The Tragic Saga of South Asia’s Dancing Bears

Image: Riyaz Shaik/ 7MB
For centuries, bears were tortured into submission and made to dance. Now, this cruel practice is nearing its end.

On Tuesday, December 19, the last ‘dancing bear‘ of Nepal was rescued. The two brown bears, Rangile and Sridevi, were found cowering and sucking their paws; signs of severe psychological trauma. This act of rescue is significant, for it means that centuries of abuse is coming to an end in South Asia.

Had they not been found, they would have spent the rest of their days in a cruel industry that drags them by rope from village to village, ‘dancing’ for human ‘entertainment’. Their rescue, by the Nepalese police aided by the Jane Goodall Institute of Nepal and World Animal Protection, marks the end of a bitter era of the abuse of Indian bears for entertainment. The species used are the Himalayan Brown Bear (Critically Endangered), Asiatic Black Bear (Vulnerable) and Sloth Bear (Vulnerable).

Just seven years earlier, India too marked a day in December as the last time a dancing bear would be caught. When ‘Raju’ was rescued at the end of 2009, it marked the successful conclusion of a long campaign by Wildlife SOS, the conservation NGO, to rescue India’s brown bears from their handlers. Much of this was due to the work of a wildlife enthusiast named Kartick Satyanarayan.

Cracking down on the bear trade was not a simple matter of law enforcement. The use and abuse of ‘dancing bears’ was a community-based vocation – and tackling what was an ancient practice for people now considered an ‘Otherwise Backward Community’ required empathy and tact.

For centuries, sloth bears have been trained – brutally – to perform on the Indian subcontinent. Since the 13th century, a nomadic Sufi sect called the Qalandar have incorporated animals as part of their distinctive performances – bears, monkeys, goats, and dogs. Special sects within the Qalandar used to hunt the bears and monkeys in the North-West Frontier Province, before selling them to the mainland nomads.

The bears were brutally trained to take orders – from the age of five to ten months, their canine teeth are removed, and a silver ring is inserted into their nose. PETA has documented instances where burning iron needles are used to make the incision in the nose, allowing a rope to be looped through it. The wound never fully heals. And to keep the bears docile, the males are castrated. The combination of pain and humiliation makes them subservient animals to their handlers.

To teach them to dance, they are made to hop on burning coals. The bears dance, march, or even pretend to be guards, holding wooden sticks. The routines often involve little children, who will place their heads in the bear’s mouth as part of the show’s climax. In one incident, described by Joseph C. Berland, a child’s fibula was snapped after the bear was agitated by the audience.

Image: Creative Commons

Unaccustomed to the harsh heat of the mainland, bears would often be agitated. Taking them from village to village proved a dangerous act for the Qalandar – handlers would often be dismembered and many died in the process. To add to the tragic irony, the use of bears was not enough to ensure a livable income for the nomadic tribe – making the whole act questionable at its very premise.

The illicit trafficking of Asian Brown Bears was not restricted to just performance. Their claws and hair are sold as Tabit (protective charms) and Buti (curative or restorative potions). Cruelly, the bile of the bear is harvested for use in traditional medicine. Popular across Asia, it had led to the rise of ‘bile factories‘ in China; where the bear’s stomachs are pierced and bile continuously extracted until they die in the small cages that are their permanent homes. So huge is the problem that Chinese scientists have developed a ‘synthetic alternative‘ to the bear’s bile.

When Kartick Satyanarayan first took up the case of the brown bears in 1997, officials felt he was ‘making a fuss’. Bear dancing was outlawed in 1972, but the ban had little impact when the Qalandar had few career alternatives, and the government nowhere to store captured bears.

Initially, Kartick and his team visited the Qalandar settlements and tried to convince them to give up their trade and take up other jobs. It proved surprisingly effective, and by providing former-bear handles with seed funding, they enabled them to explore alternate careers – such as running shops on the highway selling chilled beverages or driving an autorickshaw. Qalandar women have been taught to weave and their daughters now go to school.

By 2014, up to 600 dancing bears were rescued. WildlifeSOS maintains bear rescue centers across the country – sheltering, rehabilitating and feeding rescued bears. If bears are to perform for humans again, hopefully, it will only be in works fiction – such as the Jungle Book’s sloth bear, ‘Bhalu‘.

With the rescue of Nepal’s last dancing bear, Pakistan remains the only country yet to fully tackle bear abuse in South Asia. The Qalandar, who are spread across India, Nepal, and Pakistan, do not have a reason to be a part of this inhumane trade. For wildlife conservationists in Pakistan, the work undertaken by public and non-governmental actors in India and Nepal can shed light on a humane way to end an inhumane practice – without reducing a weak community to abject penury.


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