Teddy Bears Picnic?


There’s something about bears: their rounded furry shape, their forward facing eyes, their ability to stand up just like we do, seems to switch on the ‘cute-appreciation-gene’. And that’s just the adults, when it comes to cubs, almost anyone can turn to goo. We put them  in myths and stories and further imbue them with human personality traits and the kind of super powers we ourselves would like to have.


This is all very bad news for bears: they get into trouble because we cosy up to them and then feel betrayed when instead of behaving like good natured human buffoons in afluffy coat, they behave like…bears, and take a bite out of us; we take home a cute wittle cubby and in a few months we have a predator the size of a sofa in the house; we force them to play a human part in our world, that utterly divorces them from their lives as wild animals or we simply plunder their bodies for the superpowers that only exist in our own imaginations.

Over the last couple of years, whilst researching various books I’ve come across examples of all of these. From foolish tourists trying to cuddle wild grizzly cubs to Asian black bears being kept in cages with open fistulas, so their bile can be harvested for ‘medicine’.

Luckily for the bears, there are at least a few humans with their heads on the right way. Last week in Sabah, Borneo I visited a wonderful bear rehabilitation centre, T he Borneo Sunbear Conservation Centre,run by people with the good kind of bear obsession: one that works for the bears. The centre caters for sun bears, rehabilitating bears taken from the wild as cute cubs to be household pets, which have then had the audacity to grow up. Bears are released into large areas of fenced off forest, where they can do some research into how to be bears….climbing, digging, turningover rocks. The staff offer the bears support in the form of regular food drops, until the bears’ own food finding skills are good enough to allow then to be returned to the wild.

This week I’ve been in India, in Bhopal the ancient lakeside city that became famous two decades ago for the worst environmental disaster in Indian history. I’m here to meetKalanders, a social grouping of semi nomadic people who have, for hundreds of years, struggled to survive on the margins of Indian society.

As landless poor their options were pretty limited but one way to make money was to train sloth bear cubs to perform; the now infamous dancing bears of India. Sloth bears were once very common in the Indian landscape, so it was easy to obtain young cubs, remove their potentially dangerous upper canines, put a rope through their noses and get them to jiggle about on their hind legs, shake hands, salute with their right paw and give little children rides. An extended family of Kalandars and their bear would travel around remote villages for seven or eight months of the year, giving impromptu shows.

In Britain we used to bait bears and badgers, fight cockerels – still do in secret little pockets. We hunt foxes and course hares, so we can’t afford to be too pious about the

Kalandars and their bears. Like all human- animal relationships there were good versions and bad versions. You can catch the bad versions on utube… A miserable manky bear,being yanked around by the nose and hit with a stick, by a yob who looks like he doesn’t much like human beings, let alone bears. But the good versions is what I’ve been hearing about this week.

The Kalandars of the little settlement Nyabasera Kotra Sultanabad, a shanty suburb of Bhopal (where the Kalanders were given the chance to buy land to live on by Indira Ghandi), were great trainers and keepers of dancing bears.They are not the sort of people to hang about in dirty laybys with a scruffy, badly fed animal, the condition of their little town shows you that at once: the houses maybe made of sticks and polythene with a few brick walls here and there; a family of ten may be living in a windowless house smaller than a six berth tent, but the streets are immaculately clean and everyone is smartly turned out and smiling. The sense of community is very strong.


“You will never train a bear by hitting hit, never.” says the expert bear trainer in the pressed checked shirt. “First the cub must live with your family like  another child. It will sit on your lap and be stroked and cuddled. Only when it is six or eight months old can you start to train it.”

There is of course no disguising the fact that putting a hole through a bear’s nose and pulling on the rope threaded through it, isn’t kind. The bear must do what the rope tells it, pain makes sure of that. But training was also by reward and even without their canines sloth bears are big, fierce animals, with massive heads, lethal claws and the strength of several brawny boxers in their front legs. Seeing fully grown sloth bears, retired ‘dancers’, in a wildlife park was enough to convince me that a bear that really didn’t want to cooperate, wouldn’t and could inflict some pretty serious injuries by way of rebellion. However unpleasant the rope through the nose may be, there is no doubt that the people I talked to this week really loved their bears. Shameen Ahmed, the Wildlife Trusts of Indiafield officer, who has been working with the Kalanders, tells me how sleek their bears were “They took great, great care of their bears. They always got the best food.”

