The nomadic Qalandar people in India go back to around the thirteenth century when they settled in Uttar Pradesh. For unknown reasons they picked up bear-fighting as a means either to earn a living or as entertainment – or potentially both. Stories exist telling of old traditions involving the animals who traveled with them. Much like an ancient circus they had bears, monkeys and other performing animals.
They are a marginalized Islamic culture, previously nomadic but now mostly settled. Since 1972, when India outlawed bear hunting, the Qalandar resorted to training “dancing” animals to support their families. But this could only be done through extremely cruel methods. The Indian government tried to eliminate the practice altogether but now thanks to Wildlife SOS the last of the dancing bears was rescued and moved to one of their sanctuaries.
Old traditional, mystic, or religious beliefs are difficult to oust. How do you explain to people that their behavior is no longer considered acceptable by the social majority? Their traditional bear fighting and dancing was blasted with criticism from animal rights activists in the west. And then the Indian government made it more or less official that the practices were to end for good.
In an ingeniously integrated strategy, Kartick Satyanarayan and his team at Wildlife SOS made the offenders part of the solution. They needed options for livelihoods. They were given a future.
And now the bears are safe. Now they only dance if they want to.
Cultures can change.