Agra: It was a common sight on the Agra-Fatehpur Sikri road. Villagers lining the road with their bears and stopping foreign tourists to witness a bear dance. The visitors would only be allowed to go after paying the bear owners.
Bear shows were the only source of livelihood for the residents of Korai village situated 30km fom Agra on the Fatehpur Sikri road. It involved piercing a hot iron rod into the soft muzzle of the bear cub, after which a rope is threaded through it, which is then used to make bear ‘dance’.
This horrific and illegal practice of meant the bear jumped up and down in pain when its handlers tugged at the rope was ended by an NGO named Wildlife SOS.
The NGO brought down the curtain on the centuries-old practice in the country, and successfully rescued and rehabilitated sloth bears from the cruel industry and kept them in a bear rescue facility at Agra, which is world’s largest sloth bear rescue centre.
Speaking to Gulf News, M.V. Baiju Raj, Director of conservation projects, Wildlife SOS and also the head of Agra Bear Rescue Centre said, “Wildlife SOS was formed to rescue the sloth bear. The Agra Bear Rescue Centre was the first in India and the largest in the world, It was established on the basis of a public-private partnership.
“Wildlife SOS has signed a memorandum of Understanding with the forest department of Uttar Pradesh, through which an NGO have got land from the government in Kitham, Agra to develop a bear rescue centre.”
According to Baiju Raj, when the Agra Bear Rescue Centre was started, there were more than 600 sloth bears at the sanctuary rescued from all parts of India. But at present there are only 115 bears left at the centre. Most of them died natural deaths or due to tuberculosis.
According to Baiju, the kalandars, a nomadic community who engaged in the bear dance business, had high prevalence of tuberculosis among them and bears living with them in their huts got this disease through them.
“These tall and sharp features kalandars indicate they are the descendants of Mughals. Others link them to Pathans [Pashtuns] from Afghanistan,” said Baiju Raj. “Our NGO, Wildlife SOS have rehabilitated 3,000 kalandars. Their women are being provided with swing machines and men with autorickshaws. Their children are getting education through our NGO,” added Baiju.
It was alleged that these kalandars were selling bears and their cubs to foreign tourists. “They were selling bears cubs to poachers who were trafficking them to China. Some Chinese use bear cub paws for making soup and gall bladders for making their traditional medicines,” said Baiju Raj.
According to him, the poaching business is still ongoing. There are still 23 bears in Nepal. The kalandars cross the porus Indo-Nepal border, come to India, perform bear dance, and vanishe into Nepal. “Initially we found it difficulty to rescue sloth bears from the kalandars.
They thought we were taking away their livelihood, but later they agreed and surrendered their bears. Bears thus rescued are kept in quarantine for medical observation at the sanctuary, before being allowed to mix with others,” added Baiju.