India is a Megadiverse country, be it a small insect or a big mammal, dry and hot desert or lush green rainforest of North -East, a riverine forest or a mangrove forest, snow peaks of Himalaya or coastal region, the diversity is everywhere.
Apart from other species of animals and plants India also has the highest diversity of Bears. India is the only country in the world with four bear species. These majestic creatures have long captured the imagination of wildlife enthusiasts and researchers alike, drawing attention to their significance in India’s diverse ecosystem. From the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas to the dense forests of Western Ghats and beyond, bears have adapted to various habitats across the country.
Biologically Bears are large mammals and placed in the order Carnivora and under family Ursidae. Bears evolved about 25 million years ago from a small, tree climbing and predatory ancestors. The earliest bear was known as dawn bear (Ursavus elmensis) which was a small long tailed raccoon like mammal.
The four species of bears are distributed in most parts of Indian subcontinent except the extreme western part and are unique and fascinating in its own way. Out of eight extant species of bear only Polar Bear is true carnivore and predatory. All other bears are omnivores and survive mostly on plant based materials.
1. The Himalayan Brown Bear
Scientific Name: Ursus arctos isabellinus
IUCN Status: Least Concern
Wildlife protection Act, India: Schedule II
HBL (Head & Body Length): 150-280 cm.
Weight: 130-550 kg (Male), 80-250 kg (Female)
Brown bears are most widespread of all bear species. They are the same species as the North American Grizzly Bear, but they are found in Himalayan region. There are 15 subspecies of Brown bear found worldwide and in India Himalayan Brown Bear (Ursus arctos isabellinus) is found. As per the researches and studies in India this subspecies of Brown Bear is rare and according to an estimate there are not more than 500-700 individuals are left in the wild.
They have thick fur which protects them from the harsh winters of high Himalayas. The colour of fur as name suggests is mostly reddish-brown or sandy. They are the heaviest and largest among all species of bears found in India. Their weight can reach up to 550 Kg which makes them largest and heaviest land carnivore of India.
Distribution & Habitat: This subspecies of Brown bear is found in sub-alpine and alpine region in greater Himalaya and also in some parts of high altitude Trans Himalayan region of western as well as central Himalayas. They inhabits the mountain slopes and valleys above the tree line. Apart from India, they are found in other countries as well like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet and west China.
Diet: These bears are omnivorous and can feed on anything from small insects, grasses, roots, berries to mammals like pikas, marmots and occasionally livestock like goats and sheep of local community. This occasional cattle lifting cases bring them into the conflict with locals. They are diurnal which means they are active during daytime. They are solitary in nature but mothers can be seen with her cubs.
They have poor eyesight and hearing but they have acute sense of smell which helps them to find food and locate their prey. They are known to locate and dig out, high altitude voles and marmots from their burrows.
Hibernation: Living in the harsh condition of Himalayas, Brown bears are known to hibernate to overcome the harsh winters and low availability of food. When the ground is covered with snow they retire into their lairs around the month of October, often using the same shelter every year. During this period their metabolism rate is very low but they are not fully unconscious and they wake up often. Female who give birth during winter remain awake and nursing and grooming their young one throughout the period. They come out from Hibernation around mid to late May.
Reproduction: The breeding takes place from late June to July end, and there is delayed implantation of the fertilised ova until autumn. The cubs are born between January and early February after a gestation period of 120 days and weigh only about 450 gm at the birth. Females build a considerable amount of fat reserves which enable them to feed their young ones during the period of hibernation. Usually they produce two cubs, and theses cubs are born blind and helpless. They remain dependent on their mother for the period of at least two years, generally they accompanying their mother for up to three years. Females generally breed after the interval of three years.
Conservation: The major challenge for their conservation is retaliatory killing by local nomadic people who suffer the livestock depredation by Brown Bear. Another threat is poaching for trade of bear cubs and body parts, also for bear bile.
