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Sloth bear in the wilderness

The Yala National Park in southern Sri Lanka is the most visited National Park in the country, and its main attraction is the Sri Lankan Leopard, the undisputed king of the jungle in Sri Lanka. While leopards can be seen often during morning safaris at Yala, Sloth Bears are rarer, as they are shy, and tend to hunt and forage at night. There are, however, occasions where you see bears during the daytime, especially in May/June every year.

The Yala National Park is not just a bunch of animals living in a desert. Its most prominent feature are the trees and shrubs, the cacti, the creepers and herbs, and the myriad water plants that thrive in the many lakes and pools within its boundaries. One of the largest types of trees is a type of Ironwood known in Sri Lanka as “Palu” (Manilkara Hexandra). These trees are now protected owing to their importance to the ecology of Sri Lanka and owing to how rare they are. The wood of the tree is very hard and very heavy – heavier than water, in fact- and was widely used for construction and decorative purposes throughout the centuries. Most of the large Palu trees in the country are several centuries old, and are therefore an integral part of the surrounding area.

“What’s the relevance of Palu trees to bears?”, you may ask. That is a question with a definite answer. In May/June of every year, the Palu trees all over the country bear fruit. Despite the colossal size of the trees, the fruit is very small. These ovoid fruit resemble yellow/orange LED bulbs, and trees begin to look adorned with lights during the fruiting season. These highly edible and aromatic fruits grow by the tens, maybe hundreds of thousands on each tree. The sticky pulp inside the fruit is sweet and succulent, and sloth bears will do anything to get their paws on them.

Although mostly termite eaters, sloth bears are known to hunt other insects and on occasion smaller mammals as well. A bear’s diet is varied, and fruits and berries are on the menu whenever they are available. It is thought that bears, despite being classed as carnivores, supplement their diet with fruits, berries, and the occasional honeycomb to regulate their digestive system and to get the carbohydrates their bodies require. The Palu season is when Sloth Bears get a chance to eat their favourite fruit. Forget the termite mounds on the ground… The top branches of the Palu trees are where the real food is.