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India's 'dancing bears' retire in animal rights victory

Published Dec 02, 2012 09:05am


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This file photograph taken on February 19, 2007 shows co-founder of Wildlife SOS Kartick Satyanarayan interacting with rescued bears at the Agra Bear Rescue Centre on the outskirts of Agra in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.—AFP (File Photo)
This file photograph taken on February 19, 2007 shows co-founder of Wildlife SOS Kartick Satyanarayan interacting with rescued bears at the Agra Bear Rescue Centre on the outskirts of Agra in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.—AFP (File Photo)

NEW DELHI: The sight of poorly fed and badly treated bears being forced to dance on the streets of India is a thing of the past as a campaign to wipe out the practice has finally borne fruit, activists say.

The tradition of forcing sloth bears to dance for entertainment dates back to the 13th century, when trainers belonging to the Muslim Kalandar tribe enjoyed royal patronage and performed before the rich and powerful.

Descendants of the tribe from central India had kept the tradition alive, buying bear cubs from poachers for about $22 and then hammering a heated iron rod through their sensitive snouts.

After removing the animal's teeth and claws, the bear trainer threaded a rope through its snout and then headed for the streets where onlookers would pay a few rupees for a show in which the bear would sway and jump around.

“It's taken us many years but all the tribesmen we keep track of have moved on to different livelihoods,” Vivek Menon from the non-profit Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), told AFP on the sidelines of a bear conference in New Delhi last week.

“The tradition might still be present in people's minds, of course, but we don't know of any cases where Kalandars are still practising it.”

The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and India-based Wildlife SOS, which runs sanctuaries for bears, have also declared an end to the practice in the last few months, 40 years after a government ban in 1972.

The key, say the donation-funded groups, has been bringing the Kalandars on board, providing them with money and incentives to re-train in other professions.

The success points the way for other campaigns, such as the one to rid India of its snake charmers who can still be spotted illegally plying their trade, often with the snakes' mouths sewn shut.

“It was very difficult to convince the bear trainers to give up their work.

Most of them were very scared, they have never known any other way of life but this,” WSPA campaign coordinator Aniruddha Mookerjee told AFP.

One of the owners to give up was Mohammed Afsar Khan, a 30-year-old father of three girls who used to work with his father and brother travelling across central India with three bears in tow.

He says he used to earn about 300 rupees a day until he gave up the job six years ago.

“It's a hard life. You can never settle in one place, your children can't go to school, you end up feeling trapped. Then you are always worried about police harassing you for bribes,” he said.

He handed over his bears to Wildlife Trust of India officers, who offered his family financial assistance and helped him and his younger brother learn driving skills.

He used the funds to rent a tractor and ferry bricks from kilns to construction sites in Chhattisgarh state. Today, he owns his tractor and earns about 500 rupees a day.

Declining bear populations

The bears recovered by the animal groups were often in a wretched state, suffering from infected snouts, root canal problems, even diseases such as tuberculosis which they contracted from humans.

The sloth bears also suffer from malnutrition after being fed bread, lentils and milk for years, leading to an extremely reduced life span.

Menon from WTI say that the dancing bear industry was also “a dominant cause behind the disappearance of the sloth bear”, a focus at the bear conference which focused on conservation and welfare.

In the last three decades, the number of sloth bears, a species native to South Asia, has fallen by at least 30 per cent, according to the IUCN-SSC Bear Specialist Group (BSG). There are now less than 20,000 of them.

“The widespread poaching of bear cubs and the killing of mother bears clearly affects the population of the species,” Menon told AFP.

“India is changing rapidly and this is an outmoded, inhumane tradition. The trainers themselves realise now that it is far easier for them to earn a living doing other jobs,” Menon said.

Aziz Khan is another former bear-owner who never expected to leave his ancestral trade but was happy for the way out offered by WTI when officers approached him and his friends more than a decade ago.

“I didn't earn much, but I was afraid to leave it. I didn't know how else I would be able to feed my three kids,”    the 45-year-old told AFP.

WTI helped retrain Aziz Khan and his friends as bakers. They now run their own bakery, producing 350 loaves of bread each day.

“I have no regrets today, it was a dead-end job and I am glad I was able to move on,” he said.


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Comments (15) Closed

kami Dec 03, 2012 01:15pm
Nice saying by Cyrus Howell
ROHIT PANDEY Dec 03, 2012 07:29pm
I am sure this will spur Pakistan to manage the zoo kept animals better? Ardeshir Cowsajee the columnist who passed away recently wrote about the sorry state of animal rights in Pakistan!
ROHIT PANDEY Dec 03, 2012 07:33pm
Not at all...elephants work in logging and also kept as temple elephants..mostly in S India particularly in Kerala and are treated very well. Whenever man finds an use for an animal be it horse or camel or donkey or an elephant they are usually treated well.
taranveer singh Dec 03, 2012 08:50pm
well done :-) animal rights. remembering a Poem by Dr diwan Singh kalepani in which he discussed cruelty with a monkey by kalandar." zulam nu tamasha akhdi dunia eh zalim dunia".
BNSingh Dec 03, 2012 12:28pm
Good job. However any NGO to move to stop 'dancing human'?
Feroz Dec 02, 2012 10:25am
The rapacious greed of humans to destroy the Environment and plunder resources must be stopped. We share this World with millions of other species and it is imperative that we respect and preserve this Divine diversity. Private citizens other than Zoo's should never be allowed to keep Wildlife especially species listed under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species).
Arjun Shekhawat Dec 03, 2012 05:57pm
This is incorrect as it was not the muslims but infact the Hindus who started it
abbastoronto Dec 03, 2012 03:46am
In my childhood I never understood how anyone would make a living in that inhuman way, and whether the people who watched the show has any heart.
kamran Dec 04, 2012 12:10pm
Stick to column description of treatment of bears in India, no need for mud slinging across the subcontinent.
Cyrus Howell Dec 02, 2012 09:39am
If there is one animal which deserves to be left alone to thrive in the natural world it is the bear. They eat berries and honey. They fish rivers and streams. They like to climb trees and roll down hills. They know how to take a nap. A bear's hobby is not really taking tango lessons.
Rene Davis Dec 10, 2012 09:41pm
From the bottom of my heart thank-you WASP & SOS for bringing about change..
shabu Dec 02, 2012 02:56pm
Elephants....they are also cruelly treated in India.should give freedom to them also.
Animallover Dec 02, 2012 11:22am
For god sake some one saved the bears.Long live animal rights.Long live the freedom of animals.Long live their happiness :)
Surendran Dec 02, 2012 09:22am
Great job by the activists even though it has taken so long besides they have taken care of the human aspect behind this cruel profession. Where there is WILL there is a way.
kam Dec 02, 2012 02:43pm
A great word of advice "bears do not tango".