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International Animal Rescue Saving animals from suffering around the world

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

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."

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."

Geeta 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.