Bears and Buffaloes of Sri Lanka

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A number of different species of bear are found in many parts of the world. These are made up of two types of bears – the true bears and the sloth bears. The sloth bear (Melursus ursinus inornatus) found in Sri Lanka belongs to the mammalian order: Carnivora (flesh eating).

The name sloth is a misnomer in that it is not of the same family as the true sloths, which are smaller and found only in South America. Bears are presently found in all the continents except in Africa, Australia and Antarctica. The species melursus ursinus is also found in Bhutan, Nepal and India. The bear that inhabits Sri Lanka (melursus ursinus inornatus) is a sub species that is endemic to this country.

In Sri Lanka, bears are found in the lowland forests. It is not found in the forests of the higher elevations nor in the south-west of the island. The Sri Lankan bear has coal black, shaggy and coarse hair all over its body including the ears. It has a hairless whitish/ grey muzzle and a white mark like a horseshoe on its chest.

The coat is usually ragged due to the hair being taken off when rubbed against rocks and moving through thick shrub. The hair on the female is usually thicker than on the male.The female also has a dense portion of hair between her shoulders. It seems that this is specifically for the cub, which travels on its back, to hold on.

Each foot has long and sharp claws, which cannot be retracted like those of a cat. These claws are curved to facilitate digging and climbing trees. In order to protect these claws from damage whilst walking, the bear uses the side of its paws to take its weight. This makes its gait seem ungainly.

The paws are soft pads, which are often sucked by the bear. D.J.G Hennessy, a retired police officer, who had two bears in his property at Horowapotana, writing in 1939 says ‘ “The significance of the notes on which the bear sucks his paw is interesting; a high whine and rapid sucking denotes impatience and anger, a deep note like the humming of a hive full of bees on a summer’s day indicates that he is contented and pleased with life, a barely audible note shows great happiness while a silent suck in which he usually indulges in just before going to sleep on a full stomach denotes the acme of bliss”. Observations of wild bear, without their knowledge, too show that it puts its ears forward when angry or surprised and it puts its ears back when in a ‘happy or pleasant mood.

The bear has a mobile snout in that it can be moved about easily. It has mobile and protruding lips, which can be formed like a tube to help suck up termites. The nostrils can be closed at will. This is to prevent earth and dust getting in when sucking up ants. The inner pair of its upper incisors is absent forming a gap in the front teeth. The palate is hollowed. These morphological adaptations supported by strong limbs armed with exceptionally long, strong and curved claws, allows it to feed on termites by ripping open their nests, and sucking up the occupants in a manner similar to a vacuum cleaner. [WL]

The eyesight and hearing of bears are very poor. Its hearing is further reduced when it is grunting and digging away at a termite mound. Whilst feeding on a termite nest is generally very noisy and can be heard from a distance. Bears have a very good sense of smell.

They can locate bee’s nests quite high up in trees by their smell. They climb up with the aid of their strong claws and get at the hives. However, it is not always that they get at the hive. If they cannot open up the crevice with their claws they are disappointed. On the other hand, if there is dead or decayed wood around the crevice, they can open it out easily. Bears do not seem to be effected by the bees that attack them. The thick fur prevents the bees from sting the skin.

The primary food of a sloth bear is termites or white ants belonging to the insect order: Isoptera. Bears generally feed on termites and ants that are found in the anthills which it tears open with its strong claws. The termites and ants are sucked into its mouth. However, bears are omnivores and opportunistic feeders, meaning they eat a wide variety of foods that consists of insects, grubs, tubers, grass, berries, nuts, flowers, fruits, honey and fish.

They also eat meat, either as carrion or fresh from the occasional kill, which probably has been made by a leopard. Bears climb trees in search of honeycombs and are frequently attacked by the bees. They also climb trees, with the aid of their powerful claws, for the fruit of the Palu (Manilkara hexandra), which is sweet and which they consume when in season.

