Providing a Safe Haven for Sloth Bears and Elephants in India

By: Solana Faerman & Valentina Belizzi

For generations, the Kalander people of India made their living begging while they forced the sloth bears they kept on 4-foot ropes to dance for the paying customer.

“We were quite horrified by what we saw,” said Kartick Satyanarayan, one of the founders of Wildlife SOS, a non-profit conservation organization that works to rescue and rehabilitate wildlife in distress while preserving India’s natural heritage.

With the Kalanders, Wildlife SOS would be breaking a cycle that went back hundreds of years.

After killing the mothers and stealing the cubs, the Kalanders would smash the animals’ teeth with metal rods, castrate the males, pierce their muzzles with red hot pokers, deprive them of food to keep them small, and put them on 4-foot ropes. These bears, which usually live to 30 years, were dead before they were 5.

The workers at Wildlife SOS started by teaching the women skills, like embroidery, so they could use to make a little money of their own. They arranged for the children, who were completely illiterate, to go to school. They found jobs for the men, such as driving tuk tuks and working at shops.

Within a short time, the family income had doubled, then tripled. It got to the point where the Kalander families didn’t need to beg for coins while holding onto their dancing bears.

That’s when Wildlife SOS asked the Kalanders to surrender their bears so the animals could be rehabilitated.  Because the Kalendar adults are illiterate and unable to sign their name, the contracts were made with tongue impressions.

Within nine years, 628 sloth bears entered the Agra Bear Rescue Facility. Each of the animals needed three or four surgeries; such as root canals or surgery repairing the damage done when the pokers were driven through their muzzles. Once the bears were physical healthy, the SOS workers set to work teaching them basic bear skills, like climbing.

“We taught bears how to be bears,” said Satyanarayan.

Wildlife SOS is one of the pet projects of the Ron Magill Conservation Endowment. “Kartick [Satyanarayan] and Geeta [Seshamani] are the most amazing dedicated people I have ever worked with,’’ said Magill.

The endowment gave Wildlife SOS $10,000, which will help support medical facilities for the animals, and will pay for a zookeeper from Zoo Miami to go over to India once a year to work with Wildlife SOS.

In addition to the sloth bears, Wildlife SOS also is heavily involved in elephant rehabilitation.

Afraid of the massive creatures, many people in the villages would chase the elephants. Once caught, the animals were imprisoned in small cages which didn’t allow them any movement, not even to turn around. Some of the rescued animals had been sold off to traveling zoos, where they were tortured or treated poorly.

But elephants, being smart creatures, quickly sensed when the Wildlife SOS workers arrived that their lives were about to change. When released from their cages, the elephants at first took tentative steps, almost as though they were afraid to walk. But within minutes they were trotting through the refuge.

Most of the elephants needed medical care on their feet. After gaining their trust, the volunteers trained (with the use of treats) the elephants to gently lift and stick out their feet for cleaning. But perhaps it was the volunteers who were trained. Now the elephants stick out their feet whether they need care or not, and are rewarded with treats.

“We ended up having to check their feet 100 times because they kept giving us their feet,” said Satyanarayan.

But the work Wildlife SOS does is continuous. It is still combating poaching in India, and would like to build its own facility where it could rehabilitate 50 more elephants rescued from circuses.

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