Raju in, dancing bears do their last act

When 4-year-old Raju, led by 40-year-old Raja Saab, walked into Bannerghata rescue centre in Karnataka on Friday morning, it brought down the curtain on a 300-year-old practice.

Raju is an endangered sloth bear made to perform as a dancing bear, and his 'owner' Raja surrendered him post-public notice in a local paper for 'peaceful surrender' making him what could be India's last 'dancing bear'.

In the past six months, state forest departments of West Bengal, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh working with NGO Wildlife SOS have rescued a record 28 sloth bears three from Agra district, 15 from West Bengal and 10 from Karnataka, including Raju which were being forced to 'dance'. In all, 600 sloth bears have been rescued.

Sloth bears are only found on the Indian subcontinent, and are given highest protection under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act. Unlike other Indian bears, they tend to avoid hunting and eat fruit and insects. Possessing a dancing bear equals a poaching violation. All the bears are made to perform by a single community: the Qalandars.

"Possessing a sloth bear, and making him dance by beating him is a complete violation of the Wildlife Protection Act. But we realise that this is a tradition in India which is more than 300 years old. This is a social problem. If we simply crack down in a punitive way, the bear dancers will not respond. So in the past few years, we have adopted an approach in which we ask for voluntary surrender of the animal," says N K Janu, divisional forest officer, Agra. "Agra used to be a hub of dancing bears for all the tourists who would come to Fatehpur Sikri and Taj Mahal. With these three bears coming in, there are no more dancing bears left in Uttar Pradesh."

In all the 28 cases, the rescues have been facilitated through public notices, another first in India's wildlife trade history. "For the past one year, we have been putting out public notices in regional languages in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Maharashtra and UP, telling people to call if they see a dancing bear. The notices also mention that owners will be given a seed fund to help them start another livelihood if they peacefully surrender their bears," says Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder, Wildlife SOS, which runs four rescue and rehabilitation centres for rescued dancing bears. "There are no more dancing bears left on India's streets."

Evidence now points to the fact that this is the last chapter in the trade of dancing bears. "The big change in Karnataka is that the Qalandars themselves don't want to dance bears any longer. Raja said he wanted to stop running from the law. He wants to be in the construction business, which some of his relatives, who also used to dance bears, are doing currently," says B Raju, assistant conservator of Forests, Bannerghatta.

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