Palu bears fruit in May and June. They can easily climb up the Palu trees, which have a very rough bark. They also like the fruit of the Weera trees (Drypetes sepiaria) and, as a result, are known in certain parts of the country, as ‘Weera Muththa, in Sinhala or old man of the Weera tree. Rukshan Jayewardene says that they also consume the fruit of Ehela (Cassia fistula) Weera (Drypetes sepiaria), Kunumella (Diospyros ovalifolia), Mora (Nephelium longana) Damba (Szygium cumini) and Eraminia (Zyziphus mauritiana).

The sweet aromatic white flowers of Mee (Madhuca longifolia) are a special favourite. Also Sharmila Ratnayeke in her research at Wasgomuwa has found that the bear’s second preference is the pods of the tree Cassia fistula.

Lakshman Nadaraja said that ‘ while examining sloth bear scats (excreta) in some national parks during a period of extreme drought, no rain having fallen for two months, I noticed that termite remains were much in evidence. Another detail is that scats which contain termite remains contain very little else; on the other hand, scats containing fruit remains rarely have termite remains in them.

Another interesting fact is that a leopard coming down a tree looks in the direction of its descent whereas the bear tends to slide down the tree, not seeing where it is going.

The bear is the most dangerous animal that one can encounter in the jungle. The elephant and the leopard, the other two dangerous animals, will move away on hearing the approach of a human being.

The bear too will move away on hearing the approach of humans. On the other hand, however, the bear is generally very intent on whatever it is doing and is, at most times, oblivious to what is happening around. As a result, people moving about in the jungle often surprise a bear and are immediately attacked by it. A bear stands on its hind legs and attacks with its front paws which have long curved and sharp claws.

Most times the victim does not die unless he bleeds to death. Most victims of bear attacks are maimed and disfigured for life. In Sri Lanka, the jungle villager regards the sloth bear as the most dangerous animal, and few will disagree. The bear is one of the most feared animals in the forest. When angry it is more aggressive than a leopard or an angry elephant. When surprised in the forest, a bear whips round making a ‘whoof’ sound. Two villagers who have been attacked by bear in two different forests and who bear gruesome scars, have described to me the attack by the bear.

When angry, a bear charges on all fours making a sound between a bark and a roar. When it gets close to the target, generally a human being, it gets up on its hind legs and lashes out with its front legs and long talons. Biting at the same time. However, this attack lasts only for a very short time. After a minute or so it runs off as if it has been attacked. This observation was from a companion of the attacked, who watched the bear attack dumb struck.

The reaction of a bear encountered in the jungle, not one surprised, is not predictable. It may run towards you and attack or on the other hand may turn around and run away. A female with young, of course, will definitely attack. A theory is that, when attacked by a bear, if any object, like a stick, is offered to the bear it will attack the stick and run off.

However, since in a bear attack both the bear and the person attacked are surprised, there is no time to get at a stick. Bears are known, but rarely, to attack from behind. Apparently its noisy approach is a give away.

Shamala Ratnayeke has also found that the home range of a sloth bear at Wasgomuwa averages a few square kilometres and much smaller than those reported for sloth bears in Nepal or India.

The female or she bear has one cub, sometimes two, once a year. In the early months of its life the baby bear rides on the back of the mother. Bears are very poor at reproduction.

The young remains with the mother for between two and a half and three years. They breed about once in three to four years. Bears are said to have the lowest reproductive rate amongst carnivorous mammals.

Though bears prefer solitude and go deep into the jungle, they come into conflict with poachers, honey gatherers, timber fellers, firewood collectors and chena cultivators. Their habitats are reducing and also becoming fragmented due to human intrusions. So much so that there are no bears outside protected areas now. Since humans have a fear for bears and those using the forest kill them. This is despite the legal protection that has been afforded to bears in this country.

In China, bears are raised to tap their gall bladders for their bile, which is prized as a traditional medicine in Asia. The bile is extracted through surgically implanted catheters in the bear’s gall bladder, or by a “free-dripping” technique by which bile drips out through holes opened in the animals’ abdomens. The bears are kept in tiny cages where there is hardly any room for it to move about. This is both gruesome and cruel. There are more than 200 bear farms in China, which keep about 7,000 bears.

