India, a land of ancient tales and fables. The country that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s famous Jungle Book characters. Shere Khan. Hathi. The cheeky monkey tribe, Bandar-log. And perhaps, best loved of all, Baloo. This is the story of the real-life Baloo the sloth bear.

Sloth bears are secretive creatures. Surprisingly little is known about them. We are going to follow the fortunes of a young male, our Baloo. Setting out on his first year alone.

Sloth Bears Baloo the sloth bear
Sloth Bears

Karnataka in southern India. This sparse landscape is Baloo’s home. In a country of over a billion people, there’s little space for the wildlife. So this inaccessible terrain is a haven for wild animals. Sloth bears are found throughout the Indian subcontinent. In most places, they only come out at night to avoid contact with humans.

But here, they also still go about their business in broad daylight. Two male bears are pitting their strength against each other. It’s only playing, and one is clearly older and stronger than the other. He is a fully grown adult. Like all males, he likes to challenge younger bears to test his authority. The two opponents take care not to injure each other with their teeth and claws. Their contest is watched from a safe distance by another bear. Baloo the sloth bear is wise to keep out of the way.

He is just three years old, and it’s not long since he left his mother’s side to fend for himself. One day, he’ll also be fighting other male bears. But for now, he still has a lot to learn.

Baloo Sloth Bear
Baloo Sloth Bear

The bears have highly sensitive noses and can easily detect an ant’s nest hidden under the stones. The sloth bear is so-called, as early European zoologists thought it was indeed a sloth, because of its long curved claws and shaggy coat. But in fact, it’s a true bear, even if a rather unusual one. At an early age, the bears lose two of her front teeth, creating a useful gap through which they suck up insects, like a high-powered vacuum cleaner. It’s noisy but effective.

Nonetheless, Baloo the sloth bear needs to consume vast quantities of these fancy ants. Mother Nature’s recipes can be hard work!

Baloo’s noisy feeding habits have attracted some peafowl, which pick off any insects he misses.

Peacock interest Baloo the sloth bear

A young peacock does his best to impress the ladies. But, no one seems to pay him any attention. Maybe he’s still got to work on his moves. Especially, when a more mature male shows him how it’s done.

Baloo is not having any better luck. The midday sun is relentless. Few animals are active in this heat. Temperatures outside are over 40°. Baloo the sloth bear retreats into the cool shade of a cave. Down here, it’s 10° cooler than above. This is a regular daytime hideout and he knows the most comfortable spots for the well-deserved midday nap. He will sleep for the next four or five hours, snug and safe in his den.

Sloth Bear Cubs Baloo the sloth bear
Sloth Bear Cubs

While Baloo the sloth bear is resting another bear is out and about. It’s Baloo’s mother and she has new cubs with her. 10 weeks ago, she gave birth in a cave to twins, Baloo’s tiny brothers and this is their first excursion. Midday is the safest time to be outside for young cubs, when adult beers, which can be a threat, are resting.

From the safety of their mother’s back the youngsters can watch the world go by. The small brothers can even manage to have a little brotherly squabble.

A pair of mongooses watches the antics. But every mother sometimes gets impatient with the constant wrangling. Newborn sloth bear cubs have exceptionally strong forelegs and toes. They can support their entire weight with their claws. And they are also already excellent climbers. They need to be, because at the slightest sign of danger, their mother is off.

And there is one animal that sloth bears fear more than any other, the tiger.

Alert Tiger
Tiger Poised for Attack.

This Tiger has spotted a sambar deer. A split second distraction and it’s all over. Shere Khan has taken his prize. Although tigers can be a threat to sloth bears, they rarely take on a mother with cubs as she will fight back ferociously.

In the afternoon, the Sun loses some of it’s heat. Bonnet macaques are attracted to the sweet fragrance of a jackfruit tree. The first ripe fruits have fallen to the ground, and the macaques fill their cheek pouches with as much of the juicy flesh as they can.

