If you travel along the Delhi-Agra highway (NH-2) these days, you'll miss the once-familiar sight of sloth bears dancing to the tunes of their masters and entertaining tourists. Shuffling, swaying on their hind legs and waving their arms, these performing animals would present such a beguiling sight that one wouldn't suspect the pain and torture they had to endure to attain the status of performing bears. The bears have now found a haven at the Agra Bear Rescue Facility (ABRF). Started in 1997 by the Wildlife SOS and Uttar Pradesh Forest Department, this unique shelter helps the bears unlearn the tricks their qalandar masters have taught them, and gradually become wild animals again. In nine years, the facility has successfully rehabilitated more than 132 bears.
Wildlife SOS found that most of the qalandars hail from Kosi Kalan in UP. Says Kartick Satyanarayan, founder of Wildlife SOS, "They made us believe they had bred the bears in their backyard. But we discovered they were purchasing bear cubs from poachers." Training dancing bears involves brutal practices and the ABRF project took shape to put an end to these.
Wildlife SOS's research shows bear cubs are poached from the forests of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. The qalandars pay the poachers some Rs 500 to 1,500, and train them through a routine of pain and starvation. Less than a year old cubs are castrated using razors, to ensure they don't attack their owners. Thick iron needles are heated and driven through their muzzle without anaesthesia, and a rough rope is then pulled through the sensitive swollen muzzle. The canine teeth are knocked off using a metal rod, leaving the cub totally at the mercy of its owner.
Appalled by what they discovered, Wildlife SOS presented a report to various government departments, and in 1997 ABRF was opened on about 17 acres of land. The facility, with electric fencing and a walled perimeter, has artificial dens and two pools. ABRF's first bear was rescued in December 2002.
ABRF is also equipped with a laboratory and a veterinary clinic, an operation theatre, ultrasound and dental facilities. The bears are given three meals a day—rotis and two kilograms of fruits for breakfast; fruits and nuts for lunch; and in the evening milk and porridge. Vitamin enrichment is provided in the form of honey and termite mounds. In fact, the workers work night shifts to make 600 rotis to treat the bears to a hearty breakfast. With food, the cost of maintaining each bear is around Rs 102 per day.
These bears have lived most of their lives at the end of a four-foot long rope with no stimulation at all, and thus suffer from typical behavioural problems and symptoms, one of which is swaying. At ABRF, the keepers treat their psychological ills as well, making them feel loved, secure and protected. Over time, they gradually stop the obsessive swaying.
The rescued bears are a picture of sorrow and pain—blind, with broken jaws, their claws removed and their muzzles full of blood and pus. At the ABRF, the bears are sedated and their maggot-infested rope wounds treated. "The removal of the rope takes a long time because it literally sticks to the nose. We also have to check them for diseases and infections," says the in-house vet, Dr Jadhav. After initial treatment, the bears are kept for three months in the two quarantine pens and later shifted to a large free area.
Sometimes, cubs separated from their mothers never learn the fundamental rules of survival, and cannot be released into the wild. They are permanent residents of the sanctuary, provided with dens covered with straw in winter and fitted with coolers in summer.
But of course, cubs like Surya and Laila, who were lucky to be rescued at a young age, are responding well to rehabilitation, and will soon be released into the jungle. Srikanth, the keeper, recalls the time they came to the sanctuary—he had to bottle-feed them milk and Lactogen every three hours to keep them alive. He almost became their surrogate mother and helped them unlearn the performing routine.
Not just the bears, even the qalandars are being rehabilitated. Wildlife SOS gives them Rs 50,000 each, to help them find alternative means of livelihood. On surrendering the bears, they sign an undertaking to forever give up training bears as performing animals. Now most of them have found other professions—as tailors and dealers in junk or costume jewellery, or as owners of small establishments which rent out generators. As Kartick points out, "If you want to do long-term sustainable wildlife conservation, you have to take concrete steps to help change the attitude of communities who trade in wildlife in one way or another."
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