AKA Melursus Ursinus
Stories of my ancestors were once passed down for generations, our ferocity and prideful nature respectfully documented into books; bedtime stories made to terrify and humor little human boys and girls, to keep them off the woods. Paintings of us carved and colored onto walls and later canvas. So greatly remembered and admired we were, and yet now slowly being forgotten as my species hovers on the verge of extinction. I’ve often felt powerless whenever I hear my mom sadly voice out occasionally that our end might be nearing; that we could soon be a long-lost myth, another addition to the hundreds of extinct animal fossils proudly displayed in museums for humans to admire upon.
Bedtime stories are commonplace with our family. And tonight, was no exception. My sister and I sat around my mom as she began to tell us stories of happier times; times in which she ruled the forests, looked at the skies above with hopeful thoughts of tomorrows. Tales of what our kind was capable of, and of how vast and humongous the world was, how boundless. Tonight, her stories were specifically about us. Of our glory.
“Once upon a time,” she began. “There lived a sloth bear. His kin was native to Nepal, Bhutan, India but they were unique and happened to be the only bear species to reside in this tiny island, Sri Lanka. He was proud and fearless, and when it came to a fight he never backed; choosing instead to stand his ground against bullies and threats. Feared by many, even humans. He was short and stocky with a long, shaggy black coat and a V or Y-shaped mark on his breast. He had a cream-colored muzzle and his lips and tongue were huge and prehensile. He had huge, curved claws which he often used to climb trees and to penetrate rock-hard termite nest mounds to get to the juicy fresh termites within.
“And oh my!” my mother added dreamily. “You could find termites in every nook and corner of the forest back then.”
My sister interrupted, “Mom, do you think I would be able to dig like him someday, with my claws?” Mom suddenly looked sad – sadder than usual. “Maybe someday, little one,” she said gently. “Now hush. Let me continue. As I was saying, our kind is usually not the live-in-a-flock type, but more of a reclusive-and-loner type unless when mating and of course, when a mother and cubs are seen together.
This bear too was searching for a mate and one fine day, he saw the most beautiful bear he had ever set eyes on. He set his eyes on her, thinking no matter what, he would make her the mother of his cubs someday. He courted her, swaying her into his charms. He kept coming up to her, showing off his 6-foot long body, exaggerating his 140 kg weight, playfully playing with her, and even flaunting his excellent swimming skills. She was charmed but was too proud to give in. Every night he came to her, galloping faster than a running human, and finally, at long last, she caved. She surrendered to his adorable antics on the day he brought her the rare treasure she loved the most in this world…
HONEYCOMB! He brought her—”
“Mom, what’s honey?” I jumped in to ask, out of curiosity.
“It’s a God-given gift,” she said reverently, as though the word itself brought back longing memories. “The closest thing on earth to ambrosia.”
My sister chimed in, “Can we try it, Mom. Pleaseeeee?”
“Maybe love. Someday – if someday, you find yourself getting to roam the wilderness, look up to the treetops and if you catch the scent of this fantastic heavenly sweet smell, different from any other smell you have ever whiffed, follow it and you will find it. We sloths have a great sense of smell, and it never disappoints, no matter how poor our hearing and eye-sight can be. Now listen to me children, stop interrupting,” she chastised gently.
“So, as I was saying, they finally mated and she carried their cubs for seven months before giving birth to two lovely daughters in her underground den, which she had built. They were the most beautiful cubs she had ever laid eyes on. They were so tiny, helpless, and hairless, blind to the world yet so adorable. She carried them on her back wherever she went. Climbing or digging you name it”.
My sister shrieked delightedly, “Mom that’s us. Isn’t it? I still slightly remember you carrying us on your back and… and those humongous trees you used to climb.” My mom laughed. “Yes sweetheart, it is.”
“Really? Then that’s dad you are talking about!” I exclaimed excitedly. Mom gave me a sorrowful look. “Yes, that was your dad,” she said softly.
I quickly changed the subject; I didn’t like seeing my mother upset. “So why did you say we were going extinct? Wouldn’t it affect mother nature? Cause mom, you told us, everything in nature is about balance. So, if we sloth bears die, wouldn’t it unbalance nature?”
“A lot of questions you have love, but yes! Nature is all about balance and to go against it would be catastrophic. We might look like a speck of dust compared to these vast endless lands, but we play our role in helping this beautiful mother earth. We help spread the seeds of plants we eat, thus aiding the forest is growing and claiming its place on earth. In my 4 years in the wild, I must have planted more trees than the average man plants in their whole lifetime. And majorly, we help to control the mouthwatering termite population. So, darlings don’t ever underestimate your worth to mother nature. She created us for a reason no matter how small in number or insignificant we might look. Everyone has their purpose, even the humans you despise or the termites we love to feed on.
“Now to your other question… Yes, we are on the verge of extinction! We keep losing our habitat with rampant deforestation and human encroachment. We’re constantly being hunted by humans for our body parts and oils for medicine. And I’ve even heard—” she hesitated, her voice lowering to a whisper. “I’ve heard that they use our body parts as……talismans.”
