India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan


Wet or dry tropical forests, savannas, scrublands, and grasslands

It’s a what?

Sloth bears are a bit misleading by name. They are not related to sloths, and they are not slow moving. In fact, they’re agile bears that can run faster than a human and will attack if surprised. It was a European zoologist, George Shaw, who named the sloth bear for its long, thick claws and unusual teeth. He thought that the bear was related to the tree sloth due to these features. Sloth bears sometimes hang upside down on tree branches, much like a tree sloth.

Y-O-U: Not the average bear

The sloth bear is a bit messy in appearance. It has long, rough, unruly hair around its ears, shoulders, and neck that is cinnamon to dark brown in color. The pale muzzle and a flexible nose sniff out interesting smells. The sloth bear often has a white patch of fur on its chest in the shape of a Y, O, or U. With a stocky body and powerful legs, this medium-size bear is able to climb trees. The sloth bear cannot pull in its claws like a cat's, so it looks a bit awkward when walking.

Talk about noisy! Sucking sounds the sloth bear makes while eating can be heard up to 330 feet (100 meters) away.
Sloth bears are the only bear species that carry their young around on their back.
It was believed that a sloth bear was being aggressive and threatening when it stood up on its hind feet, but often the bears are just getting a better view and checking the air for whiffs of food or danger.
A sloth bear can close its nostrils while it sucks up ants and termites with its mouth so the insects don’t crawl up its nose.

Through the years the San Diego Zoo has had two subspecies of sloth bear. The first Zoo residents were Indian sloth bears, which arrived in 1940. In 1979, we became the only zoo in North America to house Sri Lankan sloth bears, received on exchange from the National Zoo of Sri Lanka. We welcomed the first cub of this subspecies to be born and raised in the Western Hemisphere in 1985. We held a name-the-bear contest; it received over 14,000 entries! The winning name was Deva, a Sri Lankan name that means Indian princess.

Currently, the San Diego Zoo has two sloth bear siblings that live along Center Street.

Slippery slope
Like the other Asian bear species, we know little about sloth bear behavior and ecology. Habitat encroachment is the greatest threat to sloth bears. But illegal hunting and capture still threaten wild sloth bears. The International Bear Association works to promote sloth bear conservation in the local communities.

Currently, the sloth bear remains vulnerable. This, in large part, is due to poaching. Some people believe that sloth bear gall bladders can cure certain illnesses, which is not true. Habitat destruction also plays a major role in the decline of sloth bears in Asia.

Sloth bears kill or maim more people per year than any other type of bear. This is largely due to the fact that they live in an area where there are lots of people. Some people go out of their way to find and kill the innocent bears. This is unfortunate, because sloth bears are shy and would rather run away from human encounters. They are aggressive only when startled or confronted. Even though a hunting ban is in place, sloth bear cubs are still captured and forced to "dance" for audiences. Thanks to the tireless efforts of some nature organizations within India, this is significantly less common than it used to be.

One small step for sloth bears
Sloth bears play an important role in their habitats as seed dispersers. San Diego Zoo Global started studying sloth bears to learn more about their behavior and needs. We are partners with India’s Wildlife SOS sloth bear rescue facility, funding research and education programs.

This unique bear is worth saving! Every measure you take is one small step for the sloth bear but a big step toward saving the planet and the animals that inhabit it.

Join us!
You can help us bring sloth bears and other species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.