NGO takes up an elephantine work

NGO takes up an elephantine work

Kartick ended practice of dancing bears

NGO takes up an elephantine work
Efforts are on to teach mahouts modern ways of managing elephants

When Kartick Satyanarayan and Geeta Seshamani first set out in 1997 to put an end to the 400-year-old barbaric practice of dancing bears in India, they were told they cannot achieve it even in 50 years. Twelve years later, the two had managed to take dancing bears off the streets and rehabilitate them.

In the century-old practice by the “Kalandar” community, a cub of a sloth bear is captured, its muzzle pierced with a hot iron rod to make a hole to put a rope inside it, and make it perform in the streets to earn money. When the “master” pulls the rope, the bear jumps out of pain and fear and people enjoy watching it “dance”.

When NGO Wildlife SOS, founded by Kartick and Geeta, completed its survey in 1997, there were 1,200 dancing bears in India and around 3,000 families dependent on them for their livelihood. Currently, thanks to the efforts of the organisation, all of them have been rehabilitated and enjoy their freedom in the NGO’s four bear rehabilitation centres in Agra, Purulia in West Bengal, Bengaluru and Bhopal.

“When we started out, we were told by many that it is impossible to end this practice. And honestly, even we were a little unsure of how we will do it,” Kartick says. But how they achieved the “impossible”, is a remarkable success story of the project.

Kartick and Geeta, along with their team, visited around 13 states during the project and stayed with the Kalandar community which indulged in bear dancing practice and convinced them to leave it by providing an alternative livelihood which was sustainable.

“We were advised to send them to jails as they are criminals, but, we tried to convince them that in so many years, what have they benefitted from this practice and how is it helping their family. They were running from place to place and hiding from police since it was illegal. So, a lot of it was about harnessing the community’s confidence. When we rehabilitated a few, others came up to us and offered to voluntarily give up their bears,” he says, sitting in his office in south Delhi’s Defence Colony.

The Kalandars were provided seed fund and training to set up a regular and reliable source of income like dhabas, jewellery making, fabric, stitching, carpet weaving, generator rentals, etc. The women and girls of the community were taught to make candles, bags, etc. Wildlife SOS also sends 1,500 children of the community to schools and pay for their education.  In fact, the organisation has employed around 40 per cent people of the community. “Instead of punishing, we taught them how they could not be dependent on bears and earn their livelihood through a sustainable model,” he says.  It was a memorable day for the organisation when 26  Kalandars lined up at the gates of Agra Bear Rescue Facility in 2002 and surrendered their bears willingly.

With one success behind it, the NGO further went on to rescue captive elephants, used for entertainment or begging purposes, kept shackled and subjected to cruel treatment by their masters. Since 2009, it has rescued 21 elephants and brought them to its Elephant Conservation and Care Centre in Mathura, the first such centre dedicated to elephants in India where they can enjoy their freedom in the natural habitat. In fact, the video of the “homecoming” of “Raju”, a begging elephant who was held in chains for more than 50 years and treated abusively by various owners, was widely circulated on the social media.

The NGO has set up a training centre in Mathura for “mahavats” or “mahouts” who ride and manage the elephants to teach them about “modern ways” of elephant management. The school had its first class just recently.

“There are only 22,000 elephants left in the country. So, our current focus is to try and change mindsets of people who are holding elephants in compromising situations, in temples, processions, circuses and for advertising, and help them understand what are the ecological requirements of an elephant . If they cannot provide those, they should let them free,” says Kartick.

“The traditional form of managing elephants is based on intimidation, fear, pain, and bullying by breaking the spirit of elephants and having them as slaves. We are trying to teach them the modern method which involves positive reinforcement and getting the animal to give desirable behaviour based on a positive bond,” he adds.

The NGO recently launched India’s first “elephant ambulance” for the rescued pachyderms as the trucks hired to take them from their point of rescue to Mathura centre were not ideal. The ambulance has facilities like specially designed carrier and inclined roof, automatic electric hydraulic ramp, showers, dual power supply and a designated room for the veterinary team.

Love for animals and wildlife came very naturally to Kartick. “I used to drag my aya (help) with me and take a longer route for home and go from areas where houses had pets and befriend them,” he says. Later, Kartick and his friends started visiting Bannerghatta National Park, 30 km from Bengaluru and volunteered as patrol staff .

“We used to walk around 12 km inside the forest. The department was happy to have young lads on patrol. On full moon nights, we used to go to a watering hole, get on top of a tree and watch the moon rise over the hillock.  We could watch a variety of animals bathing in the silvery light. It was very dreamy,” Kartick says.

“We used to catch people cutting trees at night and hand them over to the department. Back then we were hot-blooded. Over time I realised we have to come up with sustainable solutions. I was keen to make a difference to the wildlife and protect biodiversity which is vanishing rapidly. So, as I grew older, I realised this could actually be something I could do for the rest of my life,” he says.

Wildlife SOS has now grown to 200 members and is running 49 projects in 13 states, including a leopard rescue centre in Maharashtra and an animal rescue hotline in Delhi.
However, space and funds are a challenge for them and they hope the government at least rents them some space to run its facilities. The organisation relies on donations to arrange funds for its centres and various community projects run by them.

“In India, the concept of social contribution is still not matured. In West, people have realised that wealth is not to be held on to and should be socially vested to bring about change with the resources you have. This is badly needed in India,” says Kartick.


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