My sister and I shuddered at how gruesome humans had become. We both moved into our mom’s embrace and hid in her warm and loving fur coat. Mom hugged us tightly and said, “Don’t worry my loves. Not all humans are unreasonable and evil. You are safe here, though your safety comes at a great cost.” We whimpered silently.
She continued, her voice sounding infinitely sad, “Our country is our home, close to 500 of our breed live here, I’ve heard. And close to 20,000 are barely scraping through in the rest of the world. They keep cutting down our forests, so we’ve had no choice but to feed on human farm crops and fruits at times, which angered them greatly. We’ve been at constant war with humans, for this reason. A war that has resulted in me losing quite a few of my sisters and brothers.
“Our numbers grew smaller, right before my eyes. Day by day less and less of us barely survived through the day. And I guess by now even the humans might have forgotten how we bears used to roam the forests of our island.”
“Mom, I don’t like humans,” my sister cried out. “Yes mom, why do they go against nature? Why does Mother Nature tolerate their preposterous behavior?” I asked, horrified. “Yes, Mom, why?” my sister whined.
“Children, children, children,” mom reprimanded. “Yes, what the humans did and are doing is bad. And yes, they are paying the price for it now. Mother nature always makes sure to teach the unrestrained a lesson. But also remember; just because some of the humans are ignorant and corrupt, doesn’t mean that all of them are. Well, look at Sam, our keeper, for an instant. Both of you adore him so much. Do you think he’s evil?” We shook our heads saying no. “So just because of a few despicable humans, don’t forget the kind souls out there! Most humans are trying their best to undo the mistakes of their forefathers as they too are facing the consequences of their past actions. They are taking measures to conserve us, and several other animals who are on the verge of extinction. You’d be surprised at the number of animals besides us that are Red listed in the IUCN.” She paused momentarily, caught up in her thoughts.
“I also recall overhearing Ravi talking about a plan! A plan that’s being carried out to save our kind. As we sloth bears love to live in wide-ranging, peaceful, and undisturbed environments to thrive, they are trying to restore and protect the few habitats that are left. They have banned humans from hunting us and fenced up and protected most of the areas we reside in. Most of us had migrated to the north and east of the island, so they’re trying to have strict regulation of human activity in those areas which are under protection. Ravi also mentioned that they found our kind roaming around 17% of the island and approximately 40% of us are contained in highly protected national parks. So, darlings don’t lose hope. Our kin has not been completely erased off the face of the earth yet. So, there is still a chance that we might once again thrive and co-exist with humans.”
“Mom then what about the areas out of the protected zones… would they have a chance to survive?” my sister inquired, looking somewhat reassured.
“Well dear, it’s up to the humans to assist us to survive. They brought this upon us and themselves. Humans dread us for our violent character, therefore we rarely get along, and the strain on sloth bear habitats is tremendous due to the humans’ quickly rising population. With that, their clearance of land for agriculture significantly affects us too. Constant habitat degradation and fragmentation have wreaked havoc on our health resulting in agitating us more, leading to increased confrontations between humans and us bears. We are powerful, but we are outnumbered by them, resulting in many losses for our side in this never-ending battle.”
“Until the relevant, power-handling humans figure out a proper plan; working with the foresters, farmers, and villagers to protect the remaining habitats, and instigate habitat restoration schemes through reforestation, we have little hope. Us bears try to avoid human contact at all costs. Yet on the rare occasions that we do encounter them, they try to get rid of us. And extreme legal actions should be taken for illegal poaching and killing, as there is a high demand for our bile, paws, and other body parts by humans. For the trade to end, more attention and funding needs to be directed towards their demand and increase awareness of these issues to the more ignorant humans. Make them see that the world is falling apart even as I speak. This may well help us and all other endangered species to prosper again.”
Hearing mom speak so seriously, I grew curious and asked, “Mom! If you ever get a chance to talk to the humans… what message would you like to give them?”
My sister chimed in loudly, “I would say, let us go! Leave our kind alone. I don’t like most of you humans. Keep away from our forests.” I growled in approval.
Mom laughed and looked at us fondly. “They need the forests for their survival, just like us, sweetheart. It’s something most of them haven’t realized yet. Well if I could speak my mind to them … my message to the kind humans who are trying their best to save the planet and us from their own species would be: In the end, your target should be the prevention of our extinction, and saving us in our natural habitat should be your ultimate goal. There is no sense in waiting for the very last few of us to be left on the planet. Saving the last of our kind by caging us in zoos and conservation centers is not a solution. And neither is trying to revive our species using your advanced sciences and gene technology once we are gone. We deserve to be allowed to feel free and at home on this planet.
“Remember the movie Ravi tells you about all the time? Planet of the Apes? In the ending, the chimpanzee Caesar says, ‘Caesar is home,’ and just like him, I want to go home, too. Because no matter what lies ahead, what hardships I might have to face, the idea of being merely safe for a lifetime hardly matters. Not if I don’t get to go home.”
By Rtr. Serah Wijenayake
- Aloysius, D. R. (Ed.). (2012). Sri Lankan Sloth Bear. Populpublishing.
- Ratnayeke, S. (2021). Sloth bear: The barefoot bear of Sri Lanka. Sunway University Press.