India has formally declared the dancing bear practice to be extinct. Postnoon visits a bear rescue centre in Bangalore that shelters these dancing bears.
Bharati was a star performer in her younger days. With the news of her arrival, people of the village would abandon their chores, leave their fields and gather around to watch her dance to drum sounds. She was especially a hit with the children, who would hoot, sing and cheer for her. But few could see beyond her charm. She made others happy, but was far from it herself. Kidnapped along with her siblings when barely a few months old, she was sold to her present owner. Her mother, like most bears, was killed. As a performer, Bharati was overworked, walking from village to village in the blistering sun, the only holidays were festivals, Ramazan, Id and Bakri-id. Food was scarce and most often leftovers from her master’s home. A few years ago, she stopped dancing, her owner left her at a place where for the first time, she saw and met others like her. Bharati found herself at the Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Centre, Bangalore, one of the four centres in India that shelter 600 dancing sloth bears from around the country. The other centres are in Agra, Bhopal and Purulia. She shares a 43 acre forest area in the Bannerghatta National Park with 90 other bears of various ages.
When I went to visit the centre one morning, Bharati and her friends were restless, waiting for their daily breakfast of ragi porridge. No matter where they are roaming in the centre’s forested area, the bears are prompt to appear near a row of barred prison-like cells at feeding time. The shutters of the cells are opened soon after food is served and each bear enters one cell. What one can’t help but notice here is that cooking for so many bears is an endless task and needs quite a few pairs of hands and pretty much the entire day. Huge cans of ragi porridge are being transported from the kitchen. So I decided to visit the ‘bear kitchen’ that has a chart with names of bears and a schedule posted on the wall. The staff is busy chopping the vegetable of the day — sweet potato. Lying around are huge sacks of ragi and a crate of fresh milk packets has just arrived.
Veterinary Officer Dr Arun A Sha who has worked with rescued bears for nine years explains that all bears without exception were severely underweight when rescued. Most weighed around 45 to 50 kgs, half of what these massive mammals would in the wild — an adult male must weigh 120-150kgs, while a female must be no less than 90kgs. Lack of nutrition has also led to many of them being chronically ill and prone to infections. As dancing bears, most were fed whatever was available, a few ragi balls in South India, 5 to 10 rotis per day in North India and tea, biscuits, whatever junk food was available, says Dr Sha.
Hardly adequate for mammals that can reach 6-feet when they stand on their hind legs he points out. Most bears also have their canines broken (since bears have canines attached to the bone, they can’t entirely be pulled out), this means severe dental infections, even gum tumours, making consuming chunks of food difficult, so porridge works well. Veterinarian Shanti, a young volunteer explains the bear menu — breakfast is ragi porridge with multivitamin additives and milk while lunch served around 4 or 5pm is porridge with vegetables, boiled eggs and milk. Each bear gets 100 grams of honey every day, either mixed in the porridge or hidden away in the forest. Fruits like watermelon, papaya, musk melon, grapes and jackfruit are calculated at 2.5kgs per bear and hidden in the forest, giving the bears something to do. “Our bears love jackfruits,” says Dr Sha, who says initially the bears didn’t know that fruits were to be eaten. “They would just play with them”. The staff started smearing honey on the fruits. Sometimes the fruits would gather ants, which is ok since ants are part of a bear’s natural diet, he explains.
While the act of dancing in itself might not seem cruel, the capturing,
transporting, training and the lifestyle the bears were subjected to have
taken a toll on these creatures. Holes were drilled into the bear’s muzzle
for a rope to be drawn through and tied around its head. The ‘kalandar’
pulls at the string to make it perform. Many bears still have unhealed
muzzles making sucking food difficult. Scars on their faces are common and
even used to identify individual bears. There are nine bears in the centre
that have turned completely blind with the ropes tied to their muzzles
grating and rubbing against their cornea. Dancing, which mostly means
shifting their feet, was taught by making the cubs stand on hot coals
cracking their paws. Walking for long hours, snipping of their claws for
trade led to paw injuries and inflammation in a majority of the bears.
Since 2007, 43 bears have died of Human Tuberculosis, most likely to have been transmitted by the Kalandar families. They have a high case of Tuberculosis due to abuse of tobacco and unhygenic conditions. It is not contracted from the crowd but from the kalandar! Diagnosis is difficult as the bears don’t show obvious symptoms. But some do lose their appetite. The centre keeps a file for each bear that records each meal consumed by the bear. When a bear repeatedly skips meals the staff checks if it’s doing fine.