Local organisation and forest department work with local community to compensate for the loss of livestock. The strengthening anti-poaching network and field patrolling also has been improved to control cases of poaching.
2. The Asiatic Black Bear
Scientific Name: Ursus thibetanus
IUCN Status: Vulnerable
Wildlife protection Act, India: Schedule I
HBL: 110-190 cm
Weight: 60-250 kg (male), 35-170 kg (female)
Asiatic Black Bear is the Asian equivalent of the American Black Bear (Ursus americana). They are large size bear with thick black fur and a V-shaped mark on the chest, they are also known as Moon Bear due to this mark. They have powerful limbs and massive and clinging claws, an adaptation for climbing. They are good swimmers even the young ones which is essential to cross rivers and streams in search of the food resources. Like all other bears they have poor eyesight and sense of hearing but excellent sense of smell.
Distribution & Habitat: They are distributed almost throughout the Asia, from middle-east to south-east Asia, from Amur region of Russia to Japan. Black bears inhabit temperate and subtropical broad-leaved forests from deciduous forests to evergreen forests. They are distributed between the altitudes of 1000 m to 3000 m above mean sea level.
In India they are reported from all the Himalayan states and distributed throughout the forested areas of Himalayan region including some hill states of North Eastern states.
Diet: Asiatic Black Bears are omnivores but major portion of their diet consists of fruits and other vegetative material, this is also evident from their dental and jaw structure. They have weaker jaw muscles and primitive dental apparatus which is an adaptation for the food that is easily chewed.
In the places where they go for hibernation they have only six to eight month as active period. During this period feeding is the major activity as it helps them to regain the energy they have lost during hibernation and also to store fat for coming winters.
Though their diet are majorly vegetarian but they have their digestive tract is shorter like a carnivore, so digestion of plant material is not digested as well as it is in Herbivores. Apart from fruit they have leaf material, small insects and other animal matter in smaller proportion.
Hibernation: Black Bears in the colder part of their range go for hibernation during winter. There is a shortage of available foods during winters. Before hibernation they eat fat rich food which they deposit in their body for the use during inactive period.
The site of hibernation is most often the base of a big tree, rock caves, under fallen logs, or in ground dens that was dug by them. There are various factors like snowfall, temperature, food availability and physical condition which govern the time to go for hibernation. The estimated period of hibernation is somewhere around 4 to 5 months depending upon the severity of winter. In tropical areas of North East India and other countries they do not go for hibernation because of food availability round the year. During hibernation they can be easily aroused unlike other animals who become torpid and helpless. Their body temperature, metabolism and other physiological functions during hibernation drops only slightly.
They utilise hibernation for breeding, their cubs are born during hibernation, and are maintained and nourished by the mother. By utilising hibernation for breeding they ensure the survival of their young ones during harsh winter.
During hibernation the moulting of their paw pads also occur which makes them difficult to walk just after coming from lair. They also develop a solid mass of undigested food lodges between the two sphincters of the rectum, choking the outlet of anal sphincter. To help defecate this plug out they eat laxative fruits like birch juice and raw berries after emergence from hibernation.
They come out from the lair in the spring (between March and April) when temperature outside is higher than inside the den. The males usually come out first followed by female without cubs and at last females with cubs emerges from the den after hibernation.
Reproduction: Diet and food availability plays a major role in reproduction. The nutritional status of the animal is a critical factor in determining their reproductive success.
Mating of Black bear takes place between June and August and after a gestation period of 6-7 month cubs are born between mid-January and mid- February. On an average two cubs are born at a time, very rarely three. Cubs weaned at 3.5 months but still remain with their mother until two to three years old when they become sexually mature. Once they separate, mother gets ready for another litter. Mothers are monoestrus which means they come in estrus once a year during breeding season. They also undergo delayed implantation of embryo.
Conservation: Hunting and habitat destruction are major issues for their conservation. They are hunted mainly because either to eliminate a crop raider or a conflict animal, sport hunting or for commercial purpose for their bile which is considered having medicinal value in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine).
