SOS Wildlife saving India’s sloth bears. All photos © Dana Wilson/Wildlife SOS, 2020 – Wildlifesos.org

SOS Wildlife saving India’s sloth bears

The exploitation of wildlife is often deeply rooted in generations of poverty. When animals are used as a means of subsistence income, people can become blind to systemic mistreatment and abuse. Human suffering begets animal suffering. Real and lasting change in the protection of wildlife can’t happen without addressing the underlying causes. Both ethically and practically, without providing an alternative, you can’t take away a community’s livelihood and expect them to change their behaviour.

When I first started working for Wildlife SOS in 2019, I was immediately struck by their visionary, yet grounded and realistic, approach to protecting the vast wealth of wild animals in India. The thriving country of 1.3 billion people still has free-roaming herds of elephants and nighttime visits by leopards. Expansive megacities like Delhi still have skies teaming with soaring raptors. It’s a critical time for wise conservation efforts, like the protection of wild sloth bear populations.

Co-founders Geeta Seshamani and Kartick Satyanarayan ignored the skeptics. They took a long and difficult 15-year path to eradicate the barbaric “dancing bear” practice in India. They felt it was the only way to ensure lasting behavioral changes in the communities who used sloth bears to generate income for their most basic needs.

The cruel “dancing bear” trade dates back to the 16th century. Sloth bear cubs were taken from the wild after their mothers were killed. Their teeth were smashed out, and their muzzles were pierced with a red-hot metal rod, then threaded with rope causing a painful chronic wound. As the rope was pulled, the bears would “dance” to avoid the blinding pain. Tragically, begging and “dancing” at the end of a short rope consumed the bears’ lives from young cub to death.

Entrapped by poverty and lack of education, communities of tribal Kalandar were forced to depend on the illegal practice of bear “dancing” for their livelihoods. The Kalandar led a nomadic life being chased from town to town with no place they could call “home.” Geeta and Kartick spent years earning the trust of over 3,000 Kalandar families spread out over six states in 15 groups with the lofty goal of permanently ending the exploitation of sloth bears. Amazingly and against all the odds, they achieved what they stubbornly set out to accomplish.

SOS Wildlife saving India’s sloth bears

On a recent trip to Jaipur, India, with Wildlife SOS co-worker Mahima Sharma to document the exploitation and neglect of elephants ridden to entertain tourists, I was fortunate enough to visit a Kalandar village an hour to the southeast. The plight of the “dancing bears” has been well-documented in National Geographic and BBC documentaries, and by conservation legends like Jane Goodall, so I was really looking forward to meeting the Kalandar firsthand.

Mahima and I met the director of the Kalandar rehabilitation program Rakhee Sharma for the rural drive through arid Rajasthan. As we first arrived at the village, I was immediately humbled by the simplicity of the living conditions. Several families lived in traditional nomadic dwellings of nothing more than sticks and tarps, but most lived in small, solid brick, one-room houses. They built these homes themselves with materials provided by Wildlife SOS and its generous supporters. They hauled water more than a mile to mix the mortar, leveled the land by hand, and placed the roof without equipment. However stark the living conditions, they had a strong community, and they were very proud of it. They should be. A woman carrying two children told me this was the first time she had experienced the respect of others, and you could see the light in her eyes when she said it. This was the face of empowerment. Often an abstract buzzword, I was looking into the eyes of a generation that jumped at the chance to make their lives better.

This strong lady, a recent widow, built her home with her own hands and some help from her community. It's the first safe, permanent home she's ever known. ©Wildlife SOS, 2020/Dana Wilson

Wildlife SOS tribal rehabilitation programs are vast, almost daunting in their scope. The focus is to empower the community by helping people earn incomes through dignified and legal means and improve their living standards. They are helped to secure bank accounts and modest funding to become small business owners like tuk-tuk drivers, skilled tradesmen, juice stand owners, jewelry makers, and wedding DJs. Once these immediate subsistence needs are addressed, educating the children is critical to breaking the cycle of poverty and building a stronger future.

Everywhere in the world, women face cultural and societal pressures, but women in impoverished communities in India are up against extraordinary challenges. Programs for education, vocational training, and seed funding help empower Kalandar women to provide the financial security of a second income for their families, ensuring their status in the community. This newfound stability, combined with education and awareness, has dramatically decreased the prevalence of child marriage, so common in impoverished parts of the world.

The beautiful and attentive Kalandar children were studying math. The school house and study materials were funded by generous Wildlife SOS donors. ©Wildlife SOS, 2020/Dana Wilson

Most of us work very hard to further our careers and care for our families, but visiting a community like the Kalandar is a stark reminder of the huge advantages we have living in North America. Climbing a tall mountain is never easy, but starting from sea level can make reaching the summit seem unimaginable. Seeing the smiles and bright eyes of the school children, I can’t help but think of all the suffering of both humans and wildlife that has been prevented by the determined efforts of a few caring and resourceful people. The cycle of animal abuse wasn’t just broken; it had been smashed.

As we were leaving the train station in Jaipur, a torrential hail storm struck the city, and news of the pending of COVID-19 lockdown was on the cover of every magazine and newspaper. I couldn’t help but worry about the resilient Kalandar village I’d visited the day before. With a little help, they’ve made monumental progress, but they’re still living on the fringes.

Breaking a 400-year-old tradition of wildlife exploitation has never been so expansive, yet effective. By 2009, Wildlife SOS had rescued the last of 628 dancing bears in India, providing the injured and traumatized animals with lifetime care at one of our sanctuaries.

If you would like to learn more about the lifesaving work of Wildlife SOS, look for the Nat Geo WILD series Jungle Animal Rescue coming to Canada this fall, or visit wildlifesos.org.

Dana Wilson is Director of Marketing and Communications for Wildlife SOS. He is a longtime enthusiast and advocate for wildlife, companion animals and wild spaces.

—BY Dana Wilson