NEW DELHI // The sight of poorly fed and badly-treated bears being forced to dance on the streets of India is a thing of the past as a campaign to wipe out the practice has finally borne fruit, activists believe.
The tradition of forcing sloth bears to dance for entertainment dates back to the 13th century, when trainers belonging to the Muslim Kalandar tribe enjoyed royal patronage and performed before the rich and powerful.
Descendants of the tribe from central India had kept the tradition alive, buying bear cubs from poachers for about 1,200 rupees (Dh80) and then hammering a heated iron rod through their sensitive snouts.
After removing the animal's teeth and claws, the bear trainer threaded a rope through its snout and then headed for the streets where onlookers would pay a few rupees for a show in which the bear would sway and jump around.
"It's taken us many years but all the tribesmen we keep track of have moved on to different livelihoods," Vivek Menon from the non-profit Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), said on the sidelines of a bear conference in New Delhi last week.
"The tradition might still be present in people's minds, of course but we don't know of any cases where Kalandars are still practising it."
The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and India-based Wildlife SOS, which runs sanctuaries for bears, have also declared an end to the practice in the last few months - 40 years after a government ban in 1972.
The key, said the donation-funded groups, has been bringing the Kalandars on board, providing them with money and incentives to retrain in other professions.
The success points the way for other campaigns, such as the one to rid India of its snake charmers who can still be spotted illegally plying their trade, often with the snakes' mouths sewed shut.
"It was very difficult to convince the bear trainers to give up their work. Most of them were very scared, they have never known any other way of life but this," the WSPA campaign coordinator, Aniruddha Mookerjee, said.
One of the owners to give up was Mohammed Afsar Khan, a 30-year-old father of three girls who used to work with his father and brother travelling across central India with three bears in tow. He said he used to earn about 300 rupees a day until he gave up the job six years ago.
"It's a hard life. You can never settle in one place, your children can't go to school, you end up feeling trapped. Then you are always worried about police harassing you for bribes," he said.
He handed over his bears to WTI officers, who offered his family financial assistance and helped him and his younger brother learn driving skills.
He used the funds to rent a tractor and ferry bricks from kilns to construction sites in Chhattisgarh state.
Today, he owns his tractor and earns about 500 rupees a day.
The bears recovered by the animal groups were often in a wretched state, suffering from infected snouts, root canal problems, even diseases such as tuberculosis which they contracted from humans.
The sloth bears also suffer from malnutrition after being fed bread, lentils and milk for years, leading to an extremely reduced lifespan.
Mr Menon said that the dancing bear industry was also "a dominant cause behind the disappearance of the sloth bear" - a point of debate at the bear conference which focused on conservation and welfare.
In the last three decades, the number of sloth bears - a species native to South Asia - has fallen by at least 30 per cent, according to bear specialist groups. There are now less than 20,000 of them.
"The widespread poaching of bear cubs and the killing of mother bears clearly affects the population of the species," Mr Menon said.
"India is changing rapidly and this is an outmoded, inhumane tradition. The trainers themselves realise now that it is far easier for them to earn a living doing other jobs," Mr Menon said.
Aziz Khan is another former bear-owner who never expected to leave his ancestral trade but was happy for the way out offered by WTI when officers approached him and his friends more than a decade ago.
"I didn't earn much, but I was afraid to leave it. I didn't know how else I would be able to feed my three kids," the 45-year-old said.
WTI helped retrain Mr Khan and his friends as bakers. They now run their own bakery, producing 350 loaves of bread each day.
"I have no regrets today, it was a dead-end job and I am glad I was able to move on," he said.
* Agence France-Presse