If you wander the streets of little known villages of India, chances are you will hear the beats of the stringed drum as it calls for attention. There, tied to a long leash you will find a huge, black sloth bear standing on its hind legs and gesticulating as if it is quite taken by the beats and has thus joyfully broken into a dance.
The reality is quite the opposite. The rope that is tied to a circular iron rod passing through the bear’s muzzle, is pulled by the madari — the entertainer. The bear is then forced to stand on its hind paws contrary to its natural habit of walking on all fours. So what you believe to be dancing is merely a reflex action, similar to the way you react when someone pulls one of your ears!
Centuries ago in India, when the Mughals ruled most of the country, the tradition of tying wild bears to a leash and making them dance to the sounds of a drum was born. The Mughals paved the way for the British Empire and then the Republic of India was formed. But from a monarchy to a democratic country, what changed little was the plight of the dancing bears that continued to be bound for entertainment. Stricter policies have been formulated since then but the exploitation continues.
Bound from Birth
The transformation of a free-willed sloth bear to a bound and tame street performer is a story of torture, coercion and extreme cruelty. Poachers keep a look out for young bear cubs in the deep forests of the Western Ghats, the sloth bear’s natural habitat. When the bear cubs have barely begun to explore their natural surroundings, poachers capture them and kill their mothers. They are then sold mostly to Kalandars, a community that ekes out its living with dancing bears.
Even as some little ones perish, those who survive the gruesome ordeal face a bleak future. Their trainers knock their teeth with hammers and chop off their claws as safety measures. A red-hot iron rod is then inserted without anaesthesia into their snouts, through which a rope is passed. The wound is kept raw and it often bleeds due to infection.
Like the bear cubs, the children of Kalandar community too begin their training early on. They never attend schools and are never made to learn any other trade. What they learn from childhood is bear handling and bullying the animal.
In October 1998, an amendment to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (1960) was made that declared bear dancing illegal. Many NGOs with support from the Central Government encouraged Kalandars to choose a different source of livelihood and set up community learning centres for them. They set up bear rescue and rehabilitation centres to take care of the bears.
But despite the ban some Kalandars have stuck to their age-old profession. They remain in hiding now and travel constantly as finding new audiences is easier than teaching new tricks to the bear.
Changing times have added newer threats. Sloth bear parts fetch a high price when sold as traditional Chinese medicine. Their forest homes too are being destroyed as malls, homes and industries race to grab the land.
So while we call the bears wild animals, it is we who behave in a barbaric and animal-like fashion. The next time you see a dancing bear act if you alert the police instead of clapping your hands at least one bear will know that humans do have a kind heart.