What to do when you see a sloth bear

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Our managing director Catherine shares her experience seeing sloth bears in Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park:

It’s important not to panic and shout or make wild gesture that might catch the bear’s attention, at least that’s what our guide said as we drove through the dusty roads of Yala National Park. Okay, we were never in any real danger. I’d been to Yala, pretty much the most popular national park in Sri Lanka, several times to see the famous wild elephants and giant leopards. But whoever’s heard of a sloth bear safari? I was surprised when a friend told me about these unique excursions. Turns out sloth bears are difficult to spot but are truly magnificent to see in their natural habitat.

Their rarity piqued my interest. Also, one can never get tired of touring Yala so I hopped on my third wildlife safari just to spot a sloth bear. One of the first things my tour guide said to me as I was picked up from my jungle camp resort was “are you a Jungle Book fan?”  I’ve seen the Disney movie but didn’t really consider myself a big fan. Turns out, Baloo from the story is actually a sloth bear. My guide explained that little kids, and some adults, are interested in that fact.

An elephant I saw on my way to see sloth bears.

An elephant I saw on my way to see sloth bears.

This peacock isn’t shy about showing off.

This peacock isn’t shy about showing off.

We drove along the sandy roads of the park being amazed by the sights of magnificent peacocks perched on dead tree branches and some elephants. As we drove, my guide gave me some important information about the sloth bears. After all, I had come on this safari not knowing anything about them. Sloth bears are nocturnal creatures and are extremely elusive. Because of this, they can be seen only during a certain time of the year. Why? Simple; these furry giants are gluttons. May to July is the Palu fruit season in Yala. Apparently, these small yellow fruits are chocolate to sloth bears. The bears love to binge on the fruits, which ferment in their digestive tracks, giving them the time of their lives.

My first sloth bear! (Photo credit: S. Garvie)

My first sloth bear!
(Photo credit: S. Garvie)

The first sloth bear we saw was drinking water by a muddy pond. After drinking like a gallon of water, it went to sleep against a tree. My guide said the fermented fruit make them sleepy. It was the first time I saw a real bear. I was quite cautious and worried. The bear was covered in long, black fur. I was surprised by its furriness. I wonder how they can stand the tropical heat. What if it woke up? The bear had strikingly long fingernails, the kind you see on cartoon villains. They must have been about 6 inches long and my guide said they are capable of leaving very nasty scars. My guide said the sloth bears keep away from humans and attack only when startled.

Sloth bears go crazy for Palu fruits that ferment in their tummies.

Sloth bears go crazy for Palu fruits
that ferment in their tummies.

Baby bear and mommy bear relaxing in the sun.(Photo credit: L. Shyamal)

Baby bear and mommy bear relaxing in the sun.
(Photo credit: L. Shyamal)

The sleeping bear didn’t show any signs of waking up so we moved along to another Palu tree. Shockingly, there were several bears feasting on the fruit without even noticing the four jeeps parked around them. They are completely addicted to it! It was fascinating to watch these creatures. All they did was eat and eat, and after a while, one by one went to sleep so we continued driving. I saw a mother and an adorable cub relaxing on a rock nearby.

On our way back, out of nowhere, a bear ran across the road. The driver slammed on the breaks and the noise made the huge bear look at us. My heart almost stopped. I kept thinking about those long nails. No one moved or made a sound. After a while, the bear turned away and went back into the shrubbery. We all sat there for a heartbeat and then just started laughing, mostly in relief. I couldn’t think of a better end to a safari. Yala never fails to thrill me. So, next time you are in Sri Lanka, call us to arrange an unforgettable wildlife tour.

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