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.

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."

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.

"The cost of maintaining the bear is less than the cattle," he says. "But there is scope for expansion, and I'd like to make the most of this because I really can't dance bears anymore."

Besides the Kalandars, the other major focus of the program is the bears themselves. Roughly 15 minutes from Biharsharif, in the village of Mrig Vihar, and 100 yards behind a red iron fence, three former dancing bears are tied to the base of three leafy trees. The bears were recently surrendered to the program, which oversees a 160-acre lot that will eventually become a lifelong sanctuary capable of housing 50 bears.

Dancing bears are actually sloth bears, best recognized by their shaggy dark hair. They also have noticeably long, ivory-colored front claws and lengthy, light-colored muzzles – perfect for feeding on ants and termites. In the wild, sloth bears are not known to be territorial, nor do they appear to be aggressive toward other bears.

It's unclear to project officials where most sloth bear cubs are captured, but the project is now training forest guards and bolstering wildlife intelligence capacity to stop bear poaching. Often when a cub is taken, its mother is killed. Cubs are staggeringly cheap: Kalandars pay about $6 for one.

At about 3 months of age, the cub's nose is pierced. A Kalandar restrains the animal and a piece of heated metal is forced into its muzzle, through the upper palate, and back out again. A thick rope is pulled through the hole. The cub's teeth are filed down or knocked out with a hammer. Soon after, the bears undergo training.

"Initially when the nose is first pierced, it is very raw," says Neil D'Cruze, wildlife projects officer at WSPA. "So, as a result, when the Kalandar trained the bear to move, a stick was lifted [as a warning] and the rope was pulled – which caused pain. If the bear did not behave correctly, it was beaten. A lot of people believe that on a day-to-day basis, it's the pain of the raw open wound which causes the bear to dance. But it's not – it's actually the way it was trained."

The Indian Bear Dancing Programme recently took in four sloth bear cubs, confiscated by WTI before they were trained. Eight more adult bears are due to arrive at the sanctuary soon. The project is also in the beginning stages of doing something that Mookerjee says has never been done before: rehabilitating sloth bear cubs back into the wild.

When it comes to the practice of bear dancing, Mookerjee expects it will take generations for it to be stopped. "I don't think what WTI is doing has changed the Kalandar perception of animal welfare," he says. "It's really something that will take far longer. This generation will not understand that. This next generation, the children, with education and a little more exposure to life, might be able to understand that."

As Mookerjee sits on a stairwell overlooking the new sanctuary, he remains cautiously optimistic about the program's future.

"Well, I'll be monitoring it for at least two years, and we need to see whether the rehabilitation is working. If it is not, we will know within six months. And if it is not working, we will have to start thinking of something else," he says.

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