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In India, new job opportunities aim to stop bear dancing

The practice has been banned in the country for 35 years, yet hundreds of bears still perform to this day.

By Christina M. RussoContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / December 13, 2007

Biharsharif, India

Standing in front of a lake adjacent to an elegant, light-blue 500-year-old mosque in this north-central Indian village, Guddu Khan eyes two large water buffalo languishing in the water. The husband and father of five recently purchased the animals to complete his new role in life as a dairy farmer. But before this moment, and since the age of 12, Mr. Khan had been earning a living by "dancing bears."

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This cruel practice forces bears to perform unnatural, circuslike tricks for tourists in exchange for money. Poached from the wild as cubs, the young bears are taught via physical threats to dance on their hind legs, weave as though they are drunk, or limp like an elderly person. As many as 1,000 dancing bears perform in India, and wildlife conservation groups, animal welfare organizations, and some Indian state officials are trying to eradicate the practice entirely. One new effort is the Indian Bear Dan­cing Programme run by the Wild­­life Trust of India (WTI) and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). The partnership seeks to end bear dancing by providing lifelong, alternative jobs for bear owners like Khan.

Accomplishing that task is not so simple. For numerous generations, dating back to the 16th century, members of the Kalandar tribe have been dancing bears in India. They originally trained the animals to entertain the country's reigning Mughal emperors. Today, Kalandars usher the bears along both dusty and main roads across the country.

The 55,000 Kalandars in India mostly live in tightly knit, large households, many of them below the government's official poverty line. Seminomadic in nature, they have depended on dancing bears as a primary – and prideful – source of income. So finding another satisfying form of work can be a challenge.

"It's not just a case of giving money to a Kalandar and taking the bear from them," says Aniruddha Mookerjee, senior director of WTI. "It is sending an anthropologist into the local community, winning the Kalandar's trust, explaining to them the practice of dancing bears is illegal, that it's an unsustainable livelihood – and approaching them with different options."

Dancing bear performances were officially banned in India in 1972. Implementation of the ban, however, has been limited at best. Mr. Mookerjee believes the new program might work.

At the heart of the program is its "rehabilitation package," which ranges from $1,600 to $1,800 per person. WSPA also funds livelihood training, valued at $1,000 per Kalandar – which includes support instruction, such as how to set up a bank account.

Kalandars must choose a new occupation to pursue instead of dancing bears. If a WTI staff member determines that the occupation is a viable long-term alternative, the project will give the Kalandar funding and then monitor his development for two years. Twenty-five Kalandars have already agreed to the rehabilitation package since the program began less than two years ago. Khan, still standing at the lake, used his money to buy the two large buffaloes for his dairy farm. He is ambivalent about his new life, however, saying he loved his bears and didn't want to stop dancing them.