India’s ‘dancing bears’ retire in animal rights victory
India’s ‘dancing bears’ retire in animal rights victory
The tradition of forcing sloth bears to dance for entertainment dates back to the 13th century, when trainers belonging to the Muslim Kalandar tribe enjoyed royal patronage and performed before the rich and powerful.
Descendants of the tribe from central India had kept the tradition alive, buying bear cubs from poachers for about 1,200 rupees ($ 22) and then hammering a heated iron rod through their sensitive snouts.
After removing the animal’s teeth and claws, the bear trainer threaded a rope through its snout and then headed for the streets where onlookers would pay a few rupees for a show in which the bear would sway and jump around.
“It’s taken us many years but all the tribesmen we keep track of have moved on to different livelihoods,” Vivek Menon from the non-profit Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), told AFP on the sidelines of a bear conference in New Delhi last week.
“The tradition might still be present in people’s minds, of course, but we don’t know of any cases where Kalandars are still practizing it.”
The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and India-based Wildlife SOS, which runs sanctuaries for bears, have also declared an end to the practice in the last few months — 40 years after a government ban in 1972.
The key, say the donation-funded groups, has been bringing the Kalandars on board, providing them with money and incentives to re-train in other professions. The success points the way for other campaigns, such as the one to rid India of its snake charmers who can still be spotted illegally plying their trade, often with the snakes’ mouths sewn shut. “It was very difficult to convince the bear trainers to give up their work. Most of them were very scared, they have never known any other way of life but this,” WSPA campaign coordinator Aniruddha Mookerjee told AFP.
One of the owners to give up was Mohammed Afsar Khan, a 30-year-old father of three girls who used to work with his father and brother traveling across central India with three bears in tow.
He says he used to earn about 300 rupees a day until he gave up the job six years ago.
“It’s a hard life. You can never settle in one place, your children can’t go to school, you end up feeling trapped. Then you are always worried about police harassing you for bribes,” he said.
He handed over his bears to Wildlife Trust of India officers, who offered his family financial assistance and helped him and his younger brother learn driving skills.
He used the funds to rent a tractor and ferry bricks from kilns to construction sites in Chhattisgarh state. Today, he owns his tractor and earns about 500 rupees a day.
The bears recovered by the animal groups were often in a wretched state, suffering from infected snouts, root canal problems, even diseases such as tuberculosis which they contracted from humans.
The sloth bears also suffer from malnutrition after being fed bread, lentils and milk for years, leading to an extremely reduced life span.
Menon from WTI say that the dancing bear industry was also “a dominant cause behind the disappearance of the sloth bear” — a focus at the bear conference which focused on conservation and welfare. In the last three decades, the number of sloth bears — a species native to South Asia — has fallen by at least 30 percent, according to the IUCN-SSC Bear Specialist Group (BSG). There are now less than 20,000 of them.
“The widespread poaching of bear cubs and the killing of mother bears clearly affects the population of the species,” Menon told AFP.
“India is changing rapidly and this is an outmoded, inhumane tradition. The trainers themselves realize now that it is far easier for them to earn a living doing other jobs,” Menon said.
Aziz Khan is another former bear-owner who never expected to leave his ancestral trade but was happy for the way out offered by WTI when officers approached him and his friends more than a decade ago.
“I didn’t earn much, but I was afraid to leave it. I didn’t know how else I would be able to feed my three kids,” the 45-year-old told AFP.
WTI helped retrain Aziz Khan and his friends as bakers. They now run their own bakery, producing 350 loaves of bread each day.
“I have no regrets today, it was a dead-end job and I am glad I was able to move on,” he said.
Antarctic researchers mark winter solstice with icy plunge
SYDNEY: Scientists based in Antarctica welcomed the winter solstice by plunging into icy waters Thursday as part of a “mad tradition” heralding the return of brighter days after weeks of darkness.
In temperatures of -22 degrees Celsius (-7.6 degrees Fahrenheit), staff at Australia’s Casey research station marked midwinter’s day by cutting a small pool in the thick ice before stripping off and jumping in.
Casey station leader Rebecca Jeffcoat said midwinter day — the shortest of the year — was the most anticipated occasion on the Antarctic calendar and has been celebrated from the time of the early explorers.
“Swimming in Antarctica’s below freezing waters is something of a mad tradition, but our hardy expeditioners look forward to it, with 21 of the 26 people on station brave enough to take an icy dip this year,” she said.
“Midwinter day is really important in Antarctica because it marks the halfway point of our year here on the ice and it means the sun will spend slightly longer in the sky each day.”
Celebrations took place at all three of Australia’s Antarctic research stations and its sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island base, with feasting, an exchange of handmade gifts, and messages from home read out.
Jeffcoat, who is experiencing her first Antarctic winter, said the continent was extraordinary.
“The environment is spectacular and harsh, and we experience the most incredible range of conditions, from below freezing blizzards to auroras, or the midwinter twilight as the sun skims the horizon,” she said.
“It is challenging being so far from family and friends, but we have built a really close-knit community of friends on station that we’ll likely have for the rest of our lives as we’ve shared this great experience together.”
Australia currently has 75 researchers living and working on the frozen continent as part of the Australian Antarctic Program, with most of them on 12-month postings.