The attack took place at a nature reserve on Sunday, as the couple walked back from a temple, authorities said.
On their way home from Khermai temple, Mukesh Rai and his wife Gudiya, aged 43 and 39 respectively, were walking through a forest in Panna, a district of central Indian state Madhya Pradesh, when they encountered a sloth bear.
The attack happened at approximately 6:30 a.m. less than a mile away from their home.
The Times of India has reported that the bear “tore their bodies apart,” and proceeded to devour their remains for at least four hours before the police and forest department arrived.
Bear attacks in India are relatively rare, but are far more likely in forested areas. In a 2015 review of attacks in Central India, researchers found the vast majority of victims suffered injuries to their faces and or scalps.
Sloth bears were involved in all of the 48 attacks analyzed.
The bear that killed the Panna couple was reportedly tranquilized and captured, a process that took two hours to complete.
Divisional Forest Officer Gaurav Sharma told DNA India: “The animal will not be released in the forest and we plan to send it to some zoo in another city.”
The family of the deceased couple have been offered financial assistance of 400,000 Rupee ($5,000). According to the Times of India, locals held a protest after the couples’ deaths, demanding jobs for members of their family.
Sloth bears are native to South Asia, and are rarely seen outside of Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Bhutan. They are around the same size as the American black bear, and can grow to weights of up to 124 kg (273 lb) in females and 192 kg (423 lb) in males.
Curiously, sloth bears are rarely seen where humans have settled, and usually subsist on a mostly vegetarian diet: in Tamil Nadu, southern India, fruit appears to form 90 percent of the bears’ diet, the rest being composed of flowers, ants and termites, and the occasional small mammal or reptile.
Baloo the bear from The Jungle Book was written as a sloth bear. So why would this seemingly gentle giant attack and devour two humans?
Sloth bears are actually one of the most aggressive species of bears, and are the species with the most frequent numbers of recorded attacks on humans.
They likely consider humans as predators, having been observed to react to human presence as they would to predators like tigers or leopards, roaring and attacking before retreating.
Loss of forested areas from deforestation and agricultural habitat degradation outside of parks in India, Nepal and Bhutan has caused the fragmentation of bear populations.
This has left only small groups with limited genetic diversity, many of which face regular poaching, from which they can’t easily recover due to their low reproductive rate.
The bears are also attracted to human settlements in their search for food: not in the form of people, but their garbage. Humans tend not to want bears roaming around towns, which only further increases the human-bear antagonism.
All of these factors have led the sloth bear to be classified as an endangered species in India.