Habitat destruction and fragmentation force them to come into conflict with the local villagers. Lopping of trees like oak for livestock fodder resulted in less production of acorns, their favourite food item. Another preferred fruit of bear, Himalayan Bayberry (Myrica esculanta) have economic value and is collected by locals on large scale. This forces black bear to supplement their diet with crops. Cases of cattle lifting are also reported from these areas.
Effective patrolling and timely compensation can reduce cases of poaching and man animal conflict. Many organisations and forest department people are working day and night for their conservation.
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3. Sloth Bear
Scientific Name: Melursus ursinus
IUCN Status: Vulnerable
Wildlife protection Act, India: Schedule I
HBL: 140-190 cm
Weight: 80-150 kg (male), 60-100 kg (female)
Sloth Bear is the most common and widespread bear species of India, they are the only endemic species of Bear in Indian subcontinent. They are distributed in tropical and subtropical region.
Interestingly this species was considered as a close relative of Sloths which is found in Amazon forests because both share two characteristics – long claws and the absence of upper middle incisors. First scientific name of this bear was Bradypus ursinus given by Shaw in 1791 means a bear like sloth. Then Meyer was the first person who recognised this animal as a bear and named it Melursus lybius, which is a proper scientific name for a Bear species (Melurus is a genus belongs to bears).
Their body is covered with long coarse black hairs except the long pale muzzle which is sparsely covered with thin, short, greyish white hair. On their chest they have a V-shaped whitish or buff -coloured patch. They do not have underfur which is an adaptation for hot tropical climate. The long black hair help them to protect themselves from bees and other insects.
Distribution and Habitat: They are endemic to Indian Subcontinent and found in India, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka. In India it is distributed in almost all landscape except desert, high Himalayas and wet evergreen forests of North East. In Himalayan foothills their ranges overlap with Asiatic Black bear, while in North-East India their range overlaps with Sun Bear. The forests of Central Indian Highlands and Western Ghats are two strongholds of this species in India.
Their preferred habitat is Moist and Dry Deciduous Forests, which accounts for 90% of their population. In India about 30% forests are Dry Deciduous forests which accounts for 50% of their population. In Moist forests they are found in much higher density compared to other forests type.
How they are adopted to the Tropical Climate: Seeing long black dense fur and heavy body, the first thing come in our mind that how they survive the tropical hot climate. They are very well adopted to their environment and evolved with various characteristics for their survival. Their dense black fur don’t have underfur which is an adaptation to the tropical climate. Their black fur is a defence against insects particularly from honey bees when they go in search of honey. Fur also give them a bigger look which is an essential quality in the forests where predators like tigers live. Their low metabolic rate and high thermal conduction reduces the heat production and facilitates the heat loss.
Strategy to survive on omnivore diet is another adaptation for a monsoonal climate where availability of fruit is limited to few months. They subsist on other food resources like termites which is available throughout the year.
Diet: Like all other bears, sloth bears also have sweet tooth, their preferred diet is sugar rich fruits and honey. They also feed on colonies of termites, which they mostly prefer during non-fruiting season. To feed on termites they break the mound with their sharp and strong claws and then feed on them. They also dig the ground (known to dig as deep as 1.5 meter) and turn the rocks to find the colonies of social ants to feed upon. They are good climbers and often climb the tree to feed on fruits or to find honey.
Having insects a major portion of their diet they have certain physiological adaptation like their rhinarium (A portion of hairless skin near the nostrils) have a mobile projection which cover their nostrils when they feed on insects and termites.
Social life: Like all other bears they also are solitary in nature but territoriality like other solitary animals is not much evident in bears. Their home ranges overlap with each other. Noisy interactions especially between males can be observed throughout the year which is more intense during mating season.
Mothers generally carry young ones on her back till the age of six months. Carrying cubs on back is a defence by mother from predators and other bears. Cubs stay with their mother till they attain the age of 1.5 to 2.5 years. The mother young social unit is the only long lasting social grouping observed in the bears.
