The nomadic Kalandars, whose livelihoods were threatened with ‘bear dancing’ becoming illegal, are now being rehabilitated as caretakers ofthe same sloths

 Watching Aashiq Miyan in the kitchen, as he chops vegetables and cuts fruits for the 250 odd sloth bears at the Agra Bear Rescue Facility (ABRF), it’s difficult to imagine that he was once part of the bear entertainers’ trade. By crossing over the line from the other side of the law and becoming a caretaker of these animals, life has come a full circle for Miyan and many other Kalandars like him. 

“Rani was ours,” Miyan says fondly of the first inhabitant of ABRF. There is no remorse in his voice, just a feeling of peaceful realisation. He has come a long way since the time his family roamed the dusty roads of Rajasthan, making Rani ‘dance’ to entertain crowds and earn money.

“It was because of her that we could eat and survive. But my father knew that it was an illegal practice. During one of the campaigns against this trade in our village, he decided to surrender Rani, and took up a job in ABRF instead,” he said.

Later Miyan, too, joined the facility, as a kitchen chef. “I knew the bear’s eating habits; so this was an apt job for me. I was taught the dietary supplements they require. We feed them thrice a day.” 

Rehabilitation of the Kalandar community — a nomadic tribe — whose main occupation has been bear entertainment, is an important part of ending this cruel trade, says Geeta Seshamani, co-founder of the Wildlife SOS, an animal welfare organisation that started the ABRF in 2002 along with government agencies. Therefore, along with rescuing animals, they are also helping the community find alternate sources of livelihood, so that they don’t go back to the trade in future.

“It’s very easy to demonise the Kalandars. But the community comes from an impoverished background with no access to health facilities and education. So we have to rehabilitate them as well,” Ms. Seshamani said.

Thus, along with the facility, a Kalandar Rehabilitation Programme was also started under which a package of Rs. 50,000 is given to the owner upon surrendering of a bear. Enforcement of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, made the community’s source of livelihood illegal.

Today, in a heartening sign of change, more than 40 per cent of the staff of the bear facility is from the Kalandar community, working either as caretakers or as kitchen staff.  

Mohammad Rizwan, another Kalandar boy at the facility, said that he is happy with a stable life now. “We are from Uttar Pradesh, but I have grown up in West Bengal. Every 10 days, our community, which constitute about 10-15 families, would move from one village to another.”  

“With the bear, our daily income was around Rs. 500. With my brothers in petty businesses, it’s around the same now. But we are not chased by the law and have a stable life,” he added. The staff members earn Rs. 6,000-7,000 per month at the centre.

Apart from the economic and social stability, it is the realisation of the animals’ pain that motivates them to work for the bears, said Mohammad Husain, another community member. 

A cub, barely a month old, is stolen from its mother by the poacher and bundled in a gunny sack. Traumatised and ill fed, it is sold to a Kalandar. Many don’t survive the ordeal and the ones that do, have their delicate snouts pierced by a hot iron rod and a rope being pulled through. 

Their canines and claws are broken and they are tied by a rope. So much is the stress that once rescued, a bear has to be quarantined for three months, its wounds are tended to, surgeries are performed and ample food is given. But because they have lost their animal instincts by the time they are rescued, they are not left in the wild. 

According to Kartick Satyanarayan, 550 sloth bears have been rescued till date; they are rehabilitated in four centres (including ABRF, which was the first) across India. “Although there are no reports of dancing bears since the last rescue in 2009, we suspect there are some in Nepal, and attempts have been made to bring them through the India-Nepal border.” 

In India, the trade has now lost its steam as many Kalandar boys are now also working as informers, helping law enforcing agencies keep a tab on any poaching activity.