The tradition of “dancing” bears has existed in India for hundreds of years, since the days of the Mughul Emperors when nomadic gypsy tribesmen (Kalandars) would visit the palaces with a travelling menagerie of wild animals, including Sloth bears, which were forced to perform for the crowds. Unfortunately, whilst India developed and entered the 21st Century this practice continued, with the bears being used by Kalandar gypsies to entertain tourists around popular sites such as the Taj Mahal. The bears in this trade were all captured from the wild at a young age (normally by killing the mother) and had a hole burnt through the top of their nose. A rope was pulled through this hole and out of a nostril, and the cub trained to “dance” by walking it over hot coals or beating its legs whilst pulling up on the rope. Soon, the cub learned to associate the pulling of the rope with pain on the soles of its feet, and so they would stand on their hind feet, shuffling from one to another as soon as they heard music.
Although the Sloth bear has been offered maximum protection under Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act since 1972, for more than 30 years the authorities were previously unable to enforce these laws as no facilities existed to place the bears once confiscated. In 2002 Free the Bears Fund joined a partnership with Wildlife SOS (an Indian based conservation group) and International Animal Rescue in the UK to create the Agra Bear Rescue Facility. Besides funding construction costs and the care of rescued bears at the sanctuary, Free the Bears financed the Kalandar Rehabilitation Program, a sustainable alternative livelihood program which enabled former dancing bear masters to develop new livelihoods, ensuring that they never returned to the practice of dancing bears for a living. By ensuring that we could create a win-win situation for both the animals and the Kalandars the Indian Dancing Bear Rescue was an outstanding success and the last dancing bear walked off the streets of India and into our sanctuary in December 2009.
Following the unprecedented success of the dancing bear rescue program, the Agra Bear Rescue Facility soon became full and so further land was purchased and additional sanctuaries established in order to bring all of the dancing bears off the streets. We now support four sanctuaries which are managed by Wildlife SOS throughout India, providing a safe and secure home for over 500 rescued bears.
Agra Bear Rescue Facility
The Agra Bear Rescue Facility has been operating since the first group of 25 rescued dancing bears arrived on Xmas day 2002. Situated in the Sor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary, 20km outside of Agra in Uttar Pradesh state, the original sanctuary site of 18acres (7.5hectares) was extended by the addition of a further 50acres (21hectares) of new land across the Yalumna River in 2005. The Agra Bear Rescue Facility is now home to almost 300 former dancing bears, making it the worlds’ single largest bear sanctuary by far. The ABRF also contains a state-of-the-art veterinary centre plus an education centre for visiting school groups. Pre-arranged visits to the ABRF are possible by contacting Wildlife SOS.
Bannerghata Bear Rescue Centre
The Bannerghata Bear Rescue Facility was opened in 2005 and is situated close to the city of Bangalore, Karnataka state. Here more than 90 rescued bears enjoy a vast area of 43 acres (18hectares) to roam freely and play with others of their own species. Large rocky outcrops, dense bush land and deep swimming pools within the sanctuary ensure that these bears are able to leave their traumatic past behind them and enjoy a new life of fun and freedom.
Van Vihar Bear Rescue Facility
The Van Vihar Bear Rescue Facility is located inside the Van Vihar National Park in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh and serves as the principal rescue facility for any dancing bears found in central India.
Situated on 16 acres (6.5hectares) of land and manned by 6 fulltime staff the Van Vihar Bear Rescue Facility is home to 38 rescued "dancing bears". It was started in 2006 as the third Bear Rescue centre after Agra and Bannerghata. Next to the centre is one of the two big lakes that dominates Bhopal city. Well known Tiger reserves like Kanha and Bandhavgarh National Park are in close proximity to this centre.
Purulia Bear Rescue Centre
The Purulia Bear Rescue Centre in West Bengal is situated on 10 acres (4hectares) for forest land inside the Purulia Deer Park. This centre was originally started in 2007 as a holding/quarantine station for any dancing bears rescued in this corner of India but now provides a permanent home to around 20 rescued Sloth bears