All the males within a 77-acre radius had been castrated. Hence, nobody knew the identity of the one who impregnated her. “It must’ve been a male who jumped the wall in the dead of night,” said one of the doctors at the retirement home.
On January 2018, she gave birth to her firstborn. Everybody was ecstatic. However, on the third day, the mood turned sombre. The mother had sat on the newborn and smothered her to death. It was an accident.
Because the mother, an Indian sloth bear, never learnt how to be a mama bear. She only knew how to be a ‘dancing bear’.
For centuries, sloth bear cubs were kidnapped from their homes in the forest, separated from their mothers and turned into ‘dancing bears’ by members of the Kalandar community, a nomadic and impoverished tribe. The bears were their only meal ticket. They turned these wild bears into tame dancing bears through cruel methods. Hot iron poker would be pierced through the soft muzzle of the cubs, and a rope strung through the open wound. And every time the master tugged at the rope the bear would jump in pain. This was how the wild sloth bears transitioned into ‘dancing bears’ entertaining the masses. The bears would also have their canines knocked off with a hammer or stone to prevent them from attacking their masters. Dancing bears led painful lives.
Though dancing bears were made illegal in India when the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 came into effect, it wasn’t until the end of 2002 that the bears were rescued and housed in rehabilitation centres. The first six rescued dancing bears went to live at the Wildlife SOS Agra Bear Rescue Facility, a non-profit organisation.
In 2009, Raja, the last dancing bear in India was rescued and came to live at the Wildlife SOS Sloth Bear Rehabilitation Centre, locally referred to as the “bear retirement home”, in Bannerghatta Biological Park in Bengaluru. Over the years, around 600 dancing bears have been rescued. Today, there are no dancing bears in India.
However, the threat to the 5000 sloth bears living in the wild has not abated. These days the bears are poached for their gallbladder and bile and smuggled to China where they are used in traditional Chinese medicines said to cure liver and heart diseases. These smuggled goods go for a whopping 3000$ a piece in the Asian market. The sloth bears are not only threatened by illegal wildlife trade, but also by the destruction of their habitat, forest fires and exploitation of natural resources.
Ride to the wild within walls
A five-kilometre ride from the main gate of the Bannerghatta Biological Park takes you to what is known as “wild within walls”, the retirement home for rescued sloth bears. Here, they are rehabilitated and cared for until the end of their lives. “They can never be released back into the wild because these bears do not know how to live and navigate the forest. They are susceptible to danger,” says Dr.Govind, a veterinarian at the Centre.
Started in 2005, the Bannerghatta bear rescue centre is a collaboration with the Forest Department & Bannerghatta National Park.
Spread over 77 acres of forest land, it currently houses 76 bears in five enclosures called Jambhava, Chitrakuta, Panchavati, Kishkinda and DR. GKV Block. The bears that live here include rescued dancing bears and also those saved from poachers or caught in man-animal conflict situations. Each enclosure has a feeding area and a vast wild playing field in the dry-deciduous forests of Bannerghatta Park. Here the bears have trees to climb, insect mounds to dig, ropes to swing, hammocks to snooze and honey logs to roll. The keepers also build variously “suspended enrichment-structures” in the enclosures and hide treats like fruits, dates, groundnuts, maize and honey in them. The bears spend hours foraging for these sweet treats and in the process also learn skills, which they would’ve learnt in the forest if they hadn’t been removed from their habitat.
READ: WHAT I FOUND WHEN I WENT FOR A WALK IN THE FOREST
An adult sloth bear weights anywhere been 100-120kgs. The average weight of the bears at the retirement centre is 100kgs. That means none of the hammocks or wooden structures or ‘bear’ toys lasts more than a few weeks. “There is a constant demand for volunteers to help us with rebuilding these on a regular basis,” says Sandhi Priya, resource mobilisation and volunteer coordinator.
