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Animal welfare history is made as the final curtain falls on dancing bears in India

Alan with Raju, the last dancing bear to arrive at the sanctuary (Photo: Gavin Parsons)A coalition of conservation and animal rescue groups has today made animal welfare history by taking the last dancing bears off the streets of India - bringing an end to a centuries-old tradition that inflicted terrible cruelty on thousands of highly endangered sloth bears.

The groups behind the bear rescue project are International Animal Rescue (IAR), Wildlife SOS (WSOS) of India, Free the Bears Fund (FTB) from Australia, and One Voice Association France. Between them they have rescued more than 600 bears and given them a permanent home and lifetime care in sanctuaries throughout India.

At the same time they have provided a rehabilitation package for the bear handlers, known as kalandars, so that they can learn new trades and continue supporting their families after surrendering their bears. For the first time kalandar children are able to attend school and receive an education sponsored by the Kalandar Rehabilitation Project.

Alan Knight, Chief Executive of International Animal Rescue, said: "In all my years in animal welfare I have never been part of such a resounding success story. To transform the lives of hundreds of captive bears is amazing in itself - but to put an end to this cruelty once and for all is nothing short of momentous.

"We have always been immensely proud to be part of this project which we will continue to support once all the bears have been rescued. I would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has helped us over the years: none of the groups involved could have been part of this success without the generosity and kindness of their members and supporters."

Raju being surrendered to our care at the Agra sanctuary (Photo: Gavin Parsons)The practice of dancing bears was made illegal in India when the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 came into effect. However it wasn't until the end of 2002, when the Wildlife SOS Agra Bear Rescue Facility (established in collaboration with the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department with support from IAR, FTB, One Voice and other supporter groups) opened its doors, that there was anywhere to house confiscated dancing bears. The first six bears were brought into the centre on Christmas Eve 2002. Since then the project has gone from strength to strength and now boasts four rescue facilities in Agra, Bannerghatta, Bhopal and West Bengal.

With support from One Voice Association France, an extensive anti-poaching network known as Forest Watch was also set up which has effectively curbed poaching of bear cubs by working closely with enforcement agencies such as the police, forest departments and the wildlife crime control bureau. These anti-poaching efforts have drastically reduced the supply of cubs being poached from the wild and sold on the black market.

Kartick Satyanarayan, Co-Founder of Wildlife SOS, said: "This event is of huge historic significance in India and cause for real celebration. No longer will our country be tainted by the shocking spectacle of captive bears being beaten on the roadside or dragged miserably through the traffic and dust by a rope through their noses."

Raju, now happy and safe in our Agra Bear Rescue FacilityGeeta Seshamani, Co-Founder of Wildlife SOS, added: "Thanks to assistance from the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the Government of India and the state forest departments - and our supporters around the world - it has taken less than a decade to bring an end to this barbaric practice and give the bears and the kalandar community a second chance in life."

Mary Hutton, Founder of Free the Bears Fund in Australia, said: "At Free the Bears we are overjoyed at the success of this project and are committed to ensuring that the bears are never again forced to dance on the streets of India. Much work remains to be done to provide the rescued bears with the best possible quality of life. The support of our members, through our sponsorship programme, is more vital than ever."

Muriel Arnal, President of One Voice, said: "One Voice has been working closely with Wildlife SOS to stop poaching of bear cubs through Forest Watch. We are pleased that we have been effective and successful in tracking down poachers and working with enforcement agencies to control this illegal trade. In addition to this, we have also been conducting training workshops for enforcement officers. After the rescue of the dancing bears, the anti-poaching work will become even more important and we will have to work harder to ensure no more bear cubs are poached!"

As well as offering bear sponsorships, the coalition also plans to develop responsible conservation education projects in major cities in India to assist with the running costs and the life time care of the rescued bears in the years ahead.

For further information and images, please contact:

Kartick Satyanarayan, Wildlife SOS: +91 9810114563 / +91 9810000254Lis Key, International Animal Rescue: +44 1825 767688 / +44 7957 824379Mary Hutton, Free the Bears Fund Inc: +61 8 9244 1096 / +61 421 213 563Muriel Arnal, One Voice Association: +33 679831661

Editor's Notes

With informants across the country, and a recently concluded advertising campaign designed to encourage bear dancers to turn in their bears, the coalition is confident that it has identified and rescued the remaining dancing bears in India. However, given India's vast size and rather porous borders, the coalition recognises the possibility that there may be a few dancing bears hidden away in remote areas or in neighbouring countries, and remains firmly committed to rescuing any bears that may be discovered in the future.

Dancing bears in India are sloth bears that have been poached from the wild as tiny cubs, often by killing their mother.  Sloth bears are listed on Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and all international trade in them is prohibited. As well as being poached for the dancing bear trade, bear parts are thought to have healing properties and bears are highly prized for use in traditional medicines.

Sloth bear cubs are stolen from the forests, the mother bears often killed as the week old cubs are snatched away and sold to kalandar nomads for USD 20 - 30$. The kalandars then train the bear cubs using barbaric techniques to force the bear to perform and dance. Its claws are ripped out and its teeth broken off with an iron bar to make it easier to control. It is fed on cheap alcohol to subdue it. Worst of all, a red hot poker is pushed up through the bear's snout and out through the delicate muzzle and nose. A rough rope is threaded through the open wound. When the handler jerks the rope upwards, the bear stands on its hind legs to escape the pain. As a cub the bear is also forced to stand on red hot coals and soon learns to hop from one foot to another, making it look as though it is dancing.

Once rescued and brought into the sanctuaries, former dancing bears receive specialist veterinary care, enjoy a healthy diet and live with companions in large, forested enclosures. Over time they become healthier and happier. However, the rescued bears can never be returned to the wild because they have not learnt the survival skills from their mothers and the lack of teeth and sometimes claws handicaps them severely. They have also been imprinted by human beings and have become accustomed to, and reliant on, humans for food. Such bears cannot survive in the wild on their own.

Not long ago dancing bears were a common sight in well-touristed areas of India, notably along the highway between Delhi and Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Now, thanks to the coalition, they are a thing of the past.