In India, bears are caught by certain tribal people and trained to dance. They are taken from village to village to perform for a few cents. The bears, which are always chained round the collar are taken on a leash and suffer many hardships and cruelty. Moves to have these dancing bears banned have been of no avail.


Sri Lanka has the water buffalo (Bubalis bubalis). The buffalo here can be put in three categories. – the tame buffalo, feral buffalo and the truly wild buffalo.

The tame buffalo is found all over the country especially in areas where paddy is cultivated. They can be seen in the villages helping the farmer to plough his fields etc. The cows are milked and the ever-popular curd is made with the milk. History shows that the buffalo has been tamed since time immemorial in India, Malaya and Egypt.

The feral buffaloes are animals that were once tamed but who have been let off into the jungles. They are mostly excess buffaloes that the farmers have had but which they do not need anymore. These animals have learnt to live in wild conditions and breed freely. They are found even in the peak Wilderness and the Great Western Range in Talawakele, the highest forests in the island.

The transition from tame to feral is not difficult since the original tamed buffaloes came from wild stock. Some farmers let off their buffalo into the jungle when the ploughing of paddy fields are over. They go back and catch them again the next season to do their paddy field work. In some instances the farmers do not catch all the feral buffalo, only the number that they require. The number of feral buffalo increases each year and those that are not used periodically become more and more wild and tend to move away when the farmers come to get the others.

The feral buffalo, when released into the jungle, enjoys the new growth that has sprung up during the wet weather. During the cultivation season they are penned up till their work is over. In early days farmers also used to let the female buffaloes wander in to the forest to be mated with the wild ones to produce strong offspring.

The third group is the truly wild buffalo, which is now found only in the deep recesses of our forests. They have a reputation of being very dangerous. They are not as dangerous as they are made out to be, but will become aggressive and dangerous if cornered or if they are wounded. There is also the odd cantankerous male who charges you at will. The wild buffalo has a fierce pride, which gives it a much greater stature than the very docile tame buffalo.

With the intrusion of the feral buffalo into the deeper recesses of the jungle, cross breeding may occur and the pure wild strain could gradually get diluted. So much so that there is now a certain degree of doubt whether there are truly wild buffaloes in our jungles.

Sri Lanka has also had, in the past, another type of buffalo described by Deraniyagala as a Gaur (Vibos Sinhalayaus) The scientific name has later been changed to Vibos Gaurus. Sightings of this animal have been reported in the late 19th century from the Kuruvita side of the peak wilderness. The Gaur (Vibos gaurus) is still found in India as far south as Kerala.

The buffalo is able to adapt itself to any habitat or climate. The social structure of the feral buffalo is somewhat similar to their wild counterparts.

They are highly territorial and mark out their areas distinctly. When travelling in the wilderness areas one sees some grass and urine with a drag mark across a part of the road. This is the territorial marking of a male buffalo. Males live a solitary life in their territories.

Males, when another male invades their territories, will fight with the intruder by charging and butting it. Generally when a male makes the intrusion into another territory, one charge by the incumbent is sufficient to drive the intruder away. However, if the intrusion is during the mating or rutting season the two males will continue to fight by charging and butting each other. The clatter of their horns when they meet at speed is quite loud.

The herd consists of females and their offspring. The males move out and either form male groups or live as individuals. Later when they are fully mature they mark out their own territories. The males are larger than the females and generally weigh about 700-800 kgs. However, there are exceptional males that weigh about 900 kgs. The males are also more muscular than the females. The horns that the males and females carry also differ.

The males have thicker set and shorter horns, whereas the females have up curved crescent horns that are thin and wide set. One sees many buffaloes with horns that do not match, horns that are down-curved, one horn up and the other down.

The female starts breeding at the age of about two and a half years. The gestation period is around 10 months. The female buffalo gives birth in seclusion having left the herd temporarily. The calf is quite different to the adults. It is lighter in colour and has its skin covered in soft hair, which gives it a wooly appearance.

