Tigers eat sloth bears, don’t they?

In India’s jungles tigers sometimes kill sloth bears.  And eat them for breakfast – and lunch and dinner if there's anything left over. Although the shaggy sloth bear, one of four species of bears found in India, has a fearsome reputation for unprovoked aggression, Baloo is obviously no match for Shere Khan. Bear hair in tiger scat is not an unusual sight in forests where the two species coexist.  My friend, Dr. K. Yoganand, a wildlife biologist who studied sloth bears in Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, not only witnessed many aggressive encounters between bears and tigers, he even photographed a tiger feeding on a fresh sloth bear kill.  Obviously there is little love lost between the two species, which makes the incident I’m about to narrate rather unique.

In early 2008, a small group of us, including renowned tiger expert, Dr. Ullas Karanth of the Wildlife Conservation Society, witnessed a remarkable interaction between the two protagonists, the likes of which I'd never even dreamed of seeing in over two decades as a professional wildlife cameraman and filmmaker.  Here’s what happened.

February 2nd 2008:  We are seated in a watchtower overlooking a distant pool in the Nagarahole Tiger Reserve in Karnataka towards the end of a warm day. Several broad ‘view lines’ cleared by the park management radiate from this tower, allowing one to see animals that pass by on all sides, even far away. A small herd of chital or spotted deer is grazing in one of these view lines. Around 4.30 p.m. the deer suddenly perk up and, gazing into an adjacent patch of forest, signal with their high-pitched alarm calls that they have spotted a predator, probably, a tiger or a leopard.  Within minutes they melt away into the forest on the other side, but we remain on high alert.

After what seems like an eternity, but is in fact 20 minutes, we hear the loud woofing alarm calls of a sloth bear from the patch of forest that the chital had been suspicious of. Tense Anticipation in the tower. All binoculars now riveted in the direction of the hidden mystery. Five minutes later a large male tiger steps out of the patch of forest and into the view line, about 200 meters from where we are seated.

As we watch in disbelief, it is followed by an obviously agitated sloth bear that begins charging towards the predator. The big cat turns around, and we brace ourselves for a horrendous battle resulting in one very dead bear. Instead, confounding our belief, and standing conventional wisdom on its head, the tiger calmly flops down and contemplates the bear with complete equanimity!

The nonplussed bear then walks towards the tiger and, when it has approached it to within spitting distance, rises up on its hind legs.

The tiger’s reaction? A big yawn. The anticipated calamity is turning into a comedy, with the bear dancing around the tiger. The cat regards the bear much like an indulgent Labrador would the family toddler.

After shuffling about for a couple of minutes and checking out the tiger from various angles the bear turns around and retreats into patch of forest where it came from.

At which point the tiger lazily gets to its feet, walks a few yards in the opposite direction, flops to the ground again and goes to sleep.

Drama over, we turn to Ullas Karanth and ask him “what the hell was all that about?!”. Here is his interpretation of what took place: it is likely that the bear had cubs with her in the patch of forest when the tiger crossed paths with them. The woofing alarm call we heard earlier would have been the female warning the tiger off. She probably followed him out into the clearing to make sure he was heading away from her cubs. As for the tiger, his belly was full and he was not interested in food.  When not hunting, tigers are often totally disinterested in the presence of prey. I suppose if this cat could feel 'amusement', as we did, he probably just found the bear’s antics entertaining.

As Murphy’s Law would have it, faced with this once-in-a-lifetime spectacle, none of us had an SLR with a big telephoto lens. I clicked away with a less than adequate camera for the occasion, and the pictures had to be blown up by 300 per cent to bring the action closer. But, thankfully at least I have proof! Now no one can say “oh yeah? So what were you drinking that day?”!

This tigress (and her two cubs) in Panna fed on this sloth bear kill for four days. Photo by K.Yoganand

All pictures were shot with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50 non SLR digital camera. This is the actual size of the frame at full tele, which, in this camera, is the equivalent of a 420 mm lens. The other pictures have all been cropped from this original frame size.

The empty view line as seen from the watch tower.