New Delhi — A sloth bear mauled a couple to death in a forest in central India's Madhya Pradesh state last weekend and then spent hours playing with their remains, but a forestry official told CBS news that while the animal continued disturbing their bodies, it did not feed on the people it killed, refuting witness reports from earlier in the week.
While sloth bear encounters with people are relatively common, fatal attacks are not, and an expert told CBS News on Friday that it would be "very unusual" for the animals to feed on human flesh. Divisional Forest Officer Gaurav Sharma told CBS News on Saturday the animal died about two hours after it was captured. A medical examination confirmed earlier reports that it was rabid, but it was not found to have ingested human remains.
The attack took place on Sunday when a man and his wife were returning home from a temple visit early in the morning. The sloth bear first attacked the woman as the couple walked through the Panna National Park forest, killing her. Her husband was killed when he tried to rescue his wife.
Sharma was quoted by India's NDTV network Friday as saying the attack happened around 6:30 in the morning after the couple went "to offer prayers at a temple" in the area.
The Times of India quoted eyewitnesses from the crowd of villagers who gathered at the spot, saying some tried to scare the bear away by firing gunshots in the air, but it wouldn't budge. The paper said the witnesses saw the bear eating the victims for several hours until forestry workers arrived.
"This is very unusual," Neha Sinha, a conservation biologist and author, told CBS News. "Usually, sloth bears eat honey and insects."
Sloth bears are found in India and other South Asian countries, including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Bhutan. They are about the size of American black bears and can grow to weigh more than 300 pounds.
Escalating deforestation has been depriving species including bears of their natural habitat and putting them into closer proximity of towns and villages for at least two decades, and incidents of violent human-animalhave been on the rise in India.
"Generally there is conflict during mahua season, when people go to collect flowers and the bears are feeding," Sinha explained to CBS News. The mahua is a tree that grows across many parts of South Asia and flowers in the late spring and early summer. The flowers are prized by both people and sloth bears.
Residents often venture into the forests to collect the flowers for sale at this time of year.
Forestry officials told Indian media outlets earlier in the week, before Sharma confirmed the medical test results showing the bear was rabid, that the animal's unusual behavior could be due to a rabies infection.
Uttam Kumar Sharma, field director of Panna National Park, was quoted by the India Today news outlet as saying the bear seemed to have been "in its last stages" when it attacked the couple.
A study published in March showed the highest prevalence of sloth bear attacks across India were in Madhya Pradesh state. The study says they are the most common bear species in the country, and they can "behave aggressively toward humans when threatened and are among the most dangerous wildlife in India."
Regional authorities said the pair's family would be given 400,000 Indian rupees ($5,100) in compensation for their loss.
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