An Echelon Media Company
Saturday December 10th, 2022

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.

SLOTH BEAR PROTECTION ORGANIZATIONS

  • 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. mark.hager@gmail.com

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a Comment

Leave a Comment

Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Cyclone Mandous kills hundreds of livestock in Sri Lanka’s northern farms

ECONOMYNEXT – Unusually cold weather in Sri Lanka’s northern province caused by the Mandous cyclonic storm in the Bay of Bengal has led to the death of hundreds of farm animals with hundreds more falling sick.

An official said a drop in temperature below 20 degrees Celsius combined with strong winds triggered the death of nearly 350 cattle and 180 goats in four districts of the province.

Jaffna District Kilinochchi District Mullaitivu District Vavuniya District
Cattle deaths – 49

Sick – 17

Cattle deaths – 168

Sick – 159

Cattle deaths – 120

Sick – 159

Cattle deaths – 21

Sick – 17

Goat deaths – 58

Sick – 50

Goat deaths – 6

Sick – 3

Goat deaths – 42

Sick –

Goat deaths – 85

Sick –

Deptaretment of Animal Production & Health (DAPH), Provincial Director, Dr S Vaseeharan attributed the incident to poor livestock management practices, which he said has been killing farming animals for years, long before the arrival of the cyclone.

“These kinds of tragedies occur every other year due to the extreme hot climatic conditions, floods and so on. These animals have no insurance cover since they are raised to be slaughtered,” Vaseeharan said.

The official said livestock in these districts have no safeguard against such natural disasters. They’re free grazing animals with no permanent shelter to protect them from environmental hazards.

“There are also 300- 400 in a herd. These animals are owned by farmers and they are sent astray to graze on available land. That’s the extent of their management system,” said Vaseeharan.

A majority of the animals, he said, are for meat production and not for dairy and therefore the farmers are not inclined to invest or care about their well-being.

The small farms too have being affected and Vaseeharan said prevention is actually impossible and the number of deaths may rise.

However, the latest updates from the Department of Meteorology said cyclone Mandous was expected to gradually weaken into a deep depression by Saturday morning and into a depression by noon. (Colombo/Dec10/2022)

Continue Reading

Sri Lanka receives over 300 medical items through Indian credit line: officials

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka has already received more than 300 medicine items as of December through the Indian credit line and hopes to complete all orders by March 2023, officials said.

From the one billion US dollar credit line from India, 200 million USD was to purchase medical supplies, with the State Pharmaceutical Corporation (SPC) given the responsibility of placing the order.

Sri Lanka has seen medicine shortages since late June with the Central Medicine Storage running out of stocks.

The authorities said that, until stocks are restored, the ministry has implemented a central communication strategy to facilitate the exchange of medicines between medical institutes based on availability.

The SPC called tenders in March and, by April, the tenders were being evaluated by the officials.

“Of the 200 million US dollars we received, we allocated 55 million US dollars to the private sector supplier,” Chairman of SPC Sarath Liyanage told EconomyNext on Friday.

Orders will be placed for 674 medicine items and 17,88 surgical equipment, Liyanage said.

“So far we have received 74 medicine items through the SPC and more than 300 plus from the private sector supplier. No matter which sector you are bringing it from, the products’ origin must be India, which is a condition we have to follow.

“By December 31, we have to place all the orders and we hope by March 2023, we will have received all the medicine and equipment we have ordered.”

The island nation is currently struggling with lack of medicine in the health sector and, due to high demand and the low supply, the prices have increased in pharmacies and people have reduce their prescribed dosage.

Officials said the Indian credit line is being utilised according to a particular procedure, which took the local authorities around a month to understand along with how the letters of credit will be issued to the Indian banks and how the orders must be placed.

“We had to go through a series of documents and a specific supplier was selected to purchase a specific medicine,” said Liyanage.

According to the official, the orders will be sent to the Trade Ministry, the Finance Ministry, the high commission of India or the Delhi office and will then come to the Treasury.

A UNI number will be issued for the order and that number will be used by the SPC to place the order.

Liyanage said that, apart from the medicine and equipment that is already imported, more orders will be placed in the coming days. (Colombo/Dec10/2022)

Continue Reading

Sri Lanka opposition MP sees racist agenda behind behind pro-China demonstration

TNA MP Shanakiya Rasamanickam – Image credit: Facebook

ECONOMYNEXT – A protest held outside the Chinese embassy in Colombo against opposition legislator Shanakiyan Rasamanickam was likely the work of a paid group with little knowledge of Sri Lanka’s crisis and pushing someone else’s racist agenda, the MP said.

