Sri Lankan Sloth Bear
Palu trees generally bear fruit in May/June every year, and the fruit is therefore highly seasonal. The small size of the fruit does not betray the size of the tree. Tiny ovoid yellow/orange fruit grows by the tens of thousands on each tree, and trees take the appearance of being decorated by a glut of yellow LED bulbs. The edible and aromatic fruit with its sticky pulp attracts all kinds of wildlife, from birds to bears.
The Sri Lankan Sloth Bear (Melursus ursinus inornatus) is generally a nocturnal termite eater, and most of their eating habits involve terrorising termite mounds – plentiful in the Yala National Park – and sucking the insects out of their habitat by using its vacuum-cleaner-like mouth and specialised lips (giving it the name “Labiated Bear”). It is said that the noise a bear makes during this process can be heard up to 200m away. Being able to make such a noise is a luxury few animals can afford in a place like Yala, with predators lurking about, but sloth bears generally do not worry about being attacked by other creatures. Sri Lankan leopards and sloth bears have occasionally known to fight for territory, but unprovoked attacks and one species actively hunting another are almost unheard of.
Sloth Bears are, like all bears (except Polar Bears) are omnivorous, meaning they are opportunistic eaters with complex diets. Our childhoods contained stories and poems about bears and their love of honey. This, scientists believe, is due to the bears’ need to complement their diet with carbohydrates they do not otherwise get. Sloth Bears have been known to climb tall trees to get to honeycombs, and the honey bees are helpless to prevent their hard work (and even their own) going down the gullet of a hungry bear.
When Palu Trees are full of fruit, Sloth Bears will feast to their hearts’ and their stomachs’ content. This is the Sloth Bear’s favourite fruit, and no tree will be tall enough to keep these bears from getting to it.
During 2015’s Palu season, we noticed that the trees did, in fact, bloom well, but the incessant rains during the flowering period caused damage to Palu flowers, such that the trees could not bear as much fruit as they did the year before.
One popular Sloth Bear that is not as shy as others has been given the somewhat politically incorrect nickname “Soththiya” (literally meaning “cripple”) by our naturalists. This name came about as a result of its right foreleg being damaged sometime in the past due to an unknown reason (could be congenital or accidental). Soththiya is a common sighting among our Mahoora Naturalists, especially in the Darshana Wewa area. The area has about 6 large Palu Trees visible from the road, and what we saw was that this persevering bear had somehow reached the top of the tree and started indulging itself on the delicious Palu fruits. We were startled, as none of us thought that this particular bear, with its obvious disability, could climb a tree this high.
We observed the bear for a long period while it ate a bear’s share of Palu fruits, climbed down the tree, walked onto a high rock, and later disappeared into the bush, for what we can only assume is to sleep off the sugar he would have got in his system after such a hearty meal.
It is true what they say that nature is one of the great teachers. It is because of moments like this that people go to the middle of the forest to observe wildlife; sure, the jungle might have some pretty sights, but the lessons it teaches you for life stay with you. The sloth bear in this story taught us that a disability is not the end of your existence, either as a human being or as a bear.
Naturalist: Puwathara Jayawardena
Written By: Nirmal Kirtisinghe