The Good Life
I’m at the Jambhava enclosure adjacent to the main office. Two cubs loiter into the small extension of the main enclosure to swing in the hammock. Have you ever seen bear cubs trying to climb into a hammock? It is a laugh-riot. Soon, one of them gets tired of the game and begins to fine-tooth-comb the place for treats. A couple of their friends join in, and it is party time.
Bears have always been synonymous with huggable Teddys; cuddlesome animals. However, in reality, they are anything but cuddly. They are shaggy, wild beings. But very much like humans in their temperament. They can kiss and brawl with equal intensity. They forge strong bonds and are territorial when it comes to relationships. There is an innate intelligence that shines through.
When happy, bears make a distinct sound that resembles a low-decibel generator noise. Their “happy sound” is often heard in the centre. This is how they would’ve been in the wild. Just that they wouldn’t have been missing their canines or have a gaping empty hole in their muzzle or sometimes blind in the eye. These are cruel human markings which they would bear until the end of their lives. This retirement home is a symbol of hope and redemption in more ways than one. Some of the keepers working in the centre are from the rehabilitated Kaladar community who surrendered their dancing bears to the government.
Bears that come to the centre take some time to recover, both physically and emotionally.
Kasthuri was only six-months-old when she was rescued from a Kalandar settlement in 2007. In her short life, she had been subjected to immense abuse.
When she first came to the retirement home, she was missing some of her teeth, and her mutilated muzzle told painful tales. She had a deep distrust of humans. It took the patient team of veterinarians and staff at the centre to help her overcome the trauma of her earlier life. It took her a while to accept the comforting presence of her keeper Hussain Basha. Today, she is seven-years-old and a far cry from her previous self. In fact, she is the Bear of the Month. She is a foodie with a penchant for honey, watermelon and dates. Vimal and Kashi are two of her closest companions. And she spends all waking hours with them.
The bears at the centre are fed twice a day at 10 am and 4 pm. And they know it too. For they assemble near the feeding area on their own accord well before time. They are fed Jowhar and ragi porridge with vegetables, soya, eggs, milk and honey. They are also given daily vitamin supplements since most of these bears have delicate health having lived a malnourished life for long. Around 145-150kgs of fruits are consumed by the bears every day. They also undergo regular health check-ups in the state-of-the-art medical facility at the centre. “Due to the care provided to these bears, they tend to live longer than their counterparts in the wild whose tend to live for around 15-20 years,” says Dr.Govind. At the retirement home, Amrita at twenty-seven is the Grand Dame. The youngest Shama and Shari are just a few months old. Bobby, the tallest bear at more than 6’ on two feet, is also the friendliest. But it is Hamsi who is Ms.Sunshine; her constant ‘happy sounds’ is like the background score in this happily-ever-after home.
- There are different kinds of bears across the world: The American black bear, the spectacled bear, polar bear, giant pandas and the Indian sloth bear.
- The Sloth Bears (Melurus Ursinus) are indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and is one of four species of bears found in India.
- An adult sloth bear weighs 80-150 kgs (male) and 50-100 kgs (female). They like to eat termites, honey, fruits and flowers.
- They mate between May- July. They have a gestation period of seven months and give birth to one or two cubs. Mother bears hide in their dens for 6-10 weeks before delivering the cubs. They carry their cubs on their back for six months. Cubs live with their mothers until they are about 18-24 months old. During which time, they are loved, nurtured and taught life skills by their mother.
Travel is not always about sandy beaches and tequila shots or wildlife safaris and tiger spottings. It is also about learning and unlearning. It is about getting out of your comfort zone. This trip to the Bear Rescue Centre in Bannerghatta National Park taught me many things. Most of all that humans can be as kind as they are cruel
WOULD YOU LIKE TO SPONSOR A RESCUED BEAR?
WOULD YOU LIKE TO VOLUNTEER AT THE BEAR RESCUE CENTRE, EVEN IF IT IS JUST FOR ONE DAY AND FOR A FEW HOURS?
For more information or to sponsor a rescued bear check www.wildlifesos.org
This was earlier published in BLINK, the weekend magazine of The Hindu Business Line