In a dusty bylane, sandwiched between two rickety houses, a shaggy black figure ambles behind a man, dragged along the street by a thick, coarse rope. A crowd of villagers gathers around the animal, a sloth bear, as it enters a small clearing, and the duo stop walking. The rope, strung through the crudely pierced muzzle of the bear is yanked violently, and the animal rears up, desperately pawing at the rope to ease the shooting pain running through the still raw wound. A stick lands on the back of his head, stunning him momentarily before he yelps in agony. But nobody hears him over the laughing children and cheering villagers, as they drop coins into the hands of the bear’s owner- a pittance earned by the painful performance.
For over four hundred years, ‘dancing’ bears were a common sight in India. Cubs were poached from the wild, their mothers killed when they tried to defend their young, and the delicate muzzles of the cubs were pierced with a hot iron needle. A coarse rope was passed through the still raw wound, and the bear was destined to spend the rest of its life on the end of the radius of the rope that tied it to this life of pain and misery. Their canines were smashed and young males were castrated with blades and no anaesthesia.
The cruel tradition of bear dancing dates back to the Mughal era, when a community known as the Kalandars would entertain Mughal emperors with magic tricks, music and performing animals. With the decline of the empire, the Kalandars resorted to a nomadic life to earn their living, and their dancing bears followed them along the streets of India, ‘dancing’ in villages and towns to earn a meagre amount to support the Kalandar and his family. This Muslim community was poor and disenfranchised, with no way out of the terrible cycle of poverty that had enslaved them to the abuse of wild animals to earn a living.
When we first announced our plan to rescue the dancing bears of India, we were met with contempt. The task at hand seemed daunting and earlier attempts at solving the problem had failed- the community was too spread out, impossible to track in the tiny hamlets they inhabited across the country. Dancing bears was all they knew, and was their only source of income, so they were reluctant to give up the practice and not forthcoming with cooperation as far as bear rescue efforts went.
In 1996, Wildlife SOS’s founders began visiting and spending days living among the Kalandar community, to understand how they lived and why they did what they did. The investigation revealed a level of poverty and illiteracy that denied the community a way out, and a desperation for a more feasible way of life. Bear dancing was hardly lucrative and the families barely made enough to feed themselves, let alone educate their children. We realised that the only way to permanently solve the dancing bear problem in India, was to rehabilitate the community that depended on the animals. Somewhere during those years, the initial apprehension and hostility of the community was replaced by trust and grudging affection.
The plan was this- in exchange for surrendering a former dancing bear to Wildlife SOS, the bear dancer would be granted a new lease on life in the form of a seed fund and assistance with starting a new business. The subjugated women of the community would be given skill training and a market to sell their products and the children of the Kalandars would be sent to school, with their tuition fees, their uniforms and books all provided for by Wildlife SOS. The idea was that the Kalandar community would have sustainable alternatives to bear dancing, and their children would have secure futures that left them no need to abuse a wild animal.
The success of the Dancing Bear Project was unprecedented. From across the country, Kalandar men and their shaggy companions flocked to our four bear rescue centres in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bangalore, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal, willingly surrendering their bears for a chance at a better life for themselves and their animals. A holistic solution, good intentions and word of mouth proved to be our most powerful tools as more and more bears found a new home in our sanctuaries and new friends and comfort among the other rescued bears, while their former owners found a sense of fulfilment in stable, legal occupations and pride in having children that go to school and women contribute to the household income. And the heart-warming support and generosity of people and organisations around the world kept us going.
18th December 2009. Exactly six years ago, a man named Raje Saab walked into Wildlife SOS’ Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Centre in Bangalore, a male sloth bear name Raju in tow. Unbeknown to the pair, they were about to make conservation history. Raju was the last of the dancing bears, and the final curtain was drawn on this centuries old barbaric practise of ‘dancing’ bears in India. A collective sigh of relief erupted across the country as a sense of success and elation overtook the Wildlife SOS team. We’d done it, and there were these amazing animals at our sanctuaries- living forever free, learning to be bears again- to constantly remind us of it.
Of course, the rescue of the last dancing bear was never going to be the end of the road for us. Our captive elephant rescue program started soon after, and we now work with animals of a number of species all over the country, with 10 rescue centres and an ever increasing number of animal welfare, conservation, conflict-mitigation, disaster management, anti-poaching and biodiversity enhancement projects across the country. We still rescue sloth bears from poachers, as terrified cubs or traumatised adults, being smuggled across the border to be sold as dancing bears in countries like Nepal, where this horrific practise persists. Our work with the Kalandar community, the support we provide to them continues now in its second decade.
But we’ll always remember the day, six years ago, that forever changed the lives of sloth bears in the country, that changed the life of an entire community of people and that changed how conservation is approached in India. That day will always stand testament to the difference that a lot of work, dedication and determination to save lives can make.
We know how daunting the tasks we set for ourselves are. Rescuing every circus elephant, teaching people to live alongside leopards and bears, combatting poaching in remote forests- sometimes we’re apprehensive about our success. We understand you must be too.
But then 18th December comes around again and reminds us what we’re capable of if we really try, and it restores our faith in what we do. Happy 18th of December, to the amazing Wildlife SOS family and friends across the globe, don’t forget what your support has made (and can make) possible.