SOS Wildlife – Sloth Bear Conservation

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Bearing With Bears

On a recent trip to Agra, I discovered that there is so much more than the iconic Taj Mahal when I visited the Wildlife SOS centre on the outskirts of the city. Wildlife SOS was established in 1995 by Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani with the holistic belief that providing sustainable alternative livelihoods and education to communities dependent on wildlife and natural resources, would lead to sustainable wildlife protection. “Our organisation is responsible for taking action against animal cruelty, rescuing wildlife in distress, working to resolve man-animal conflicts while promoting and educating the public about the need for habitat protection,” says Kartick Satyanarayan, Wildlife SOS co-founder and Chairman.

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Sloth Bear Rescue Center

For over 400 years, the Sloth Bear had been a target for human exploitation and a nomadic tribe known as the Kalandars (originally Muslim gypsies with a highly nomadic lifestyle who were famous for their mastery over animals) were dancing these bears for a living. The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, regards the use of several wildlife species in entertainment as illegal. Wildlife SOS operates several wildlife rehabilitation facilities across India, including the world’s largest Sloth Bear Rescue Centre in Agra.  Wildlife SOS’s major project was the abolition of the barbaric practice of dancing bears in which sloth bear cubs were poached from the wild and trained using cruel methods to entertain the masses. Geeta Seshamani, Wildlife SOS Co-founder and Secretary explains, “we realised that due to extreme conditions of poverty and lack of education, these people had no alternative means of earning a livelihood and were wholly dependent on their bears. The answer therefore was in rehabilitation of the Kalandar communities through education and an alternative livelihood program as an extension of the dancing bear rescue project. As a result of our efforts over 3500 Kalandar families are no longer dependent on illegal wildlife crime to sustain themselves and instead have sustainable, humane and alternative livelihoods to support their families.” They established four rescue centres across India and were able to convince the Kalandars to voluntarily surrender over 620 bears to them.  In a historic moment in 2009, Wildlife SOS was successful in bringing an end to the ‘dancing bear’ practise by taking the last dancing bears off the streets of India.

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Conservation Matters

At Wildlife SOS the aim is not only to rescue wildlife from distress and abuse in captivity, but also to provide the rescued animals with a safer, happier and healthier life post-rescue. ”Snatched from the wild as cubs by poachers, these bears were sold into a life of misery and pain. As part of their indoctrination process, a red hot poker rod would be driven through the muzzle of the baby bear, often at the tender age of six months. A rope would then be strung through the painful piercing, and tugged to induce ‘dancing’ performances on demand. When it came to rehabilitating our rescued bears, we had to start from scratch as for most of them a life at the end of the rope was all that they had known. It was important to focus not just on their physiological recovery but also their psychological recovery. Our team had to teach them to be bears again by encouraging them to exhibit and hone their natural skills and behaviour such as foraging, climbing trees, interacting with other bears etc.  We also provide our bears with enrichments and toys to keep them healthy and active,” say Kartick and Geeta. Each rescued bear undergoes a 90-day quarantine period during which he or she is given a complete health check up and treated for any diseases, wounds and parasites. The bear is vaccinated against Rabies, Leptospirosis and infectious canine hepatitis. After the quarantine period, the bears have access to large socialization enclosures where the behaviour and personality of each bear is closely monitored by the Wildlife SOS vets and staff. The enclosures ensure bears interact with each other. Based on each bear’s personality, he/she is matched to a group and then moved to a larger free-range area. Wildlife SOS has full-time Wildlife Veterinary Doctors and a dedicated team of bear keepers to care for the rescued community.

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Overcoming Challenges

Over the years, the population of sloth bears in the wild has been threatened due to loss of habitat and poaching, making them a vulnerable species under the IUCN Red Data List. Sloth Bear cubs are still being poached for use in Chinese medicines and gourmet cuisine in South-East Asia. Therefore, it is still critical that anti-poaching efforts continue and we work towards protecting wild sloth bears that are a constant target of human exploitation. “Our Anti-Poaching team, code name “Forest Watch”, works by way of a large and complex network of informers who gather critical intelligence on wildlife criminals and the illegal trade of endangered wild animals and their body parts. Wildlife SOS actively assists the Forest Department, Police and other law enforcement agencies and provides legal support where needed,” says Kartick. Moving forward, SOS continues to strive towards our conservation efforts to preserve India’s rich natural heritage. “We also plan on strengthening our efforts in preventing and protecting illegal wildlife poaching and trade.  Furthermore, we plan to develop and implement sustainable solutions for mitigation human-wildlife conflict situations in the country,” concludes Geeta.

This story appeared in Deccan Herald’s Spectrum here.

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