India's last "dancing," endangered bear set free

Mon Dec 21, 2009 4:42am EST
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By Sunil Kataria

BANGALORE (Reuters Life!) - Raju the bear will never have to smoke cigarettes or dance on his hind legs under the hot sun again thanks to a multinational project to save an endangered species and end a cruel centuries-old tradition in India.

Raju was the last endangered sloth bear that had to work for a living, but who now can roam free at the Bannerghatta bear sanctuary on the outskirts of the southern city of Bangalore.

The bear's freedom is the outcome of lengthy efforts by animal rescue organizations and the government that have taken the "dancing" bears off India's streets, where the animals were once as ubiquitous as snake charmers and their cobras.

"This is the very last bear that has been rescued from the roads of India, the actual last one and that is the end of the trade," Mary Hutton, Australia-based chairperson and founder of Free the Bears Fund, told Reuters Television.

Sloth bears are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, but they often entertained crowds by playing imaginary guitars, smoking cigarettes and dancing to the pounding of drums, providing an income for their handlers.

The Bannerghatta bear rescue center is one of the four that have been set up by India-based Wildlife SOS, Free the Bears Fund from Australia, Britain's International Animal Rescue and One Voice Association from France.

The animal welfare groups devised a holistic approach that involved setting up sanctuaries for the freed bears and giving rehabilitation packages for their handlers so that they have an incentive to give up the animals.

Raje Saab, Raju's handler, said he was looking forward to starting a new job with the money he has been given.   Continued...

<p>Two sloth bears dance on a roadside near Agra, India in this September 15, 2004 file photo. REUTERS/Kamal Kishore/Files</p>