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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.
"I am happy that it is going to stay here, it will be looked after properly and will get proper food and care," said Saab of his bear, adding that he would probably start a small business with the 50,000 rupees ($1,069) given to him.
Once inside the sanctuary, the bears get special veterinary care to heal their multiple wounds and are quarantined for about 90 days before being allowed to socialize.
They are fed healthy food and gradually adjust to living in their large, forested enclosure, although they can never be returned to the wild because many lack basic survival techniques, as well as teeth and claws.
Activists say rampant poaching by an ancient tribe of gypsies known as Kalandars, who used the animals for their shows, had brought the sloth bears to the verge of extinction.
They say the Kalandars used to poach sloth bear cubs and then force them into submission by wrenching our their teeth and forcing a needle through their muzzle.
Wildlife SOS co-founder Geeta Seshmani said the Kalandars used to train the bears by putting them in a pan over a fire. They often castrated the bears to make them less aggressive.
As a result, many bears died, prompting more poaching, she said, and poaching still remains a pertinent threat.
"The most challenging part before us is to get the bears to be looked after at these sanctuaries," Seshmani said.
"Our anti-poaching unit works very hard and, because of the demand from South East Asia, there will always be demand for the bear cubs," she said, referring to countries were bear body parts are believed to have medicinal properties.
"There is still bear-bone soup and there is cold-blooded trade in countries outside India. And it will be our task to ensure that our cubs are not stolen from our forests and our wild bears are not stolen from our forests."
Seshmani said wildlife groups, with help from the police and other departments, have reduced poaching to a large extent. Overall, the program has saved 600 sloth bears so far.
Editing by Miral Fahmy