Rasamanickam told EconomyNext on Saturday December 10 that the protestors were peddling a familiar narrative of racism.

“These people are clearly on a racist agenda. We know how this agenda plays out and we know who is behind it from before, so it’s not anything new. People can connect the dots and figure out who might be behind this protest,” he said.

The hurriedly put together demonstration seemed to be against Rasamanickam’s controversial warnings of anti-China protests in Sri Lanka over Beijing’s purported reluctance to restructure the crisis-hit island nation’s debt.

A small group of protestors including a number of Buddhist monks had gathered outside the embassy premises on Friday December 09 condemning Rasamanickam’s statement in parliament that people will take to the streets against China in a “go home, China” wave of protests similar to the “go home, Gota” protests that unseated Sri Lanka’s powerful former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

“I was actually very happy to see a protest happening against me in Colombo. This is the first time there was a protest held against me,” said Rasamanickam.

I”f you look at the group that were protesting, they are quite unaware of the current economic situation in the island,” he added.

One banner displayed by the pro-China protestors contained the words “let us strongly condemn the ‘Go home China’ statement by separatist Rasamanickam” in Sinhala, though the organisers had been careful to omit the word ‘separatist’ in the English translation of the slogan.

It is unclear at present who was behind the protest, but a placard carried by one of the protestors read “is this going from anti-Gota to anti-China”, indicating the possible involvement of pro-Rajapaksa elements.

“It looked like a paid  group of people who came with no knowledge of the country’s situation and was completely under the agenda of somebody else,” said the MP.

The Batticaloa district lawmaker claimed that some people had offered to organise a counter-protest against the pro-China demonstrators but he declined the offer.

“I refused it because the citizens aren’t silly. They are aware of their surroundings and what is going on, so we need not protest in that way,” he said.

A commotion also ensued at the demonstration when a woman started recording it on her mobile phone, prompting some of the protestors to demand that she leave. Words were exchanged, with the visibly agitated woman yelling at the protestors that they were conspiring to sell Sri Lanka to China.

What triggered the protest was an explosive remark by MP Rasamanickam on December 02 that if China were a true friend of Sri Lanka’s, it would agree to either write off the island nation’s 7.4 billion dollar debt or at least help restructure it.

Nearly a fifth of Sri Lanka’s public external debt is held by China, according to one calculation.

“If China, who has nearly 20,000 billion dollars, is truly Sri Lanka’s friend… offering 9 million litres of diesel or half a million kilos of rice isn’t real help,” said Rasamanickam, speaking in Sinhala.

“I say to China and the Chinese embassy that, as 22 million Sri Lankans irrespective of ethnic or religious differences got together to say ‘Go home, Gota’, don’t push us to a place where we will be saying ‘China, go home’,” he said.

Whatever the agenda behind Friday’s protestors, they are not alone in their opposition to Rasamanickam’s strong words against China. Main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP Harsha de Silva was strongly critical of the statement, insisting that Sri Lanka cooperate with all countries.

Rasamanickam told EconomyNext that his words were misrepresented.

“What I said was ex President Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn’t listen to the voices of the people and people ended up saying ‘Gota Go Home’ and if the Chinese fail to address the issues and act in the interest of the Sri Lankan community, naturally people will start opposing them also. If that happens, I simply said that I will support them because for us our country and our people are the priority,” he said, adding that his speech had raised awareness among the public of the situation.

The MP has been raising his voice in parliament and elsewhere in recent days over what he claims is a hesitance on the part of China to assist in Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring efforts. The 2.9 billion dollar extended fund facility (EFF) that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has offered to extend to the island nation is contingent upon the successful restructure of this outstanding in addition some stringent reforms that experts say are long overdue.

Colombo has been vague at best on the status of ongoing restructure talks with Sri Lanka’s creditors, and opposition lawmakers and others have expressed concern over what seems to be a worrying delay. Rasamanickam and others have claimed that China, Sri Lanka’s largest bilateral creditor, is the reason for the apparent standstill.

Meanwhile, IMF Chief Kristalina Georgieva has called on China to speed up restructuring of debt in Sri Lanka and Zambia following a meeting with the leaders of the country.

“We had a very fruitful exchange, both on the G20 Common Framework and on some specific cases,” she said in a statement after the meeting.

“We need to build on the momentum of the agreement on Chad’s debt treatment and accelerate and finalize the debt treatments for Zambia and Sri Lanka, which would allow for disbursements from the IMF and multilateral development banks,” she said. (Colombo/Dec10/2022)

Continue Reading