The call from India’s wild is loud and clear: greater effort and awareness are needed to protect — and celebrate — the wonderful creatures in our midst
India is among the top 17 mega-diverse countries of the world. It is home to about 8% of the world’s recorded species, from apex predators such as lions, tigers, leopards and brown bears to large herbivores such as elephants and rhinos. This rich fauna has not just been an integral part of India’s environmental history, but has also been instrumental in shaping several indigenous cultures and traditions. However, over decades, this intimate connection with nature has eroded rapidly.
By the 1990s, a crisis was looming in India and it slowly became clear that this catastrophically large-scale loss of forests and natural habitat was happening right at our doorstep. Thoughtless replacement of forests with the concrete jungle near our urban centres meant the wildlife there had no place to go but into homes of people and their farms.
By 1995, we were being called in to rescue and rehabilitate jackals, monitor lizards, snakes and civets that were appearing in residential colonies all over fast-developing Delhi. Alongside a rapid-response unit was the larger idea of creating awareness and waking people up to appreciate the enormous adaptability and tenacity of wildlife to still carry on.
Sadly, more than 25 years later, the inevitable truth remains that our cities will continue to expand and the animals displaced will be forced to come into human-habited spaces as they look for food and water. That’s what led us to a sight that was truly upsetting: the magnificent sloth bear, that shy denizen of the deep forest, being dragged along hot highways and polluted city streets to entertain tourists.
That sight made us embark on an 18-month long study, during which we had to search through the secret shanties and settlements in which the nomadic Kalandar community lived to investigate where they got the bears from, how they were ‘trained’ and managed. Everything we saw made us realise we had to work fast to avert a conservation disaster.
The Kalandar community’s time-honoured practice to ‘create a dancing bear’ began with the driving of a red- hot poker through the muzzle of the six-month-old bear cub. A thick coarse rope was then thrust through the piercing. Tug on this rope and the bear will jump up and down in pain. That provides the appearance of ‘dancing’.
The torture does not end there. The cubs’ teeth are smashed with a metal rod and the male cubs castrated crudely with a blade. If the animal survived the trauma and pain, it got to live at the end of a four-foot rope for life, malnourished, weak and psychologically disturbed. The bears were seen merely as a commercial commodity by the Kalandars, who also made amulets with their teeth, hair and claws.
We visited and camped in more than 70 Kalandar settlements. Our distress at seeing the tortured animals could not hide our shock at the marginalised lives of the Kalandars, with no drinking water, no toilets and a complete absence of education and healthcare. Not only did the bears need our help, but so did the people who were making them dance for a living.
The Kalandars had kept dancing bears for 400 years and it was the only way they knew how to support their families. We knew that in order to rescue these bears — ultimately, preventing the poaching of cubs to protect them in the wild — the Kalandars would have to be put at the heart of the solution. And that’s exactly what we did.
Our Kalandar rehabilitation programme provided seed funds and guidance to help the men start their own businesses, skills training to empower women and education for their children. We also helped the community get access to basic amenities. It was critical to gain their trust and make them believe that a different future existed for them and that they should surrender their bears instead of running from the law.
Since the inception of the programme in 1995, the Kalandars have surrendered a total of 628 bears that were later rehabilitated at our four sloth bear rescue facilities across India. Today these bears receive round-the-clock veterinary care and lead peaceful lives, digging for termites, climbing trees, soaking in ponds and playing with other bears.
The Kalandar rehabilitation initiative required persistence and long-term vision, and that’s how it goes with most conservation challenges. Currently one of the biggest conservation problems confronting India is human-wildlife conflict. Our forest cover is on the decline and so is the tolerance that people have for animals.
This is perfectly encapsulated by the plight of India’s elephants. Given that they enjoy a special place in the country’s culture and tradition, one could suppose that our elephants enjoy a high degree of protection. Unfortunately, the situation on the ground paints an entirely different picture.
Just 22,000 to 25,000 wild elephants remain in India’s jungles. Those are meagre numbers compared with the million wild elephants in the country about a century back. Despite the nosedive in their population, India is home to nearly 60% of the world’s Asian elephants, making it the last stronghold of a species that faces a range of threats, among them shrinkage of forest area, habitat destruction, poaching and captivity.
We started working with elephants in 2009, the aim being to help save what’s left of them in the country. Our initial efforts were directed at rescuing and rehabilitating elephants facing severe cruelty at the hands of their illegal captors. The captivity of elephants is a blight that is often overlooked. Elephant calves are poached from their herds and then brutally trained to be used for exploitative commercial activities like tourist rides, circuses, wedding processions and temple events.
Lack of information about what goes on behind the scenes while ‘taming’ an elephant has contributed to incentivising the capture of young calves from the wild. Most tourists are unaware of the brutality that a ‘trained’ elephant faces. This begins right from the moment it is snatched from the protection of its mother, following which the calf is kept in a tight- squeeze trap, where it is starved and beaten for weeks. Merciless assaults remain a daily routine until the calf’s wild spirit is broken and it becomes totally submissive.
The Animal Welfare Board of India published a shocking report in 2018 about the dire conditions of elephants forced to give tourist rides at Amer Fort in Jaipur, Rajasthan. Most elephants were found to be lame, blind and needing urgent medical attention. We must think about ways to save these magnificent animals (to know more please visit www.refusetoride.org).
As our physical world changes rapidly, it is important to nurture our relationship with the animals in our midst. A healthy, thriving biodiversity is important to the survival of India and the world. The time to act is now.