the weaker parent’s consolidated profile in extreme situations, such as when a parent is in financial distress but the subsidiary continues to operate independently and its banking access appears unaffected. We do not believe SLT is at risk of default in the next 12 months, as it has sufficient liquidity and its debt does not carry cross-default clauses that can be triggered by the parent’s distress.

SLT’s ‘A(lka)’ rating therefore reflects its relativities with national peers, but is still below its SCP due to the drag from state ownership. We apply our PSL criteria because our Government-Related Entities (GRE) Rating Criteria states that in cases where the SCP of the GRE is higher than the government’s IDR, the relevant considerations of the PSL criteria will be applied to determine whether the IDR of the GRE is constrained or capped at the government’s rating level.

Weak Demand in 2023: We expect SLT’s revenue growth to slow to a low single-digit percentage in 2023 amid weakening consumer spending. Consumers are increasingly prioritising essential needs, such as food and medicine, as real income has fallen significantly following the currency depreciation and unprecedently high inflation. SLT’s subscriber numbers and minutes of usage have already fallen in 2022. Competition has also intensified, especially in the mobile segment, leading to lower realisation of recently introduced tariff hikes.

Weak demand should be offset to an extent by increased migration to SLT’s fibre-to-the- home (FTTH) network, from its own copper network, and subscriber additions. FTTH carries higher revenue per user than the copper network. SLT had 475,000 FTTH connections, a 35% increase yoy, by end-2022.

Weakening Profitability: We expect SLT’s EBITDA margin to narrow to around 34% in 2023 (2022: 35.6%) amid lower demand and ongoing cost escalations. All telecom operators increased tariffs by 20%-25% in late 2022 to tackle falling margins. However, the realisation into revenue remains weak, especially in the mobile segment, due to deep price cuts by one of the smaller operators and falling demand. SLT’s fixed-line business is able to maintain stable EBITDA margins due to the recent tariff hike and the FTTH segment’s higher revenue per user.

Leverage to Stabilise: We expect SLT’s EBITDA net leverage to remain around 1.3x in 2023 (2021: 0.9x, 2022: 1.3x) amid falling profitability. However, its leverage is strong for the rating. We expect capex of around LKR25.0 billion annually over 2023-2024 on network upgrades and expanding its fibre infrastructure.

Interest-Rate Hikes, Currency Depreciation Manageable: We expect SLT to maintain its EBITDA interest coverage closer to 4.0x over 2023-2024 (2022: 4.4x) despite interest rates rising almost threefold. Most of SLT’s debt is on variable interest rates, which will raise costs. SLT’s foreign-currency revenue, which accounts for 10%-12% of group revenue, is more than sufficient to meet the group’s foreign-currency operating expenses and interest costs. SLT had around USD10 million in foreign-currency debt at end-
December 2022, compared with USD40 million in foreign-currency cash deposits.

Sector Outlook Deteriorating: Fitch expects the average 2023 net debt/EBITDA ratio for SLT and mobile leader Dialog Axiata PLC (AAA(lka)/Stable) to remain around 1.3x (2022: 1.3x) amid weak margins and high capex. We expect sector revenue growth to slow to 8% in 2023 (2022: 15%), while the average 2023 EBITDA margin for SLT and Dialog should narrow to 31% (2022: 32%) amid low usage and high costs.

SLT’s SCP benefits from market leadership in fixed-line services and the second-largest position in mobile, along with ownership of an extensive optical fibre network. SLT has lower exposure to the crowded mobile market and has more diverse service platforms than Dialog. However, Dialog has a larger revenue base, lower forecast EBITDA net leverage and a better free cash flow (FCF) profile than SLT. Dialog is rated at ‘AAA(lka)’, while SLT’s rating is under pressure because of the state’s weak credit profile.

SLT has a larger operating scale than leading alcoholic-beverage manufacturer Melstacorp PLC (AAA(lka)/Stable), which distributes spirits in Sri Lanka through its subsidiary, Distilleries Company of Sri Lanka PLC (AAA(lka)/Stable). Melstacorp is exposed to more regulatory risk in its spirits business because of increases in the excise tax, but this is counterbalanced by its entrenched market position and high entry barriers.

Consequently, the company can pass on cost inflation and maintain its operating EBITDA margin, supporting substantially stronger FCF generation than SLT.


Fitch’s Key Assumptions within Our Rating Case for the Issuer:

– Revenue growth to slow to 4% in 2023 amid falling subscriber numbers and lower usage due to weakening consumer spending;

– Operating EBITDA margin to narrow by 150bp to 34% in 2023 due to higher costs and lower volume;

– SLT to continue capex on expanding its fibre and 4G network with LKR25 billion spent annually in 2023 and 2024;

– Effective tax rate of 28% from 2023;

– Dividend payout of 33% of net income over 2024-2025


Factors that could, individually or collectively, lead to positive rating action/upgrade:

– Fitch will resolve the RWP when the proposed disposal becomes practically unconditional, which may take more than six months, and once Fitch has sufficient information on the new majority shareholder’s credit profile and linkages with SLT and the proposed funding structure.

Factors that could, individually or collectively, lead to negative rating action/downgrade:

– Fitch would remove the RWP and affirm the National Long-Term Rating at ‘A(lka)’ with a Stable Outlook if the proposed disposal does not proceed and the linkages with the state remain intact.


Manageable Liquidity: SLT’s unrestricted cash balance of LKR14 billion at end- December 2022 was sufficient to redeem its contractual maturities of around LKR11 billion. SLT’s short-term working-capital debt amounted to another LKR10.0 billion and we expect the company to roll over the facilities given its solid access to local banks.

Liquidity is further enhanced by about LKR15 billion in undrawn bank credit facilities, although these are uncommitted. SLT typically does not pay commitment fees on its undrawn lines, although we believe most banks will allow the company to draw down the funds because of its healthy credit profile.

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