Reproduction: The mating season occurs between May and July and cubs are born between November and January. They have delayed implantation of fertile egg which means the real pregnancy period is much shorter.
At the time of birth the female either dug a dens or go to a natural cave or den site where she give birth to generally two cubs. Mother bear will not come out from the den until the cubs attain the age of 6-10 weeks. During that time she survive on fat reserve and metabolic water. Once they are 6-10 weeks old they come out from the den with mother and stay with her till the age of 1.5 to 2.5 years. They attain the breeding age around 2.5 years and once separated from the mother they start looking for the mate.
Conservation: Degradation and loss of forests is a major threat to the population of Sloth Bear in its range. Most of the population of Sloth Bear living outside of protected areas are decreasing rapidly. Man-animal conflict and poaching cases are another threat for them.
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4. Malayan Sun Bear
Scientific Name: Helarctos malayanus
IUCN Status: Vulnerable
Wildlife protection Act, India: Schedule I
HBL: 100-150 cm
Weight: 30-80 kg
Sun Bear is the smallest, least studied and one of the rarest bear species of India and South East Asia. Known for their love for honey they are also called as honey bear.
They have a U mark on their chest which range from off white to cream to yellow to dark orange and in some individuals the U mark joins and made a perfect circle. This U mark looks like rising Sun which is why this bear is called Sun Bear. Their sleek and short black coat is to avoid the heat of tropical forests but is enough thick and coarse to protect them from twigs, branches, rain and insects.
They grow almost half the size of Black Bear, males are about 5 feet in length and about 70 kilograms in weight, which suits to their arboreal lifestyle and allow them to move easily through the trees. They also been observed making sleeping platform out of branches and leaves on trees.
Distribution & Habitat: Sun bear is found in the tropical and subtropical forests of Southeast Asia and in India they are distributed in North Eastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur. They are secretive in nature and most of the information about their distribution comes from camera trap photos only. At places they share their habitat with sloth bear and black bear but occupying different niche they seldom comes into conflict with each other.
Sun Bear inhabit tropical evergreen forests, and montane forests, some evidence suggests that they are found in mangrove forests also. They generally avoid disturbed and heavily logged forests, they also tend to avoid human habitation.
Diet & Feeding: Like all other bears sun bears are omnivores and feed on insects, termites, fruits and bees. They are also known to feed on small birds, lizards and rodents. All bears have sweet tooth but particularly this bear loves honey. Their love for honey has given them an alternate name of Honey bear. They have excellent sense of smell and strong claws, an essential tool for survival in dense evergreen forests. They dig and rip open the old fallen log and tree in search of termites and other insects. They have incredibly long tongue (25 Cm) which they use to extract honey from bee nests.
Reproduction: Due to their secretive nature and nocturnal life, very little is known about their social life but evidences suggest that they are monogamous (spend life with same partner) and breed throughout the year. Mother bears make ground nests generally at the base of buttress tree trunk and give birth to one or two blind cubs that weigh about 30 gms. The mother has been observed cradling a cub in her arm while walking in upright position on their hind legs, which is quite rare in bears. The cubs are dependent on their mother and become independent at 2 years of age. They become sexually mature by the age of 3-4 years.
Conservation: Because of their remote habitat and shy nature collecting data relevant to conservation is quite challenging. The major challenge to their conservation is deforestation of their habitat, poaching is rampant for their body parts and fur. Conflict and revenge killing is also reported when they raid the crops such as oil palm, coconut and bananas. Killing of mother to catch young ones for pet trade is also reported from various places.
Scientific monitoring is essential for the conservation of Sun bear, scientist should find a way to collect data useful for their conservation. Enforcement of strong laws and creating awareness in local community can bring down the cases of conflict killing and poaching. Protection of habitat is crucial for the survival of any species and that is true for Sun Bear too.
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