January 23, 2024

When you think of wild animals in India, what do you imagine? Bengal tigers? Snow leopards? Indian elephants? Bears probably aren’t the first thing that comes to mind for Indian wildlife, but the subcontinent is home to four native bears, including the curiously named sloth bear.

Sloth bears have some unique traits, such as their paws, their diet and how they transport their young. Learn about these and other factors which separate sloth bears from other bear species from bear expert and Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom’s Protecting the Wild Co-Host Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant.A closeup of a sloth bear with its tongue slightly sticking out. Sloth bears are black with a white and tan nose.

What are sloth bears?

Sloth bears got their unusual name from European zoologist, George Shaw, who saw similarities when studying the skulls of tree sloths and these bears.

“He thought there was a giant sloth in Asia,” Dr. Rae said. “They’re not at all related. It’s just a coincidence that their skulls have so many similarities.”

Despite their large size in comparison to other animals, sloth bears are one of the smallest species of bears in the world. “They’re the size of a large dog … a very large dog!” Dr. Rae said.

These bears have black fur with a scruffy coat around their ears and a light brown or grey patch on their noses.


A mom sloth bear walking on some rocks, carrying one baby on its back.

How sloth bears differ from other bear species

Besides their appearance, these sloth bear habits and characteristics set them apart from other bear species.


They’re ground dwellers. Sloth bears are the most ground dwelling of all the bear species. Unlike other bears, they don’t climb trees or don’t swim in water. This makes them more susceptible to large predators than other bear species.

These bears aren’t slow-moving sloths. With tigers as their main predator, sloth bears have adopted some strategies to keep themselves safe. “They can run pretty fast and hide pretty well,” Dr. Rae said.

Sloth bear cubs hitch rides on mom’s back. Sloth bear moms have a unique behavior unlike any other bear. They carry their cubs on their backs. With a normal litter of two cubs, both cubs ride their mom’s back when at their youngest. As they grow older, one cub will continue to ride mom’s back and the other will walk beside before they switch off. “Everyone loves bears and baby bears but seeing a mama bear throw her baby on her back and walk around … it’s super, super adorable,” Dr. Rae said.

They love termites. A sloth bear’s diet is mainly focused on insects. Other bears enjoy fruit, meat and honey, but sloth bears almost exclusively eat termites. Their extended snouts allow them to get into termite mounds and feast. “Sometimes I’ll joke, ‘If you have a termite problem in your house, no need to fumigate, just get yourself a sloth bear,’” Dr. Rae said.

Their claws look like human fingernails. One of the reasons the sloth bear got its name is because of its long claws that resemble those of a tree sloth. Some say they even look like long human fingernails. These unique claws are perfect for reaching into termite mounds. Unlike other bears, “they don’t have to use their claws to rip through animal flesh or climb trees,” Dr. Rae said.

A sloth bear walking. You can see the sloth bear's namesake long nails that almost appear to be human-like fingers.

Sloth bears: A SAFE species

Classified as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, the conservation of sloth bears is vital to keep this species and others thriving for generations to come. Sloth bears play an important role in their habitat’s ecosystem.

“They’re so important in controlling insect populations that if their populations were wiped out, we would see a huge imbalance,” Dr Rae said. “That could be pretty devastating to the rest of the ecological community.”

In the United States, zoos are taking action with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) SAFE program, Saving Animals From Extinction. This program unites AZA-accredited zoos to share knowledge of the species and conserve the breed. Learn more about sloth bears in this program at Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, Kansas.

Likewise, in India and southeast Asia, organizations are pushing for conservation for native sloth bears.

“Habitat conservation for wildlife in India has gotten a lot of support,” Dr. Rae said. “There have been some huge wins, and it’s reason for all of us to have a lot of hope for sloth bears.”

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

How to learn more about sloth bears

Have a newfound love of sloth bears and want to know all about this species? You don’t need to travel to their native habitat.

“There are so many ways to just learn about the animal world without having to travel to these places,” Dr Rae said. “Discovering your favorite bear species at the zoo, I think is equally as magical as discovering that species in the wild.”

If your local zoo doesn’t have a sloth bear, explore zoo or wildlife organization websites, watch YouTube videos or read media coverage about this species to learn more. “There are so many different ways people can receive their environmental education,” Dr Rae said.

Here’s a great way to start — check out this story of sloth bears at Sunset Zoo and read about how the zoo is working with a bear rescue facility in India to conserve this species.

For more bear stories, watch Dr. Rae take part in the rescue of black bear cubs and test your knowledge with black bear fun facts.

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