This image changed my whole life. I came down to North India from Bangalore. I started doing research on the sloth-bears because this was illegal since 1972 but, it is still continued. And, so me and another colleague of mine who teaches at a Delhi University college. We collaborated. We started working on this research project; it took us over 2 and half years to find out what was going on. This is a 400-year-old practice, called 'Dancing Bears'. And, this community is called the 'Kalandar Community'. They entered India from Persia, about 400 years ago. They were entertainers of the Mughal Emperors' Harem. So, as we dug deeper, we found that every single bear, there were 1200 bears on the streets near Agra, in Delhi I'm sure some of you may remember seeing these, 'Madaari waala Bhaalu', they would say. And so every single bear was removed from the forest, the mother was killed. The cubs were then sold to this community because they created a demand for it. The teeth of these little babies they would be of this size, you know, like a little puppy. And, their teeth would be smashed with a metal rod. The male bear cubs would be castrated at a very young age. They would keep them on a deprived diet, about 50% of these cubs would die. During the transport, they would force feed them Opium.
So they would be sedated and then transported using public transport. I have had the occasion because I used to go as a decoy to try and find out if this worked the way they really claimed it worked. And, I would pretend to be a buyer to go and see and document the way they were doing this. They actually would transport them using public transport. So you could be sitting in a crowded bus or train, next to a man with a big bundle with 4 bear cubs in it and they'll be packed like mangoes. They were sedated, but you wouldn't know. So, that's how it happened. And, sadly, there was a lot of loss. Of course, then, these bears were trained to be performing bears. And, that was about what happened to them for the rest of their lives. The wounds in the muzzle were never allowed to heal. So, imagine a hole through your face but, that would constantly be re-pierced so you could feel the pain. So, the rope would be through it as they yank the rope, animal would cooperate and jump up and down in pain and that jumping up and down in pain was sadly mistaken for dancing. So the animal was not dancing in happiness at all but in absolute pain. So we saw that these animals had a bad deal but what about the people? I mean, could we just take them and put them in jail because they were doing something that was violation of the law. And we couldn't do that. So we started working with the community. We said, okay, let us see what these guys do. So, they had no education, no toilets, no drinking water.
The women in the community would walk 5 km to get a pot of water for the children to drink. And, of course, that's how they live. You can see the tents that their children live in, they were nomadic, they would move from village to village with their bears. And that was their life. So we realized that the only way we could fix this is to help the community. And we were looking at thousands of families. How on earth were we going to do this, we had no clue. We said, let's see, if we can make a difference. And, start it in a small way. And so we started working with the community, we engaged with them. And, said, okay guys, would you like to try something else, an alternative livelihood, maybe? Convinced them to surrender their bear and set up 4 rehab centers across India. Of course, it took years and I can I think credit a lot of my gray hair to the stress it gave me. But, it was very fulfilling. And of course we started engaging with the more intelligent species of the Kalandar’s Community, the women. They were smart and we started working with the women. The girls were getting married off when they were 11 and 12. So, we had child marriage and we had a whole bunch of other problems in the community to deal with. So, here we were trying to help wildlife and, we got involved, neck deep in this community. So, we'd set up training centers for these women because, they had no say in society. It was a very patriarchal society.
So, we taught them how to tailor and stitch. They did beautiful embroidery by themselves. So, we started helping them with quilt work. And, set up training centers, carpet weaving machines. And, through them we were able to get to the children. The children, when they were about 10 or 11, they would start being taken out to do bear dancing, with their uncles or brothers. And, we had to change that. It was an uphill task. They didn't want those kids to go to school. Because a child in school is one less child earning some money on the side. And, they depended on that. So, we got these children to school which was a huge achievement for us. We didn't think we'd be able to do that, but, it worked. And, the silver lining was that they agreed to send the girls to school, which was a herculean task. They wanted to get the girl married off by the time she was 10 or 11, they thought it was a liability. So, we said, no this isn't the way this is going to work. We will help provide for the marriage....because, they thought if the girl stays they'd have to pay more money for the wedding etc. So, we said, we'll help you guys with that. But, the deal is, you have to send the girl to school....till she's 18. That's the legal marriageable age. Otherwise, we might tell the cops that you guys are doing this, and so, it worked. I think we sent about 1260 children to school today, and we paid for their school fees, uniforms, books and, this is a photo which I find very amusing. Because these kids have never seen books before.
And so they all come and touch the books and the pencils, and they find it very entertaining. And, of course the parents do try to force them out of school which is quite a challenge. So, we have to monitor the school and have people go and do surprise checks, and things like that. But, it’s a very special thing that this community, hopefully in the future will not have to do this anymore. So yeah, over 1200 children costs us you know, India that way is great because, for Rs. 30 where else can you send a child to school? And so, it cost us about Rs. 30 a day or Rs. 900 a month to send each child to school, give them books, uniforms etc. and this will really change their future. Then, we started working with the difficult problem- the men in the community. You know, I did an interview once with one of the men and I said "What do you do? What is your day like?" So, I was trying to log their day. He said, "I get up in the morning, I do my daily ablutions, take my bear, go outside, smoke a cigarette, make it perform, make some money.
