In 2009, Wildlife SOS along with an international NGO coalition was able to bring an effective end to the dancing bear trade in India. However, other threats to bears in India remain.
An International Bear Association (IBA) conference began this week in Delhi, jointly organized by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. This will bring focus on the severe threats suffered by bears in India and across the world through habitat destruction, poaching, mining, habitat fragmentation and other damage caused by human exploitation. Apart from conflict with people, bears are poached for their gall bladders, fuelling an illegal, destructive and insatiable trade.
Wildlife SOS works with several bear species in India and has rehabilitated over 600 bears from the ‘dancing bear’ trade. In Jammu and Kashmir, Wildlife SOS is working with communities to mitigate human wildlife conflict which occurs when Black bears enter fields and villages, a serious issue which will continue to need long-term intervention and sustenance. Our undercover poaching team works to avert poaching of all bear species.
In terms of exploitation, India has had the most problematic relationship with Sloth bears, an endangered species. Since the Mughal era, the practice of Bear Dancing by the nomadic Kalandar community to entertain the Mughal emperors was followed. In more recent times this was reduced to a method of glorified "begging" by the kalandar community who were handing this down from father to son making it almost a hereditary practice.
The sloth bears used by the Kalandar community are poached from the forests as tiny cubs (less than 400 grams), their mothers get killed by the poachers in the process. This happens in several states like Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh among others to supply the Kalandar community.
The Kalandars then subject the bear cub who is between 4 to 8 weeks old to a series of painful procedures like puncturing the delicate nose with a red hot iron needle and forcing a rope through it followed by breaking the teeth with a metal rod and chopping off its claws. This is followed by pulling the rope through the wound in the nose to cause pain and beating the bear, till it learns to jump in response to drum beats and commands of the Kalandar. Once trained, the Kalandar drags his ‘dancing bear’ at the end of this rope to tourist spots where he will extort money from tourists or rural audience in non tourist seasons to make a living
In 1995 Wildlife SOS founders Geeta Seshamani and Kartick Satyanarayan started investigating this practice and uncovered shocking facts that over 200 bear cubs were poached from the wild each year and that the bears were replaced rapidly and cheaply if they died at the hands of the Kalandar during the training process. The mortality of the cubs was well over 50% during this mainly caused by trauma caused by bad handling and poor feed by the kalandars.
However recognizing that the Kalandar community depended on this trade for their livelihoods, Wildlife SOS along with international partners International Animal Rescue, UK, Free the Bears Australia started engaging with the Kalandar community to offer them alternative livelihoods so they would willingly and voluntarily surrender their bears and move on to a different way of life that would not endanger the sloth bears in the wild. Working with communities and forest departments, Wildlife SOS can confirm the practice of dancing bears has ended in India.
Please find pictures attached: ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of both rehabilitated bears and Kalandars who have moved on to legal, productive professions. Wildlife SOS partnered with One Voice France and Hauser Bears UK to run ‘Forestwatch’ an anti poaching wing that works closely with the state forest departments, police and other enforcement agencies to crack down on bear cub poachers through a network of informers.
With support and cooperation from the Govt. of India and the state Governments of Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal Wildlife SOS established four rescue and rehabilitation centers for sloth bears where over 600 bears were rescued and housed.
Wildlife SOS has been protecting bears in India for almost 17 years now since 1995 and successfully brought an end to the brutal practice of dancing bears by applying a holistic approach covering the issues of illegal trade, rehabilitation of rescued bears and alternative livelihoods for the Kalandar community that danced the bears.
"The challenge ahead of us is to provide care for the 400 plus bears in our care and monitor the illegal trade in bears while preventing the ugly practice from restarting" said Kartick Satyanarayan, Chairman of Wildlife SOS
Geeta Seshamani, co founder of Wildlife SOS said "While we have gone beyond our mandate and assisted the kalandar community to the best of our ability, Finally, the long term transformation and rehabilitation of such a community and integration into main stream society would require extensive Government intervention through subsidies and social support systems"
Alan Knight, CEO – IAR UK said "We are delighted that the conference in India will bring focus on bear conservation and we hope our efforts of the last decade in partnership with Wildlife SOS will set a good example of sloth conservation"
The conference will address strategies for bear conservation in India.
Additional Information :
Sloth Bears (Melursis ursinus), have been exploited for centuries across India by a nomadic gypsy community called Kalandars, distributed across 13 to 14 states in India and having four distinct regional divisions. These bears are poached from the wild as cubs and used for street performances thus endangering the wild population of this species. A report by the Geeta Seshamani and Kartick Satyanarayan in 1997, reported about 1200 bears used in the trade and about 200 cubs poached annually for supply to the Kalandars.
The Wildlife Protection Act in 1972 made the possession of sloth bears illegal and punishable by law.
Today, the ‘Agra Bear Rescue Facility’ is globally the largest rescue center for sloth bears which houses about 270 rescued bears has developed into a strong project with support from Uttar Pradesh Forest Dept. Four rescue centers in Agra, Bhopal, Bangalore and West Bengal are managed by Wildlife SOS with support from International Animal Rescue, UK, Free the Bears Fund, Australia and One Voice Association, France.
Partial seed funds for the survey and pilot project on 15 acres in Agra was initially received from WSPA, UK between 1995 and 2001.
The Kalandars were encouraged to voluntarily handover bears and accept skill training and seed funds to establish themselves in alternate livelihoods to help encourage them to move away from Bear Dancing. Rehabilitation of such communities cannot be achieve in the space of a single generation as human resistance to change have far reaching impact on social factors which need to be borne in mind while attempting such efforts.
Please visit: www.wildlifesos.org for more.
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