It’s also clear that the Kalanders bear men were expert showmen and story tellers, who knew exactly how to work a crowd. The bear trainer’s eyes light up when he describes how he would tell stories about the bear’s life in the wild, about its individual ferocity or cleverness, about its power and agility.”The finale was always the bear rides, ” he tells me with a knowing smile, “people believe that their children will be protected from bad luck and illness if they ride on a bear.” What parent isn’t prepared to pay to keep its child in good fortune and good health?

When I visited one of the villages where the bear and its people used to perform, I can see immediately why bear dancing was so popular. It’s a subsistence  farming community, down a very rough road. People here work very hard to keep their kids fed and their animals alive over the dry season. Entertainment is thin on the ground and a visit by a troupe of flamboyant showmen, blowing their flutes, banging their drums and telling stories, with a big shaggy bear, must have been the highlight of their year.

All that is in the past now. Wildlife Trusts of India working with other conservation and animal welfare organisations have helped the Kalanders to step away from bear dancing.Families have been given financial support and guidance to help them find new ways of making a living, education for their kids, a place in the wider community whose margins they have occupied for too long. Now Nyabasera Kotra Sulatanbad is a town of small business people and entrepreneurs, with plans for their children’s futures. WTI has helped to buy taxis, poultry keeping equipment, handcarts…whatever is needed to get a family started with a new livelihood and shown the community how to use government small loans and grants to help their businesses and get the training they need. No one spends seven months trailing round the country side, with the consequent toll of family life, health and education. Fathers, Shameem tells me, are more involved with their children and take a greater responsibility for supporting their wives and families.


And the bears? Cubs can potentially be returned to the wild, if they haven’t yet had their  teeth removed. Asian Black bear cubs, taken for bear bile and seized from trade by the police or wildlife officials, have successfully been re-educated as bears. In a scheme called ‘Walking the Bear’ run by WTI, forest rangers take cubs out into the woods and show them how to be bears. Gradually the bears spend less time with the rangers and more on their own and one day, they just don’t come home. Rehabilitation of this kind, and the kind being done with the sun bears in Borneo, isn’t just about the well being of individual bears: bears have a great role to play the ecology of their habitats. Sun bears, for example are nicknamed ‘ the architects of the forest’ because the work of their claws and teeth in ripping insect infested, decaying wood from trees makes homes for other forest animals like hornbills. All bears are important tree planters, depositing tree seeds with a nice dollop of fertiliser, when they do what bears are famous for doing in all woods.

So every bear that makes the transition back to the wild, is a victory much bigger than the paw print of just one animal. Tragically for adult sloth bears there is no happy ending, no return to the life of balloo, picking paw paws and fancy ants. After so long with human beings, and without all their teeth, grown up sloth bears can’t be rehabilitated.They can at least live without a rope through their noses, and spend their days dozing in the sun, in peaceful retirement…more than their hard pressed former owners can hope for.

Thanks to the positive carrot not stick approach of WTI, in giving Kalanders the chance to change their livelihood, dancing bears, once common across India are now rare, existingin only a few of the remotest spots. This is a story of successful, small scale social engineering; a community raised from grinding poverty and deprivation. But it’s also a conservation story. India has a human population of more than a billion. Its wild places are ever more fragmented and dispersed. With so much pressure already on India’s slothbear populations, the constant drain of animals being taken from the wild for bear dancing was too much. It was also a reminder of an attitude to animals that, even though it could seem benign, was profoundly exploitative; an attitude that said that animals are there solely for humans, with no right to exist simply for themselves. But the Kalanders community Ivisited this week showed that attitude can change…in a village of 200 families there were once around twenty bears, supporting at least one family each, through their ‘dancing’, and now there are none. If a group of marginalised outsiders, deprived of education and on the poverty line, with a great deal to lose, can change their attitudes, and transform their lives  then surely we all can.

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