Kartick Satyanarayan has devoted his life to protecting animals from harm. The organization that he co-founded, Wildlife SOS, has helped elephants, reptiles, leopards, monkeys and other creatures that have been mistreated. In many cases, the group also carries out the dangerous work of pursuing poachers.
And while all that would be noteworthy alone, Satyanarayan is best known for his leadership in saving the dancing bears of India.
The dancing bears rescue
That rescue effort actually began as a research project in 1995. Satyanarayan and his Wildlife SOS co-founder, Geeta Seshamani, wanted to find out why the number of sloth bears had become depleted in the wild. As they gathered information, they learned more about how the sloth bears were captured in the wild and later bought, sold and traded throughout India.
Along the way, Satyanarayan realized that there was another dilemma that had to be dealt with if they hoped to eliminate the problem in a sustainable manner.
On one hand, it was obvious the sloth bears — which had been used for centuries to entertain tourists and wedding guests — needed to be rescued. Even though India banned the practice in 1972, the animals could still be found on the country’s streets where they were routinely mistreated. Most of the time, the animals also had their teeth knocked out and a hole bored through their snouts where a rope was attached so that their handlers could control them more easily.
The dancing bears represented a cruel vestige of a bygone era when a marginalized, semi-nomadic community used the animals to earn a living.
Satyanarayan realized at the end of a two-year research investigation in 1997 that rescuing the performing sloth bears would mean disrupting a centuries-old way of life for the Kalandar people — many of whom depended on the bears for their livelihood.
Without providing an alternate way for the Kalandar people to earn money, Satyanarayan worried that the illegal practice would continue. Meanwhile, the Kalandar community would sink even deeper into poverty and continue to get into trouble with the law.
“The Kalandars were sadly trapped in an evil cycle, which was a glorified form of begging – this was keeping the community well isolated from mainstream society, away from education and a better quality of life for themselves and their families,” Satyanarayan told MNN.
Breaking the cycle
He and Seshamani wanted Wildlife SOS to help the community break out of this cycle while also ensuring the safety of the bears.
To convince the bear owners to give up their animals, Wildlife SOS used seed money to help the Kalandars get started in new businesses. In one instance, a bear owner traded his bear for money to open a small beverage shop. Another man surrendered his bear to Wildlife SOS and now he has a cattle fodder and grain store. Others became rickshaw drivers and some became carpet weavers. Some even became employees at Wildlife SOS.
In addition, Wildlife SOS now provides education for more than 790 Kalandar children and turns Kalandar women into additional wage-earners for their families through vocational training.
Running sting operations
Others who took part in the sloth bear trade were not so lucky. Satyanarayan has helped run sting operations in which bear sellers were duped into meeting with phony buyers. Instead of securing a deal, the sellers were arrested and taken to jail while the bears were sent to one of Wildlife SOS’s four animal refuges.
Fortunately, the last of the dancing bears was rescued from the streets of India in December 2009. Satyanarayan said he considers the rescue of the sloth bears to be his greatest accomplishment.
“Bringing an end to a 400-year-old illegal and brutal practice that was pushing the existence of an endangered species to its brink would, in my opinion, constitute a lifetime achievement,” he states. “I can now die without guilt of not having done my bit for nature and this planet!”
More work to be done
Of course, the work of Wildlife SOS continues. Earlier this year, a team from Wildlife SOS assisted police in arresting some poachers in eastern India. They’ve also rescued a monitor lizard at a Delhi market. And, they saved a python from an angry mob outside a small village.
In addition, Satyanarayan said the dancing bear trade remains active in the region along the India-Nepal border. The two countries share a porous border and, according to Satyanarayan, “there is evidence of Kalandars settled in Nepal crossing over to the Indian side to make a quick buck and then pop back into Nepal to avoid arrests by Indian authorities.”
“We are currently working on establishing intelligence networks in Nepal and collaborations with the Nepal government as well as other NGOs in Nepal to work on this issue,” Satyanarayan tells MNN. “Our success at bringing an end to the dancing bears in India encourages us to emulate this model in Nepal and bring an end to this practice in Nepal as well to protect this endangered species.”
More than 400 bears to feed
Satyanarayan says the biggest challenge for the organization is finding funding for the care of the animals, the education programs for the Kalandar people and the other conservation projects Wildlife SOS hopes to pursue. In addition to the more than 400 bears at its four refuges, the organization will have a total of six elephants under its care by the end of next month.
“Wildlife SOS has recently rescued in collaboration with the government, five abused elephants from very cruel owners who had them in illegal custody,” he tells MNN. “These elephants form the pillars of a very important conservation education platform to create awareness about the plight of working elephants in India. We also have our guns trained on the illegal trafficking on elephant calves and are working towards preventing elephant poaching and creating awareness to protect corridors used by wild elephants.”
It’s hard to imagine the wild animals of India having a better ally than Kartick Satyanarayan.
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