There are around 20,000 sloth bears in the world today, calling the countries of India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh their home. However, like many bear species today, sloth bears are threatened by human activity, and for the last 14 years, they been listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.
In addition to habitat destruction resulting from human settlement, agriculture expansion, and overharvesting, many sloth bears have been kidnapped from their homes, typically at young ages, to become “dancing bears.” A cub’s mother is usually killed in the process.
Once captured, a cub’s canine teeth are “filed down or broken off,” making it impossible for them to return to the wild later on thereby resigning them to a permanent life in captivity, according to the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA).
In addition to the teeth filing, a hole is pierced through a bear’s nose or palate and a rope is inserted through this raw wound, with anesthesia rarely ever used. The bears are then considered “ready to learn” how to become “dancing bears.”
As WSPA reports, “The bears are conditioned to obey their owners. Their spirits are broken by the mental torture of captivity and the humiliation of performing. A poor and unsuitable diet further damages the health of these once wild animals.”
For years, bears were snatched from the wild and sold on the black market to “Kalandars,” India’s traditional dancing bear handlers and owners. Wildlife SOS co-founder Katrick Satyanarayan tells OGP that the Kalander community has been using sloth bears as “dancing bears” for three to four centuries since the Mughal period.
However, about 18 years ago in 1995, Wildlife SOS began working on this issue in India, when around 1,200 dancing bears were on the country’s streets. Thanks to the nonprofit’s tireless efforts, they were able to solve India’s dancing bear problem!
Satyanarayan tells OGP that the organization worked with the Kalander people to educate and empower them “by training them with alternative skills, seed funds and creating other vocations for them,” as dancing bears were not only a tradition in the community, but a source of income.
“In return the Kalandars voluntarily surrendered their performing bears to the Indian [government],” Satyanarayan says.
Even though the last dancing bears in India were rescued in December 2009 (all of them have since been retired to sanctuaries — woohoo!), dancing bears are not gone for good from the region. In fact, a nomadic group in Nepal called NATS is still participating in the illegal trade of dancing bears.
Wildlife SOS is working to stop the transport and use of dancing bears in Nepal now, too, and has been running a crowdfunding campaign to rescue Nepal’s bear victims. The campaign is doing well so far, raising $66,846 of the $75,000 goal, and if the campaign is successful, more dancing bears, like sweet Victoria, will finally be freed from a life of pain and misery.
For a long time, Victoria had to endure a life of captivity, forced to dance and walk at the tug of a string that was looped through her sensitive muzzle.
But, thankfully, back in June 2013, Victoria was one of three sloth bears rescued after a border crossing into Nepal from India.
She soon arrived at Wildife SOS’s Agra Bear Rescue Center on a hot, humid June day. For the first few months of her stay, she had to be quarantined and observed, and underwent some medical evaluations to determine the status of her health.
Since then, she has been enjoying her new life at the bear rescue center, where, as Wildlife SOS tells us, “she can wander and explore as much as she likes.” What’s more, Victoria is not alone – she is now able to spend her time in the company of other bears. She is free at last – no longer a prisoner on a string. How wonderful!
Lead image source: Wildlife SOS