Apart from physical scars, the abused bears need to overcome many of their fears and reluctance. Poached as cubs, few have socialised with other bears. At the centre, a new bear is first quarantined, its behaviour and temperament is observed before letting it in an enclosure next to another bear’s, where it can see another bear. Only when the bear is comfortable with other bears does it join the forested area. But making friends isn’t easy for everyone. Dr Sha sites the case of Shankar. “He was afraid of all the 89 bears in the centre at the time. He would run at the sight of another bear, but was comfortable with humans. We tried as many combinations as possible. But just before his death last year, he had made three or four friends he was finally comfortable with, this is after three long years.” As for Bharati, she still gets aggressive around women. “Perhaps she was beaten by a woman or has had some bad experience,” he suspects.
After a decade of efforts by Wildlife SOS, “India’s last dancing bear”
was surrendered at Bannerghatta in December 2009 by its kalandar. Bears are
Schedule I animals under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and a ban was also
enacted in 1998 by an amendment in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act
(1960) clearly making the practice illegal. But in 2002, 1,200 dancing bears
were counted from around the country. Of these 627 were rescued and that was
all of them. “What happened to the other 573?” asks Dr Sha. “They all must
have died,” he continues. Mortality is high among poached bear cubs, about
70 to 80 per cent but it’s only cubs that can be taught tricks. Powerful and
aggressive, humans don’t stand a chance against an adult bear. For the 1,200
dancing bears counted, there must be 1,200 adult bear mothers that were
killed, since they are always around the cubs, he adds.
With India declaring the dancing bear practice as extinct on November 28, 2012, all surviving dancing bears will live in rescue centres till their death. None can be reintroduced to the wild. With no skills, they will not survive and bad health means risk to wild bears. While it might not be a direct impact on conservation, “With no kalandars, the market for bear cubs is affected. Poaching of cubs always meant, killing the mother, so mothers are also saved,” says Dr Sha. But the end of this practice doesn’t mean India’s bears are safe. These mammals, found in as many as 26 states in India, continue to be poached for their gall bladder (used in oriental medicine for liver, stomach, and intestinal cures), fur, claws and bones that are in demand in China, Vietnam, Korea and Laos. Diminishing forests has also meant conflict with these otherwise shy and elusive creatures like never before.
This week, bear experts from all around the world meet in New Delhi, at the 21st International Conference on Bear Research and Management. The bears at the centre, know nothing about it. Crates of fruits — watermelon, musk melon and papaya have arrived and are being weighed. Most of the bears are snoozing alone under tree canopies, few are resting with friends. One large bear begins to run and they all start moving. They know the fruits are here and they’re so happy they could dance.
Bears are served breakfast of Ragi: Most dancing bears suffer dental problems including infections and gum tumours. Chewing and biting is difficult for most, hence the main diet remains porridge that they can easily suck.
Since these bears were poached as cubs, they’ve had little experience with other bears. Many bears are aggressive when they first meet other bears. They are kept in a separate enclosure next to the enclosures of other bears to make them comfortable.
2.5 kgs of fruit are weighed for each bear at the centre, before being hidden in the forest area.
The community that used bears to perform for a livelihood are kalandars, a nomadic Muslim community with large families consisting of 10-12 members. Included in the category of Other Backward Tribes by the Government of India, along with the Adivasis and communities dependant on forests, they are poor and fall in the BPL (below poverty line) category. Historically, they are known to have performed for the Rajputs and Mughal kings who were fond of watching bear dances and wrestling matches between men and bears.
Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani of Wildlife SOS, in their report Dancing Bears of India, 1997 explain — “They earned a living from a large number of performing animals, for example, monkeys, bears, fighting roosters and pigeons, and kept others as pets to display to their audience such as civet cats, owls, falcons, and partridges.” This influence was used to sell medicines and talismans to the crowd. In time, there were specialisations, those with dancing monkeys became madaris, the puppeteers were Katputlis, the magic trick performers Jadugars, the rope climbers and gymnasts were bazigars and the mast Kalandars had their dancing bears and drums called ‘damru’.
To each Kalandar who surrendered his bear a one-time compensation of Rs.50,000 was given under the Kalandar Rehabilitation Programme by Wildlife SOS. Many Kalandars move on to opening grocery shops, renting generators, driving autos etc. With dancing bears their economic status was pretty grim, after buying bear cubs for Rs.3,000 to Rs.5,000 they made between Rs.20,000 and `25,000 per annum. This paltry amount was used to look after the bear and their large family. In his nine years, Dr Sha says that only two kalandars from Andhra Pradesh have called to check on how their bears were during. With dead bears easily replaced with a new one, this was but a way of survival for most poor kalandars.
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