Leave the Wild Things Be

Wild animals have been made to serve a variety of human needs, including recreational ones. It’s up to everyday folk to decry the use of animals for entertainment

By Swati Sanyal Tarafdar Published Jul 8, 2024 14:12:50 IST
Leave the Wild Things Be A group of rescued bears at Wildlife SOS’s Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Center. Photo: Couresy of wildlife sos

In 2019, wildlife conservationists, especially those caring for bears, celebrated a very special anniversary—the 10th anniversary of the rescue of the last ‘dancing’ bear from India’s streets. The sloth bear named Raju, who was eight years old at the time, was freed from Chikkaharavalli in Karnataka by Wildlife SOS, an organization dedicated to saving and rehabilitating abused wildlife. The case marked their 628th bear rescue.

This informal roadside entertainment, once rampant on Indian streets, came from a 400-year-old tradition of man’s pursuit of divertissement. The community that primarily made a living from this practice, the Kalandars, once regaled and delighted nobles by making bears perform tricks.

But the story behind the performances is far from pleasurable. Any service derived from animals is made possible only through training practices grounded in deep cruelty. The bears for instance, would be captured as cubs after their mothers were killed. Their muzzles would then be pierced with hot iron rods, and threaded with thick ropes that, when tugged, made the animals jump and prance in pain. This was how Raju too spent his youngest years.

Now 23, Raju has a new name—Adit—and a new address at the Bannerghatta Bear Rescue Centre in Bengaluru, far from the miseries he endured on the streets. His rehabilitation, and that of all captive sloth bears, came after the Kalandars were empowered with new opportunities for education and alternative livelihoods. Kartick Satyanarayan, co-founder of Wildlife SOS, the group that pioneered the project, confirmed to Reader’s Digest that not a single dancing bear can be found in India anymore.

The Cruelty of Captivity

The long-term trauma of the rescued animals, however, is far more difficult to erase. Aneesha, a formidable, 60-year-old pachyderm, for example, can often be found standing tentatively amidst her companions in the peaceful premises of the Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation Centre (WRRC). But despite the calm surrounding her today, tell-tale signs of a lifetime of abuse remain.

“When Aneesha came to us, she was handicapped with deformed forelegs and an open abscess on her hip,” says Suparna Baksi Ganguly, co-Founder of WRRC and its sister organization, Compassion Unlimited Plus Action that together operate four centres across the peripheries of Bengaluru. “She had been abused in the timber trade and, once unable to work, was sold illegally multiple times.” Now thanks to a strict regime of medical treatment and companionship, she is doing better—at least physically.

image-71_070824020856.jpgAn Asian elephant carries a groom in a wedding procession. Years of hard training goes into forcing this forest animal to endure heavy loads, the noise and clamour of traffic and the burning asphalt of sun-baked streets—all for the sake of human ceremony. Photo Shutterstock

“Elephants in particular are social animals, and do very poorly in isolation,” explains conservationist and social impact consultant Puja Mitra. Global studies have long recorded high emotional intelligence in elephants. Extended periods of isolation from their peers and societies, negligence and abuse, coupled with cruel training practices through negative conditioning can induce post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSS) in wild elephants. Just as in humans, PTSS manifests in the animals as abnormal startle responses, depression, unpredictable social behaviour, and aggression. Animals with PTSS require long-term, skilled care and consistent medical aid to recuperate. Says Ganguly, “Fluctuations and unpredictability in behaviour is common. It takes a long time, if ever, to re-initiate them into the wild again.”

Rehabilitation efforts, while critical and necessary, are ultimately forms of damage control—an attempt to somehow restore an abused animal’s mental and physical quality of life. But prevention of such abuse, which lies at the heart of any solutions-driven approach to animal welfare, seems to lag behind.

The Legal Landscape

Provisions in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act,1960, enforced a ban on using wild and protected animals—bears, monkeys, panthers, lions, and tigers—for entertainment, such as in circuses, but elephants continued to be used in this manner until 2017. It took a year-long investigation by the Central Zoo Authority and their reports of severe cruelty towards and abuse of captive elephants, before they were removed from circuses too. Even so, elephants continue to be used in temples, for transportation and labour in the timber and the travel and tourism industries. Monkeys, eagles, owls and other animals are used by people for occult rituals, or as pets, despite the fact that such animals are not suited for domestication or captivity.

