Often I find that animal conservationists get so involved with saving animals that the fate of their human brethren ceases to matter as much. Some years ago, I met an ex-snake charmer who was practically reduced to begging when his traditional livelihood was declared illegal. Of course, it is true that traditionally, animals like monkeys, snakes and bears used to be cruelly trained to perform tricks. It is, however, also true that the end of these clearly barbaric practices strikes a death knell for these traditional livelihoods — something which animal conservationists must bear in mind. Last December, when the Indian government brought out a path-breaking national action plan to safeguard bears, I heard about the approach towards the eradication of bear dancing adopted by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA).
“For nearly 20 years that we have worked on rescuing and protecting dancing bears in India, our focus has been on rehabilitating the Kalandars — the nomadic community traditionally dependent on bear dancing for their livelihoods,” said Aniruddha Mukherjee of WSPA. WSPA along with its Indian partner, Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), has rehabilitated over 50 Kalandars in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and rescued over 400 bears from unendurable lives of forced performance. “We believe that if you don’t provide alternative livelihoods to communities dependent on precious wild resources, there’s no way that they will be able to survive without continuing to exploit the resources in question,” said Mukherjee.
At their kind invitation, I travelled to Chorbhatti, a small village near Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh, to meet some Kalandars and understand how WSPA’s intervention had affected them. There, I met Ashraf. A father of 12, his sons and he were the first to surrender their three dancing bears to WTI and WSPA. They, in turn, helped Ashraf to get loans and subsidised their purchase of two autos and a tractor. “Earlier, we had no roof over our heads. We’d camp wherever villagers let us, and earned from our bears. Now, we have stability. We don’t earn as much as we did earlier but at least we are able to live with dignity and respect.” This sentiment was echoed by Sher Ali, Ashraf’s neighbour, whom WTI and WSPA helped by procuring some farm land and fencing his fields. He said when he was on the road with his dancing bear, life was always uncertain. He and other Kalandars never stayed in one place long enough to send their children to school.
“Of course, we were richer then. We’d earn in cash and kind through performances, and by selling amulets, rings and charms,” he said. Not all Kalandars have become farmers. Aziz now runs his own bakery. “I’m baking 300 loaves of bread and 60 packets of rusks every day. My business is thriving!” he said. He’d never revert to the old ways again, he added.
WSPA and its partner are now monitoring the community to ensure that no Kalandar returns to his old occupation. Bears are now very difficult to keep but having lived with and trained wild animals, they are capable of trapping exotic birds, poaching smaller animals, etc,” said Mukherjee. Was it worth it, I wondered, to spend so much time, energy and resources on such a small community? Mukherjee estimates that thanks to the combined efforts of WSPA, WTI and a few other organisations, there are virtually no dancing bears left in the country today. By keeping close tabs on the Kalandars, they’re ensuring that things stay this way.