Updated on January 23, 2024

Have you heard of a sloth bear? Despite the name, these animals aren’t related to sloths at all. They gained the name from European zoologist, George Shaw, who thought they were related to tree sloths due to their thick claws and unusual teeth.

Native to South Asia, sloth bears can be found in zoos across the U.S., such as Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, Kansas. Sloth bears at Sunset Zoo are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) SAFE program, Saving Animals From Extinction. SAFE brings together the expertise of AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums to help vulnerable animals.

Learn about all about sloth bears and how Sunset Zoo is conserving this species.

Two sloth bears standing nose to nose in their spacious zoo enclosure at the Sunset Zoo in Kansas.

Image courtesy of Autumn Shoemaker


Sloth bear facts

  • They’re found in lowland forests, savannas, shrublands and grasslands of India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan.
  • Not only are they not related to sloths, they also aren’t slow. Sloth bears are some of the most agile bears — capable of running faster than a human.
  • They’re myrmecophagous mammals, primarily eating ants and termites. During certain times of the year, they’ll also eat fruits and flowers.
  • Adult sloth bears are missing their top two front teeth (incisors), enabling them to easily suck up their insect prey like a vacuum. They still have large canines, which come in handy while fighting off their main predator — tigers.
  • The sucking sounds they make while feeding can be heard up to 100 meters (330 feet) away.
  • Their nostrils can close completely to protect them from dust and insects while raiding termite nests and beehives.
  • Sloth bears have exceptionally long claws — up to three inches. These claws are useful when tearing into termite mounds and when defending themselves from predators.
  • Like other myrmecophagous mammals, such as giant anteaters, sloth bears carry their young on their back. Carrying cubs this way allows the mother to protect her cubs from potential predators.
  • Unlike other bear species, sloth bears don’t hibernate. They are active year-round and are the most nocturnal of all living bear species. They’re known to be particularly active at dawn, dusk and overnight.
A sloth bear peeking out of an opening in a concrete wall with its teeth showing.

Image courtesy of Tammy Karin


Threats facing sloth bears

Wild sloth bears live in one of the world’s most crowded regions. With their wild population decreasing, they’re listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species, used to inform government and wildlife organizations in conservation decisions.

Factors which contribute to decreasing sloth bear populations include:

  • Residential and commercial development
  • Energy production and mining
  • Biological resource use, such as illegally hunting and trapping animals, gathering native plants, logging and wood harvesting
  • Illegal trade and trafficking of wildlife
  • Severe weather and changes in climate
  • Increased agriculture
  • Building new roads and railroads
  • Human intrusions and disturbances, such as recreational activities, war and civil unrest

A historic factor in declining sloth bear populations is the dancing bear phenomenon. For more than 400 years, the sloth bear has been a target for human exploitation. Poachers took away cubs from their mothers and used the bears as entertainment for villagers and tourists who paid for pictures.

Though the practice isn’t as common today, it still occurs in places around the world. Thankfully, Wildlife SOS and other organizations have been able to rescue and rehabilitate over 620 dancing bears.

One sloth bear on the left of the image, looking at the camera. Another sloth bear in the foreground, sleeping in the grass.

Image courtesy of Joel Sartore


Conserving sloth bears

We can help save this vulnerable species by protecting it in the wild and through conservation programs in zoos.

One way to mitigate human conflict with sloth bears is to encourage people living near wildlife to become protectors of their ecosystems and encourage a more sustainable future. Countries where sloth bears are native can also protect and provide medical aid to all bears vulnerable to human-bear conflict, poaching and other threats.

In conservation, collaboration is key. In November, Sunset Zoo staff joined other U.S. zookeepers on a trip to the Agra Bear Rescue Facility in India. There, the team saw rehabilitated sloth bears and exchanged caregiving techniques with the facility’s team.

The U.S. contingent watched as the facility staff practiced target training, a method to train resident sloth bears to stand, sit and present their hands when asked. This training helps veterinarians examine the bears in a way that allows the bears to voluntarily participate in exams. U.S. zookeepers watched as the bears were examined through side body and shoulders presentation, hindlimb presentation, tooth brushing and measuring pulse via nasal flap.

Read more about this trip and the continued knowledge sharing between U.S. zoos and organizations in India.

Two black colored sloth bears walking on grass.

Image courtesy of Tammy Karin


Sloth bears at Sunset Zoo

For almost 50 years, sloth bears have called Sunset Zoo home. The first sloth bears, Tuffy and Iffy, arrived in 1975. Iffy gave birth to her first offspring in 1982, and since then, 14 bears have lived at the zoo.

Today’s sloth bears are Molly and Tess, twin sisters who are descendants of the zoo’s first sloth bears. Molly and Tess were born at Idaho Falls Zoo in 2019 and transferred to Sunset Zoo in 2021.

These two girls are described as “simultaneously silly and destructive,” by the zookeepers. When they first arrived at the zoo, Molly was Tess’s security blanket. They had to do everything together.

Today, Tess is the more dominant bear and is comfortable being independent of her sister. She enjoys approaching new items in a methodical way and is a bit more reserved than Molly.

Molly loves enrichment and is fascinated with objects she can’t quite reach, like the jingle balls inside her favorite ball toy. Both bears greatly enjoy training and interacting with their keepers.

A sloth bear facing to the side. The sloth bear has black fur with some debris in it and a light colored snout.

Image courtesy of Tammy Karin


While sloth bears aren’t native to the U.S., Americans can visit these bears at some AZA-accredited zoos — a great way to help support sloth bear conservation.

Want to learn how wild bears in the U.S. are being rescued and rehabilitated? Check out this incredible story of two black bear cubs who escaped wildfires in the Pacific Northwest


Header image courtesy of Tammy Karin | Sunset Zoo
Other image rights provided by Sunset Zoo

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