The newest sloth bear (Melursus ursinus)at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo is not so new at all—born at the Zoo, his debut on Asia Trail marks his homecoming after seven years. Francois, a 260-pound, 19-year-old bear, was born at the Zoo in 1991 and was later moved to the Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas to breed. Francois is one of seven cubs sired by the Zoo’s beloved sloth bear, Merlin, who died last year. According to his keepers, Francois’ disposition is not unlike his father’s.
“He is just as playful and seems to enjoy interacting with the keepers, just like Merlin did,” said Jilian Fazio, an animal keeper on Asia Trail. “He also sits Buddha-style in the same way. And he is definitely interested in the sloth bear ladies.”
Keepers hope that Francois shows special interest in 15-year-old Hana. The homecoming is actually a bit of a reunion for the two—they were together for about five years before Francois left for Little Rock. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ sloth bear Species Survival Plan, which manages breeding in order to maintain a genetically diverse zoo population, recommended that Francois now try breeding with Hana.
“If Francois and Hana produce cubs, they will further increase and genetically diversify the captive population of sloth bears,” said Mindy Babitz, an Asia Trail animal keeper and the Zoo’s institutional representative to the sloth bear SSP. “Francois is also an ambassador for his wild counterparts—not just wild sloth bears, but all Asian animals whose populations are declining due to habitat loss, poaching and trade in animal parts.”
In addition to Francois and Hana, the Zoo has 10-year-old Khali, a female who was once Merlin’s companion. This non-reproductive female will now be Francois’ companion during the non-breeding season. Visitors can see the Zoo’s sloth bears in the yards at the top of Asia Trail.
Sloth bears are a tropical, non-hibernating bear species hailing from India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Long, curved claws and lengthy snouts allow the bears to excavate ants and termites, which make up the bulk of their diet in the wild. Sloth bears also carry their cubs on their backs as a primary mode of transportation, a habit observed in other insect-eating species, such as the giant anteater. The Zoo’s sloth bears eat a zoo-formulated chow and a variety of fruit, in addition to insects, mealworms and crickets as snacks to supplement their diet.
Habitat damage from overpopulation and increased agricultural activity have led to a drop in sloth bear population in the wild and the International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies these animals as a vulnerable species. Approximately 10,000 to 20,000 sloth bears remain in the wild, with less than 40 in captivity in the United States.
Visitors interested in learning more about how sloth bears eat can watch a feeding demonstration every day at 11:30 a.m. on Asia Trail.