DANCING BEARS IN INDIA

In Bihar, India, Mohammad Sovrati bought a new carrier rickshaw with funds from an alternative livelihood package made available to Kalandars like him under the Integrated Sloth Bear Conservation and Welfare Project (ISBCWP). Prior to that, he danced bears for his livelihood, as his ancestors had done for over four centuries.

Like his fellow Kalandars, Sovrati began his exclusive education on bear dancing as a child. From his father, he learnt to buy sloth bear cubs from poachers, paying as little as 300 rupees. He learnt to pierce the muzzle of the cub and pass a rope through it to control it, to use fear and pain as tools to train the cub and to earn his living by displaying the bear’s talents to an ignorant audience.

With the amendment in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (1960) in October 1998, however, bear dancing became illegal. Many, but not all Kalandars gave it up. About 400 bears were reported by a study conducted under the ISBCWP. Sovrati was among those who continued performing bears in hiding, as that was the only way he thought possible to make a living.

Sovrati’s job required him to travel constantly as finding new audience was easier than teaching new tricks to his bear. Strict enforcement of the ban in tourist hotspots compelled Sovrati to target remote rural areas. Earning an average of about 100 rupees per day, he struggled to make ends meet for his family of seven. His five children had no opportunity of schooling, as they had to constantly move with him.

When the implementers of the ISBCWP, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) and World Society for Protection of Animals (WSPA) approached Sovrati with the option of alternative livelihood, he hesitantly agreed as he understood that to be his best way out.

Providing alternative livelihood to Kalandars for surrendering their bears was one of the approaches of the project aiming for a holistic methodology in the conservation and welfare of sloth bears in India.

In this approach, the Kalandar is warned about the negativities in continuing bear dances. He is then convinced to surrender his bears to the forest department after assuring a rehabilitation package. The Kalandar is allowed to select his alternative livelihood which is assessed in terms of the market feasibility. Once cleared, the package is released and the Kalandar is assisted in setting up and adjusting in his new occupation. Post-rehabilitation monitoring follows, to help him achieve socio-economic stability, said Ujjal Kumar Sarma, assistant manager, WTI.