Baloo’s sensitive nose has also picked up the enticing scent. The macaques quickly grab a last handful. Baloo is no danger to the macaques, but his noisy appearance scares them off. Sloth bears are adapted to feeding on insects, but they’re also partial to fruit. But there is nothing they like better than a good old scratch! With his strong claws, Baloo skilfully opens the leathery skin of the fruit. Jackfruit is sweet and rich in energy. And mealtimes, as always, are noisy affairs.

Patrolling Leopard

It’s early evening and Baloo’s mother takes another walk with her cubs. It’s far more dangerous for the family to be out at this time of day. They risk encountering a male bear, or a leopard. One cub is taking his first tentative steps. But he needs to stay close to his mother. A call from the female and the cub dashes back to safety. Leopards are versatile hunters and will kill a bear cub if they can catch one, but on their mother’s back, the youngsters are safe again. The big cat will not challenge a mother bear. This little fellow has just learned a valuable lesson in life -not to stray too far from his mother’s side. He’s safe this time, but he may not be so lucky the next.

India is a land of temples and ancient monuments. The deserted ruins, devoid of human life, now offer refuge to a different society – the Jungle Books’ Bandar-log or “monkey people”.

Bandar Log
Bandar Log

The Bonnet macaques have a community based on a network of friendships and alliances. This is strengthened and reaffirmed by mutual grooming. The daily hygiene session also helps remove parasites, and of course, it feels rather nice!

Macaque Infants
Macaque Infants

These infants still have to learn the way macaque society works. Females with young babies often group together, so the youngsters have more than one pair of watchful eyes on their, and always a playmate at hand. The macaques are not the only ones to have made a home in the temple ruins. Giant millipedes 20 cm long crawl over the monuments cracked facade.

Baloo also sometimes visits the deserted human ruins. They provide just as much shade as the rock caves. But now, he is looking for something else. Water. Water holes are scarce during the dry season, so Baloo the sloth bear takes every opportunity to drink, especially after feeding on dry and acidic insects. A group of white-spotted deer are also quenching their thirst. But there is one animal that is able to claim the watering hole for itself. The Indian elephant.

An Indian chameleon sits on a thorn bush. Baloo’s mother is after any termites on the bush. The chameleon was hoping to keep these for itself. But the bear decides to move on and that suits the chameleon just fine. Baloo’s mother is now carrying just one cub. Overnight, his twin seems to have vanished. Did a leopard catch one of the youngsters off guard after all? Or was it another bear? The remaining cub is now without a playmate. Yet, harsh as it may seem, his chances of survival are better now than before. He will receive all of his mother’s attention, and she will pass on her skills and knowledge to him, as she once did to Baloo.

Mongoose Warning
Mongoose Trouble

Mother and cub have come to investigate the termite mound. The club is curious. It’s his first lesson in catching insects. Painted spurfowl wait in the wings, hoping to pick off any morsels. The young cub watches and tries to copy. But it’s not as easy as it looks and he always seems to be getting in the way. He tries to get a look-in from a different position. “Dig” and “suck” seems to be the principal. But the heat has driven the termites deep into the nest. It’s a lot of effort for little reward. It’s time to move on.

Back on the rocks, there is trouble brewing in the mongoose territory. A member of the neighbourhood clan has ventured too close. The mongoose are fiercely protective of their home patch.

Back from his lesson in termite hunting, our young cub has time to play. Without his brother to tussle with he’s finding other ways to amuse himself.

His mother stays close. She doesn’t want to risk losing her second cub, too. The tender, mouth-to-mouth nuzzling between mother and son reinforces their bond and the young cub feeds from his mother’s snout. It’s the first time this intimate behaviour has been filmed in sloth bears and it’s not known what the offering from her mouth contains, but it’s likely to be sweet and nourishing.

His mother’s complete dedication to him will continue over the next two years, giving this young bear the best possible start in life. The following day, Baloo’s mother left the area with her cub. Why, we will never know. Maybe she moved on in search of food. Whatever the reason, she was never seen again.

For Baloo the sloth bear, real life is far tougher than any story in a book. But he’s learned how to survive on his own and has reached maturity. Now, he’s ready for the next chapter of his life.

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