A Bear’s Life – an Insight

Widely considered a fascinating and endangered species, the sloth bear takes a significant spot in Sri Lanka’s wildlife domain.

Despite this status, however, the fact that this creature has rarely triggered meaningful research in terms of conservation was the catalyst behind the event, A Bear’s Life – an Insight.

Taking place at Jetwing Colombo Seven, the event began promptly at 6.30 PM on 21 August 2018 and featured a line-up of wildlife experts and conservationists. Beginning with a warm welcome by Hiran Cooray, the Chairman of Jetwing, who stressed the importance of focusing conservation efforts on the sloth bear, the event was an insightful glimpse into the life, habits, and threats these creatures face in Sri Lanka.

Taking the centre stage, the first speaker of the evening, Chamara Amarasinghe, an environmentalist at Jetwing Yala, noted that the evolution of the species can be traced as far back as 10 million years. Providing the audience with an insightful overview of the sloth bear, he shared fun facts about the creature’s behaviour and physical characteristics that kept the audience enthralled.

With his concise presentation, the audience learned not just the challenges sloth bears face but also the immense value these creatures possess. With innate pest control abilities due to their fondness for termites and ants, as well as the touristic appeal they possess, sloth bears contribute great ecological value to local biodiversity. With a concluding note that greater research on these creatures is necessary to safeguard their dwindling numbers, Amarasinghe made the perfect opening for the next speaker.

Ranil Nanayakkara, Founder and Team Lead at Biodiversity Education and Research, then made an insightful presentation on the research undertaken to determine sloth bear population densities in the Wilpattu National Park. An endeavour funded by CIC Holdings PLC, the audience was treated to first-hand accounts of this exciting project, which involved tales of lone bears sightings at odd hours of the night and early morning safaris.

With the use of skat analyses, advanced photographic techniques, collaring attempts, and more, the team behind the project was able to pinpoint an approximate number of 59 bears in the park. While this is not an entirely accurate estimation, the research demonstrates that “bold male bears” as Nanayakkara described, are higher in number.

In analysing other findings which included the bear’s diet, it was demonstrated through the use of detailed graphs that these creatures are omnivorous by nature. With termites, ants, and an assortment of fruit making up most of their diet, sloth bears may be mistakenly perceived as gentle and docile creatures. However, as pointed out by one of the speakers, this is far from the truth. It was noted that despite their deceptively harmless demeanour, sloth bears are extremely agile and fearsome.

The event then gave way to a lively panel discussion on the challenges, lessons learned, and best practices in the wildlife industry. Moderated by Shiranee Yasaratne, the panelists included heavyweights such as Prof. Devaka Weerakoon from the University of Colombo, M. G. C. Sooriyabandara from the Department of Wildlife Conservation, Nileeka Tilekeratne from CIC Holdings PLC, and Ranil Nanayakkara.

Speaking on various aspects of conservation in Sri Lanka, the discussion touched on pertinent issues such as the insights gleaned by the private sector in terms of conservation and the need for greater engagement between this force and state wildlife agencies.

Entertaining questions from the audience, the panelists were posed with questions regarding the methodology of the research as well as those relating to population numbers and the geographical territory of the bears.

The evening then wrapped up with quick comments from the panel, with Prof. Devaka Weerakoon making an astute observation about failure not being the end of the road but the precursor to greater learning.


By Archana Heenpella
Pics by Indika Handuwala