Contributing Editor Dr. Jordan Schaul proudly announces a celebration recognizing the efforts of his colleagues at Wildlife SOS for their 17 years of work rescuing bears. The Indian-based wildlife conservation organization is focused on preserving India’s bears and other South Asian animals.
It was the night before Christmas of 2002 and “the beginning of the end” of a 400 year old practice of dancing bears. Horrific exploitation of India’s endangered sloth bears at the hands of the Kalandars—a nomadic community—was to become a part of history—something never to be forgotten and hopefully never repeated.
At the House of Lords (House of British Parliament, London), the recent 10 year anniversary celebrating the campaign to end the suffering of India’s sloth bears forced to perform at the hands of these tribal nomads was not without pomp and circumstance and all of it appropriate. We will get to that in a moment.
Hundreds, if not thousands of sloth bears have been exploited for centuries simply to entertain the masses and the atrocity was nothing more than barbaric, and cruel, and unnecessary.
The campaign to end the practice of dancing bears was lead and managed by Wildlife SOS—South Asia’s largest wildlife conservation organization, which also runs rehabilitation programs for Indian leopards, Asian elephants, reptiles and miscellaneous wildlife species native to India or the Indian Subcontinent.
With support from its international partners—International Animal Rescue, UK and Free the Bears, Australia, and One Voice, France, Wildlife SOS has worked relentlessly for almost two decades to address the worrying concern over bear cub poaching, which feeds India’s dancing bear industry. Through its own investigations, Wildlife SOS uncovered the crisis facing bear conservation in South Asia and documented, in peer reviewed literature, the plight of the sloth bear as a result of the the trafficking of bear cubs. In order to put an end to the poaching of these young bears and the killing of their mothers, it was essential to bring an end to the practice of bear dancing, the very activity that creates a demand for bear cubs.
The daunting task of rescuing over 600 former performing sloth bears and rehabilitating these wild animals in Wildlife SOS sanctuaries was a long and arduous effort. The spirits of these bears were broken through years of tortuous training at the hands of the Kalandar community. But with the support and cooperation of the Indian State Governments (Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal), Wildlife SOS was able to create four bear rehabilitation centers across India.
At the same time Wildlife SOS developed—in collaboration with One Voice-France—an anti-poaching unit dedicated to tracking responsible parties implicated in poaching activities. Forestwatch was also created to detect and prevent other wildlife crimes. The Unit’s primary objectives included preventing the poaching of bear cubs, tracking down those suspected of poaching, and monitoring and enforcing wildlife trade laws in markets where bear cubs were known to be sold and traded. Additional help for anti- poaching efforts was provided by Hauser Bears (UK) and Humane Society International-Australia. Through both the enforcement of laws aimed at eliminating bear cub poaching and the rescue of bears from the streets of India, Wildlife SOS received worldwide attention and acclaim for conserving the sloth bear.
This campaign that put an end to bear dancing and ultimately provided sanctuary for more than 600 rescued sloth bears came to a an end when the last sloth bear was taken off the streets of India on December 18th of 2009 and placed in the custody of a Wildlife SOS rescue center.
Providing a holistic solution to a problem ultimately served to rehabilitate man and animal, and demonstrated that a barbaric centuries-old practice could be rendered extinct in less than a decade. This unprecedented conservation success story was championed by animal advocates worldwide from both the conservation and welfare communities.
Wildlife SOS proved that ending the exploitation of wild born sloth bears in captivity was the key to ensure their survival in the wild. This project was not just about compassion for animal kind, but an innovative route to a conservation solution.
Furthermore, Wildlife SOS ensured the future safety of wild sloth bear populations in India throught the provisions they made for the former Kalandar bear handlers. The organization offered the animal handlers opportunities to pursue alternative livelihoods, in addition to vocational training for their wives and school education for their children. All measures were taken to ensure that future generations of Kalandars will not return to the practice of dancing bears.
Ending the brutality imposed on sloth bears was not just about compassion for animal kind, it was a poignant reminder of how we must forgive fellow man and empower less privileged cultures.
To honor the work of my colleagues and co-founders of Wildlife SOS, Geeta Seshamani and Kartick Satyanarayan and Wildlife SOS USA’s Executive Director Nikki Sharp, a reception at the House of Lords was held to recognize Wildlife SOS for its commitment to the welfare and conservation of the sloth bear.
The charity, also known as WSOS to many of us, accomplished something that was almost unfathomable. With few resources other than the compassion of their hearts and the conviction in their minds the Wildlife SOS team changed the lives of animals and helped changed the way we think about them. In many ways, the organization has rewritten the history of sloth bear conservation in India while also changing the lives of thousands of Kalandar families. Thanks to Wildlife SOS and their dedication to these magnificent creatures, we can all feel a little better about how we co-inhabit this planet with the voiceless and the vanishing.
On Christmas Day 2012, Wildlife SOS’s Agra bear rescue center and sanctuary will celebrate its tenth anniversary of the rescue of “Rani”—the first dancing bear to be rescued in India. Rani was a thin and scrawny bear, frightened by the loud noises uttered by her Kalandar master when she was discovered by WSOS’s rescue team. Today, “Rani” is a healthy bear and the “matriarch” of her enclosure, which she shares with other rescued sloth. “Rani” translates to “Queen” in Hindi. In a sense she is as free as a sloth bear can be.
To commemorate the 10 years since Rani’s rescue, Wildlife SOS will be open to the public on Christmas Day and visitors may come to see the bears on “Rani’s Walk.” This walkway through the rescue center has educational signs intended to expose patrons to the conservation rhetoric surrounding the status of sloth bears. Less than 10,000 remain in the wild. The hope is that as people utilize the walkway, they will be informed about the challenges facing bears in India and the Subcontinent at large. The walkway experience may motivate people to get involved with WSOS’s charitable endeavors on behalf of sloth bears. Messaging will also convey how the work of WSOS is intended to help people as much as bears.
Here is a link to my earlier interview with Geeta and Kartick for National Geographic Newswatch.