The sloth bear’s shambling gait and diet of termites, honey and fruit conceal an aggressive disposition and huge canines that make it one of the most dangerous predators on the Indian subcontinent. The massive human population across most of its range, coupled with its aggressive personality, means that attacks on humans are unfortunately a common occurrence.
When non-fatal attacks are included, sloth bear attacks are more common than more feared species across the same range, such as tigers and leopards. More fatal sloth bear attacks are reported annually in a single Indian province than those carried out by brown bears globally, on average. Generally, these attacks are considered defensive in nature, rather than predatory. However, one individual, widely referred to as the sloth bear of Mysore, is famed as one of the most prolific man-eating bears on record, responsible for the deaths of at least 12 people.
The first recorded attacks took place in 1957 in the Nagavara hills, around 100 miles from the city of Bangalore. Living high up in the boulder-strewn hills, the bear would descend during the evening to forage on the farmland below. When encountering humans it would become extremely aggressive, often directing attacks at the victim’s face. Sloth bears are equipped with large claws used to rip open termite mounds, resulting in the face being completely torn from the skull in a number of cases. Even on the rare occasion that a victim survived the attack, they lost eyes, noses or cheeks to the bear’s claws and teeth. Over the coming weeks the bear became increasingly bold, descending during the day as well as at night.
After a 22-year old man was killed by the bear after he accidentally disturbed it foraging on fallen figs, his father wrote to renowned British hunter Kenneth Anderson asking for help killing the animal. Anderson had a well-established reputation as a successful hunter of man-eaters, having already ended the killing sprees of both tigers and leopards that had begun to prey on humans. Believing a sloth bear presented far easier quarry than a tiger, Anderson arrived prepared only for a brief hunt, bringing with him just his rifle, a torch and a change of clothes. He spent the night patrolling a number of locations the bear was known to feed on fallen fruit and peanuts, but found no sign of his quarry. The following morning he was taken by locals to the cave that was believed to be the bear’s lair, but assumed it was empty after throwing stones into the cave without response. He returned to Bangalore, asking to be notified if the bear attacked again.
A subsequent attack would take place one month later near the village of Sakrepatna. The bear attacked and mauled two woodcutters, killing one and badly injuring the other. The regional Forest Guard duly contacted Anderson again, asking for his help. Before departing Anderson asked for specific co-ordinates of the bear’s believed location, but a delay of 10 days in sending the response saw a member of the Forest Guard badly mauled by the bear while on patrol.
Just hours after arriving in Mysore, a man came running into Anderson’s quarters saying that his brother had been attacked near to where the bear was believed to live. Anderson set out on the six mile walk to the area with a number of local assistants, but the men refused to accompany him further once they neared the location. Pressing on alone, Anderson found the badly injured victim lying in a pool of blood beneath a tree. He initially attempted to carry the man to safety but sustained a badly twisted ankle. The man died a few hours later, before Anderson was found by Forest Guard and taken to Chikmagalur, where he was hospitalised for a week. The bear attacked twice more in his absence.
Returning to Mysore, Anderson switched tactics, setting up in a hidden position overlooked a field where the bear had previously been sighted. After around six hours of waiting, the bear appeared close to his position. Flicking on his torch startled the creature, causing it to rear up on its hind legs and giving Anderson a clean shot. The bear was killed immediately with a round to the chest.
In total, the sloth bear attacked 36 individuals, 12 of which were fatal and many of the others sustaining life-changing injuries. At least three of the victims were partially consumed, an unusual behaviour for a species which normally has little meat in its diet. Why this individual was such a prolific attacker of humans remains unknown, although the fear it inspired in local people resulted in a number of folk explanations. One was that the bear was a female who had seen her cubs killed by human hunters and was exacting her revenge.
Another was that it was a male bear that had fallen in love with a beautiful young girl from a nearby village, eventually kidnapping her and taking her back to his lair. His murderous rampage was said to have been triggered after local hunters found the girl and returned her to the village. Many man-eaters resort to preying on humans after sustaining an injury that prevents them effectively hunting their usual prey, but as the bear was not autopsied after its death it remains a mystery whether this was the reason for the attacks.