Behind the Scenes: Getting Dancing Bears off India’s Streets

An interview with Kartick Satyanarayan of Wildlife SOS.  
Kartick Satyanarayan
Kartick Satyanarayan has worked to rescue every single dancing bear from India's streets. Photo courtesy Wildlife SOS

Kartick Satyanarayan, along with Geeta Seshamani, founded Wildlife SOS in 1995. Since then, the organisation has worked to preserve India’s wealth of natural heritage, forest, and wildlife. Wildlife SOS also actively works to conserve habitats and create alternative livelihoods for communities that previously depended on exploiting wildlife for their survival. It is also involved in reforestation and sustainable organic farming. Wildlife SOS operates 13 centres around the country, protecting animals such as bears, leopards, and elephants.

Kartick Satyanarayan’s big breakthrough came only recently when Wildlife SOS managed to get every single dancing bear off India’s streets. For centuries, sloth bears had been captured and trained by the nomadic Kalandar community and made to dance to earn their keepers money. The animals were coerced into submission by horrific techniques like extracting their teeth, and piercing their muzzles with searing hot iron rods to make a hole to loop a rope through. All this happened even though it is illegal to own and train a sloth bear in India. The animal is protected under the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act and is listed as vulnerable by the global environmental organisation International Union for Conservation of Nature. However, only as recently as five years ago, were the last of the dancing sloth bears taken off the streets thanks to the efforts of conservationists such as Kartick.

Here is Debarpita Banerjee in conversation with Kartick Satyanarayan for National Geographic Traveller India:

How did you become involved with wildlife conservation?

I have been fascinated by nature and wildlife since I was a child. There was not a day when I would not go to watch animals, birds, fish, or reptiles. Going to the forests and just being in the midst of nature would give me so much joy. All through my school and college days in Bengaluru, I would bunk classes to go birdwatching and spend the day at the nearby Bannerghatta National Park. I also spent several full moon nights sitting atop a tree overlooking a waterhole to spot wild animals. All those magical experiences left me permanently charged with a desire to ensure the protection of this natural wealth and beauty that surrounds us.

Kartick with snake

A childhood fascination for nature and wildlife inspired Kartick to co-found Wildlife SOS. Photo: Debarpita Banerjee

What are the highlights of your job?

My work is far from boring. It includes everything from rescuing cobras from seventh-floor apartments to conducting anti poaching operations or monitoring radio-collared sloth bears. To me, the biggest joy comes from releasing an animal back into its natural habitat, to live the way it was meant to: in the forest, wild, and free. And for those who are not capable of taking care of themselves, like the rescued bears and elephants at the Wildlife SOS rehabilitation centres, it is very rewarding to watch them live free from captivity and torture. Education and awareness is also a very important aspect of our day-to-day work.

What is the vision that you work towards?

My vision is a state of existence where humans learn to coexist peacefully with wildlife. These animals have as much right to the land and natural resources as we humans do. With some awareness, compassion, and tolerance, both humans and animals can live in harmony.

Your big success was helping stop the practice of dancing bears in India. What was the relationship between the bears and the people who “owned” them?

Kalandars

Traditionally, the Kalandar community used dancing bears to earn their livelihood. Photo courtesy Wildlife SOS

The rescue of dancing bears has a lot more to it than just rescuing these bears from the Kalandars who were their keepers. However repulsive the captivity of the bear may be, the fact of the matter is that when we stop it, we take away the source of livelihood of the entire family. Once we understood that, we realised that this could be resolved. In fact, it was co-founder Geeta Seshamani who insisted that we help the Kalandar community. So we got down to the very root of the issue and addressed it through a sustainable solution, one that took into account the needs of the community and could bring about permanent change.

We worked towards persuading the Kalandars to voluntarily surrender their bears. It was extremely challenging. The community lived an impoverished nomadic life. Their children were not sent to school; the women were not allowed to learn any skills. Naturally, they held onto the familiar way of living in fear of losing whatever little they had. The bear was only a meal ticket for them, and any compassion or love for the animals was absent. Cruel instruments and barbaric methods were used to keep the bears under control, and prevent them from attacking their handlers. Many of the bears that Wildlife SOS rescued and rehabilitated were blind as a result of being repeatedly hit on their heads to make them perform. Thankfully, these beautiful creatures now live at the rescue centres with dignity and relative freedom.

How did you approach setting these animals free?

Initially, we were faced with hostility, resentment, resistance, doubt, fear, and anger. Until we succeeded in persuading one courageous Kalandar man to surrender his bear voluntarily and settle for an alternative livelihood. Once he did that and agreed to never be involved in any illegal wildlife trade again, Wildlife SOS offered him assistance in the form of seed funding to develop a regular and reliable source of income. We helped him get an autorickshaw which he could use to ferry passengers and schoolchildren. Seeing him become happier and his family reap the benefits of a stable income, other Kalandars saw the value in surrendering their bears.