Then I, go tie the bear, go get a drink....go home, beat my wife, eat my dinner, and go to sleep." So we had to change this. So, we started getting these guys to do some work which they were not used to because all they had to do was drag a bear around and they would make a bit of money. And sadly foreign tourists, because they were unaware of the culture and the country, and what was illegal and not legal, they would end up giving a 50$ tip and say "Please don't bother the bear. Here is the money." But, you know, it only encouraged them and drove this further. So, we encouraged these guys to surrender the bears, one by one. And every bear was micro chipped, the RFID chip that you put into the bear which stays there for the life of the bear, so, they can't change their bears, they can't swap their bears. This [points to the picture] is Imaam Sahab surrendering his bear, And so, we do this and then, after that he signs a document, and the lower right photo that you see is the photo of him signing an agreement that he will not indulge in wildlife crime again, and will not use animals, or exploit wildlife. We help them with seed funds; we were able to raise money to give each family 50,000 rupees. And back then it wasn't easy, 50,000 rupees was like 5 lacs. And, it was quite a challenge. Then, we got these guys to get involved in different kinds of entrepreneurship ideas, like, making jewelry, selling it, auto-rickshaws, cloth trading, and, because they were street smart.
So we kind of encouraged them, along those lines to do something. These entrepreneurship opportunities that we created for these guys and gave them sustainable income all through the year, instead of a bear, which would only give them a peak during tourists seasons. And then, rest of the year they would have to just seek out a living. And we, of course, had this huge challenge. "What were we going to do with all these bears?" You know we ended up rescuing 627 bears, altogether. So, we had to set up hospitals. The nearest one from here is in Agra, it's about 2 hours from here and "The Agra Bear Rescue Facility", is what it's called. It's collaboration with the U.P government. And so, we set up a hospital, equipped it, and here is a bear. This is how the bears come in usually. They are in bad shape, when they come in, we have to fix them, and so, we sedate them, put them on gas anesthesia and get the rope out, sometimes, it is embedded with a thorn or a needle inside. And once that's done, we have to fix the teeth. So, the teeth are in really bad shape, you know, they have been knocked out, so, there is debris, there are ulcers. And, fortunately, we were able to get some international experts to come down and train our vets. We employed about 11 vets across India. And, we trained them in dental root canal surgeries. So, we have done about 260 root canal surgeries on all of these bears. Once we get them in, we put them into a quarantine and socialization bin.
Then we have to teach them how to be bears. They don't know how to climb, they have never climbed. In many cases, their claws have been cut off and sold off as amulets or lucky charms. So, then, we teach them how to recognize a fruit as a food, they think it is something to play with. And then, sometimes, they don't know how to climb down, so we have to send someone up to get them to climb down. We have four bear rescue centers, one in Bangalore, one in Agra, the Agra one is the biggest one, it is 160 acres, and it has 250 bears in it. And then, we put them into bigger enclosures, so they have very large forested enclosures. Now just when we thought that everything was fine and hunky dory, we realized that threat continued to the bears and the bear cubs, and there is bear dancing in Nepal, that we have to now, go and deal with. And there is gallbladder trade for the south-east Asian markets, where they treat gallbladder and bile, as the treatment for rheumatism. It is a traditional Chinese medicine. And then, you have the bear beating, a blood sport in Pakistan. So, we have to deal with all of this. So, we continue to work with the police and the enforcement agencies, to try and track down the poachers. We have rescued about 76 bear cubs so far, from poachers. And usually we send them to jail initially, and eventually we try and get them back, and help them work with us on the right side of the law, as informers. "Why do I do this?" It is primarily because, you know we have any right to just be consumers?
Is there anything in this room, that we are using, that we are wearing, my watch, my shoes that is not taken from nature? Every single thing is. I mean, we don't create anything. We take natural resources from nature, convert it into what we want, and then use it. And how many of us give back anything? You know, how different we are from the rodents in a sewer who also, consume, reproduce, and die. How different are we? So, we have got to do something. We have got to give something back. And that's the philosophy that drives me. You know, we have got to give something back to nature. Otherwise, we just exploit, plunder and then move on. And what's left behind! So, we have got to leave this place a little better than how we found it. What pushed me to, kind of, keep going on, I did borrow Mahatma Gandhi's principles and it was helpful. And, you know, first they ignore you. Because people did think that we were crazy. "What are you up to with these bears? Let them be." And then, they laugh at you. And then, they fight you. And then, you win. So, persistence! I just did not give up at all. And I must congratulate my co-founder Geeta Seshamani, who also stayed put. And, it is very difficult to forgive, I can assure you. It is so much easier to go out there and fight them, seek revenge. Very difficult to forgive! But, we have to and if you are strong, you do that. And, you know, if we want to see change, we have got to do it and show it. No point in trying to demand change and not be a living example of what you want to see.