A massive project to assess the health of wildlife in Bangladesh has confirmed conservationists’ longstanding suspicions that sloth bears no longer exist in that country.

Sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) could once be found throughout India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. (A separate subspecies lives on the island nation of Sri Lanka.) Overhunting during the British colonial rule caused all populations of this lanky, shaggy, white-snouted species to crash by the end of the 19th century. Deforestation after India's independence in 1947 took a further toll on the animals' habitat and left all remaining sloth bear populations fragmented and isolated from one another. Poaching remains a threat for the bears, as does the capture of cubs, which are forced to "dance" as street performers. (They don't really dance; they are mutilated and forced to weave back and forth to music, a painful process that most of the animals do not survive).

Hunting and habitat loss also led to the bears' disappearance from Bangladesh. Sloth bears were last seen in central Bangladesh in the early 1970s, according to an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) sloth bear conservation plan (pdf) published in 1999. At the time conservationists suspected that a final few bears remained in the country's most remote eastern forests, the last area to be deforested.

Those hopes are now gone, according to a presentation given at the first meeting of the project to update Bangladesh's Red List of threatened species. "We are sure" the species is extinct in Bangladesh, said project leader Mohammed Shahed Mahabub Chowdhury. The Red List project, which ultimately aims to assess 1,700 species, is being funded by the World Bank and conducted by the IUCN and the Bangladesh Forest Department.

Sloth bears do have some level of protection in their remaining habitats, but habitat loss, conflict with humans and poaching still threaten their survival throughout their range. The IUCN estimates that sloth bear populations have declined between 30 and 49 percent over the past 30 years and expects that decline to continue. Unfortunately, due to the species's fragmented distribution, solid information on their populations and general health remains difficult to gather. Until that problem is solved, conserving the sloth bears that still exist will continue to be a challenge.

Photo: Marieke IJsendoorn-Kuijpers via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license