The calf is gangly but develops a steadiness as it grows. The mother looks after the calf for 6-9 months and will defend it aggressively if she thinks that the calf is threatened. During this period the calf is weaned and then becomes a part of the herd.

The buffalo is a strong swimmer. It is very fond of wallowing in pools and seems to prefer the muddier pools. It gets itself caked in mud to get rid of any ticks or parasites that are on its body. When the mud dries and falls off, so do the ticks and parasites. Buffaloes can be seen serenely lying in any type of water body – the reservoirs (tanks), rivers, streams and canals.

The buffalo is a herbivore and eats mostly grasses. It has a very efficient digestive system, which can make maximum use of any coarse fodder that it may consume. Buffaloes that lived in the forests are which the villagers designated as wild. Differentiating from their domestic ones, that were in high demand by hunters during the 19th century.

Many planters shot these wild buffaloes and mounted their heads some of which are still seen on the walls in some planter’s bungalows and upcountry planters’ clubs. During the 1960’s and 1970’s large herds of buffaloes – mainly or entirely from domestic stock were reported to constitute a threat to the vegetation of national parks, especially in Yala.

In 1953, Deraniyagala described the wild buffalo of Sri Lanka as a new subspecies and noted, “About seventy years ago wild buffaloes abounded in all the forests of the low country, but today most of them have interbred with domestic stock. The relatively purest herds are restricted to Yala Game Sanctuary, but much vigilance will be necessary if this remnant is to be kept free from domestic animals which are now encroaching upon this once inaccessible area.”

During recent decades, it has been observed in many cases concerning different species that differences of behaviour patterns constitute a strong barrier against an introgression of genes of a domestic or feral population into a wild population, which lives in an intact natural environment.

Although people, who have dealt with the problem in more detail, generally agree, that “wild” and feral buffaloes can be distinguished on the basis of external features. It is often thought, that the Asiatic buffalo is not indigenous to Sri Lanka, but has been introduced to the island by man.

This would imply, that also the “wild” ones are in fact feral having run wild a long time ago. The reason for that assumption is, that no wild buffaloes occur in India, south of Godavari River. According to Deraniyagala’s view, that ‘there can’t be truly wild buffaloes in Sri Lanka’ is disproved by the occurrence of fossil buffalo teeth in the gem sands of the Rathnapura area.

The bulk of the free roaming buffaloes in Sri Lanka are feral domestic ones that live in large instable herds on the man-made savannahs. These animals, that can be easily observed, have caused the widespread belief, that there have never been truly wild buffaloes in Sri Lanka but only feral domestic ones.

However, trained observers – amongst them many game wardens – always have pointed to substantial differences between these buffaloes and the true forest- dwelling wild buffaloes.

P.E.P. Deraniyagala who has described the subspecies, “migona” listed the characters of the pure wild buffalo according to his own observations: “The colour is much darker than in the domesticated animal, the horns are stouter with the last third of their length curved forwards. The bulls possessed heavy fore quarters with a prominent ridge extending backwards from the high withers.

They were hairy and the neck displayed mane wrinkles, the limbs and tail were more elongated and the stride longer and smoother than the shuffling waddle of the shorter limbed domesticated animal which is grey in colour. It is less hairy, smaller and the slope from withers to hips is less pronounced.

The wild calves and many hybrids are of a coppery hue whereas the young of the domesticated buffaloes are light grey. Finally, the hoof prints and mounds of dung of the wild animals were much larger than those of the domesticated buffalo.”

Recently Prof. Colin Groves, one of the world’s leading taxonomist has investigated skulls of forest-dwelling buffaloes and concluded, that there has existed an indigenous form of wild buffalo in Sri Lanka that might even represent a species of its own whilst the Mainland wild buffalo represents another species.

The question is whether or not pockets of pure wild buffaloes have survived in Yala and perhaps in other places. In order to settle this question further investigations should be done.

By Jayantha Jayawardene
Daily News

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