From bear-ing to rearing...
Raju, said to be the country's last dancing bear, was rescued from Belgaum in Karnataka, bringing an end to a barbarous century-old practice.
Raju, which was made to dance and smoke to entertain millions on the streets, is cooling its heels at Bannerghatta bear sanctuary in Bengaluru after being rescued from a Kalandar. (See the external link).
At least 90 such sloth bears are recuperating at at Bannerghatta, a rehabilitation centre that is run by Wildlife SOS.
Raju -- rescued four days ago-- appears dull at the moment. But the staff at the camp say it will soon get used to his new environment.
Each bear in the camp has a story to tell.
Dr Yaduraj of Wildlife SOS, who took us around the camp, says that there are various stages before a bear is completely fit to roam around with the other ones in the sanctuary. After the bear is rescued, it is brought to the camp and first quarantined.
"Most bears suffer from various ailments, tuberculosis the most common. Once treated, it goes through the acclimatisation process. Kept in isolation in the beginning, it is allowed to mingle with other bears in the camp. Each bear has a different nature. The new ones are first allowed to mingle with friendly ones. Once they get used, they are permitted to mingle with the rest of the pack. The process goes on for a couple of months and only once they are fully ready, they are sent to the group," he says.
The transition is amazing.
Once they begin mix up, the bears get more active, with the natural insticnts becoming evident.
A jeep loaded with watermelons makes its rounds through the sanctuary and this exercise is known as fruit-feeding.
As we drive through the sanctuary, bears recognise the buzz of the jeep. Just out of nowhere, the entire stretch is filled with the mammals which chase the vehicle. We are asked to lower the panes since most animals stand right up to you in the anticipation that they would be fed.
However, after laying hands on watermelons, they don't seem to be bothered about our presence.
Dr Yaduraj says that it is quite a process and they have to deal with them with extreme care. "We ensure that bears forget everything about his past and we also give them new names. Some bears adapt very quickly, but there are others who take a while longer.
Even the feeding pattern differs. Most bears come here with no teeth since they are removed. We give them a lot of porridge and once they become normal, they are given fruits," he says.
The Bannerghatta bear rescue centre is one of the four centres which has been set up by Wildlife SOS in association with Free the Bears Fund from Australia, Britain's International Animal Rescue and One Voice Association from France.
Rescuing bears is no easy task. Most Kalandars were promised that they would not be arrested if they came up voluntarily and handed over the bear.
Raje Saab, Raju's Kalandar, was given Rs 50,000 to give up the bear.
"I can now start my life afresh with the money I have been given," he says.
Text & Video: Vicky Nanjappa in Bengaluru.
Image: For Raju, life has turned upside down