It was an epic day for us when 26 Kalandars lined up at the gates of the Agra Bear Rescue Facility just after Christmas in 2002, waiting to surrender their bears to the Forest Department willingly. Now, years down the line, they have healthier, happier,and better lives. Wildlife SOS supports their children’s education and ensures that over 1,560 children go to school, creating a secure future for the next generation. Through education and skill training, we also managed to tackle the community’s age-old tradition of child marriages. Wildlife SOS has also established women’s empowerment programmes to help Kalandar women earn second incomes for their families. These include skill training like carpet-weaving, tailoring, embroidery, block-printing, and bag-making. Youngsters have been trained in animal husbandry and employed by Wildlife SOS at the Bear Rescue Centres, making this a well-thought-out and sustainable project that addresses human issues as well as wildlife conservation.

Do you still come across places with dancing bears?

Wildlife SOS has managed to remove every single dancing bear from India’s streets. Wildlife SOS was able to work across India with the cooperation of the Indian government and Forest Department to successfully rescue 628 performing sloth bears. The act of capturing a bear is illegal in India as it is a violation of Indian law, and punishable with up to seven years imprisonment. Sometimes members of the Nat community from neighbouring Nepal try to sneak in a dancing bear through the porous Indo-Nepal border. When we hear of such cases, we work with enforcement agencies to rescue the bear.

Dancing bears are off the streets but circus animals are still captive in that way. While bears and other endangered species have been saved, elephants, horses, even dogs, are subject to everyday cruelty. To make an animal jump through a ring of fire is traumatic and horrifying for that animal, in fact it is a living hell. Just as we would not like to be forced to perform, no animal should be forced to do this. And it neither deserves an audience nor any kind of patience. Hopefully, with progressive laws in India and good implementation of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and the Wildlife Protection Act, circuses in India will stop using animals in performances and highlight the wonderful human talent they have for entertainment.

How do you manage to raise funds?

Kartick with elephant

The Elephant Conservation and Care Centre provides fodder, veterinary care and medicines for rescued elephants. Photo: Debarpita Banerjee

It costs over two lakh rupees each day to just feed the 300-plus bears at the Bear Rescue Centers and the elephants in the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre located in Agra and Mathura. We are always tight on funds and welcome donations. Some international partners help us with partial support from the U.K. and Australia for the bear rescue centres, however we still need to fundraise extensively. We count on supporters who have seen our work and want to help protect the environment and wildlife.

For the elephant rescue centre project, we need to raise funds on a continuous and daily basis to cover fodder for the elephants, veterinary care and medicines, upkeep, salaries of veterinarians and elephant keepers—all this adds up to a mammoth amount.

We have recently launched a volunteer programme at the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre and the Agra Bear Rescue Facility, where science and veterinary students from India and other countries donate their time and gain valuable hands-on experience. People from all walks of life—be it software engineers, architects, designers, corporate executives—volunteer with Wildlife SOS and enjoy a unique experience. They stay at our volunteer accommodation and participate in daily routines. They assist our vets and animal care staff, help care for the animals, and take back valuable memories. In exchange for this, these volunteers help cover their costs for accommodation and food by making a donation (around ₹4,500 per day, inclusive of meals and stay; a student concession is available), which helps feed rescued elephants and bears. Volunteers can also buy souvenirs such as pictures of our rescued animals, elephant and bear footprints, coffee mugs, Kalandar jewellery, T-shirts, handmade bags, handicrafts, and other products made by members of the Kalandar community from our gift shops at the Agra and Mathura rescue centres. We also have virtual gifts that supporters can buy on our website to help our animals (wildlifesos.org/virtual-gifts). In addition, volunteers become our ambassadors and help connect us with their companies and facilitate CSR grants to support our projects. We are hopeful of expanding this volunteer programme to our other rescue centres in Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Haryana as well.

What keeps you going?

Passion is a big fuel. From sleeping on railway platforms, to not knowing what tomorrow will bring, or dealing with anti-poaching operations and wildlife emergencies—there is uncertainty and risk involved in my work. Threats from poachers and illegal wildlife trader mafia are not uncommon. Yet, I can say that working with Wildlife SOS has been very fulfilling. I haven’t had the time for a family life but I am having the time of my life with the ever-growing family at the rescue centres.

Read a first-hand experience of volunteering with Wildlife SOS here.

To volunteer with Wildlife SOS, email volunteer@wildlifesos.org. Alternatively, make a virtual gift to a rescued animal, giving them a hammock or a basket of fruit and snacks (wildlifesos.org/virtual-gifts). To support go to www.wildlifesos.org/donate. To learn more, visit www.facebook.com/wildlifesosindia.

If anyone ever spots a dancing bear or wild animal in distress in the NCR region or in Agra, they can call the Wildlife SOS helpline at +91 9871963535 and also alert the nearest police station and forest department office.

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    Debarpita Banerjee has been a marketing and communication professional for close to two decades now. Most recently she worked at the National Geographic Channel in India. She is an animal lover, keen on a world where both can co-exist without harming the other. She tweets as @thetravelshrink.

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