The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 categorizes animal species under six different schedules each specifying the degree of protection accorded to the animals. Schedule I includes those facing the highest threats, and therefore needing maximum protection, such as the endangered Bengal Tiger, the one-horned Indian Rhinoceros, the snow leopard, the Asian Elephant, and dolphins. Wild elephants cannot be captured by law, but the law also allows for private ownership—anyone can buy, sell or keep them if they come as gifts, opening up opportunities for trade, abuse and cruelty against these species. Owners only need a license—which can still be obtained by manipulating a flawed system.

“A licensing system has existed for a long time,” says wildlife conservationist and executive director of the Wildlife Trust of India, Vivek Menon, “but so have the loopholes. Licensed elephants for example are often sold, and the new ones captured from the wild are passed off under old permits.” Menon explains that even the system of microchipping captive elephants, instituted in 2002 under Project Ele-phant to control illegal trade, can be circumvented. “We would often see the microchip surgically moved from one elephant to another, or wrong microchip numbers be recorded.”

Menon also points out that the religious significance the animal holds continues to tie it to captivity, “They are part of the temple tradition, and questioning such cultural practices is akin to speaking against religious beliefs.”

Striving for Solutions

Caught between such myriad legal and cultural complexities, how do wildlife protectors respond? Wildlife SOS, for one, began the ‘Refuse To Ride’ campaign, by reaching out to tourists and raising awareness of the suffering underpinning their holiday fun. By confronting potential customers and urging them to refrain from offering patronage to places that offer elephant rides, the campaign allowed human compassion to tackle the issue. They set up hotlines, information desks, petitions, and in 2019, converted Gatiman Express, India’s first semi-high-speed train running a popular tourist route, into an outdoor awareness camp.

Puja Mitra founded Terra Conscious, a social enterprise promoting sustainable travel through a community-partnership model to transform dolphin-watching, a popular tourist activity in coastal destinations such as Goa. Local boats typically ferry tourists for a couple of hundred rupees into areas with a high dolphin presence, and chase them down, leading to panic and serious injuries from collisions. A 2016 study by the World Wildlife Fund examining how dolphins responded to human and vehicular presence found that 98 per cent of the time the dolphins became highly stressed, and would deep dive to avoid the intrusion.

image-73_070824020943.jpgWildlife SOS’s ‘Refuse to Ride’ campaign urges tourists against choosing animal rides. Photo: Courtesy of Wildlife SOS

“When I looked into the issue,” says Mitra, “I found that dolphin- and crocodile-watching and coral diving are all termed as water sports even though all three species are Schedule 1 animals. In many cases, the interest in the animal is secondary. Tourists purchase tickets, but there are no educative efforts. There’s music, dancing and alcohol on the boat; the dolphin is simply incidental.”

When Mitra started Terra Conscious in 2017, north Goa had several boats with water-sports licences and the numbers were growing in the south as well. “I told the boat owners that we will follow the four internationally accepted rules: don’t chase or surround the dolphins, stay parallel to them when you’re moving, don’t obstruct their path, and if possible, switch off the engine or go into neutral.”

This worked well for everyone—for the boatmen who started earning more: for the interested tourists who knew what to expect and had a better time observing different marine species, and also for the dolphins. What started off with five people, is now one of the biggest boat associations in Goa, with 100 boats adopting sustainable measures in dolphin-watching.

Ultimately, the success of these programmes hinges in large part on kindness, compassion and basic respect for the natural world. So what can an individual do to help mitigate the needless suffering of wild animals? To start with, leave them alone.

“Human beings are the worst contrast to wilderness and they should not try to keep wildlife at home at any level—turtles, tortoises, birds, monkeys, elephants,” says WRCC’s Ganguly. “If you want to learn about animals, you should observe them in the least intrusive manner, in their natural habitat,” adds Puja Mitra. Most NGOs working on animal well-being offer knowledge building and awareness sessions in schools and for citizen groups. Volunteering for and donating to responsible groups dedicated to caring for wildlife rather than using them as a meal-ticket results in both a rich learning experience and a better life for the animals.

Changing the belief that all non-human species are fundamentally lower life forms isn’t impossible. Menon cites the elephant as an example Although an advocate for banning animal rides, he draws a distinction: “I am ambivalent about the use of animals in conservation. Elephants for instance, have been used to patrol parks and sanctuaries for a long time. There, they live in far more natural conditions and it is better than building roads and further polluting animal habitats. As for their use for cultural or religious reasons, I’ve compared the practice with Sati in my writings. Just like other tremendously cruel Indian traditions, this too will go away with time.”

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