Sloth Bears and the Dancing Bear Tradition
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Sloth bears (Melursis ursinus) are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, and they are protected under the Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.
Sloth bears are endemic to the Indian subcontinent, with an estimated population between 6,000-10,000 (Ramesh et al. 2012). The sloth bear population continues to decline due to habitat loss and degradation such as overharvest of timber products including timber, fuel wood, fruits, and honey, establishment of monoculture plantations, expansion of agricultural areas, human settlements and roads (Sharma et al. 2013) and poaching (Ramesh et al. 2012).
Let’s focus on poaching:
Sloth bears have been and continue to be poached
for their parts (gall bladders, etc.).
In addition, sloth bears have been poached since
the 13th century to become dancing bears.
What’s the Dancing Bear Issue?
Sloth bears are poached as cubs, and forced through
pain and fear to dance in the streets as a way for
sloth bear owners to make money to support their
How exactly are sloth bears turned into dancing bears?
Poachers take cubs from their mother’s den when cubs are between 4-8 weeks old. Then, cubs are sold to Kalandar people, who train the bears to dance. Sloth bears can be fierce, so trainers break the bears’ canines, remove or cut short their claws, and insert a hot poker from the bear’s snout to their lip. A rope is then threaded through this hole, allowing the trainers to control the sloth bears. Then, sloth bears are trained to dance in the streets.
When did this tradition start?
The Kalandar people have been using sloth bears as a way to support their families since the 13th century. It’s part of their heritage.
Is this legal?
No. Since 1950, there have been several key pieces of legislation that make owning and training a dancing bear illegal:
*1950: Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
Prohibits using animals with deformity to solicit alms
* 1959: Bombay Prevention of Begging Act
Defined begging as soliciting for alms
*1972: Wildlife Protection Act
Provides protection for wild animals and plants
But! Between 1972-1992, there were exceptions to these rules: Kalandar people were given a license allowing them to keep sloth bears as pets.
What has happened since 1992?
In 1992, sloth bears were listed as vulnerable under IUCN, officially making it illegal to own a sloth bear. But Kalandar people still used sloth bears as dancing bears. Then, in 1997 Wildlife SOS co-founders Geeta Seshamani and Kartick Satyanarayan began working on ways to end the dancing bear tradition in India.
Were they successful? Yes! How did they do it?
Tune into our Tweetchat on Friday, May 16th at 2pm EST to find out more about the amazing work done by Kartick and Geeta with Wildlife SOS!
Bear Trust International partners with Wildlife SOS to help raise conservation awareness about the sloth bears. Bear Trust is also creating a lesson plan based on the conservation of sloth bears, which will be available to educators, youth, and the public for free download at: www.beartrust.org.
1. What things do you think Geeta and Kartick with Wildlife SOS needed to consider to successfully end the dancing bear tradition?
2. Using sloth bears in the dancing bear tradition has been illegal since at least 1992. Why did you think this tradition continued beyond 1992?
3. For the dancing bear tradition, poachers take sloth bears from the wild when they are cubs. Why is the removal of cubs particularly damaging to wild populations of sloth bears?
4. Most of us know that polar bear populations are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. It is estimated that there are about 20,000-25,000 polar bears in the wild. Of the 8 bear species worldwide, 6 of them are listed as endangered or threatened. What are these 6 bear species and what are their estimated population sizes?
5. Sloth Bear Biology:
* Length: 4.5-5.5 feet long
* Weight: 175-330 Males; 130-220 females
*Claws are 3 inches long
* Lifespan: can live up to 30 years in wild, about 20 years in captivity
* U or V shape on chest
*Long coarse fur prevents termites from biting skin
*Sexual maturity at 3-4 years of age
*Typically solitary except during mating
* Primarily nocturnal
*Mating season is April to August; with a gestation period of 6 months
Question about biology: Approximately 50% of sloth bear diet is comprised of ants and termites. What special adaptations do sloth bears have that make them particularly adept at eating termites and ants?
6. How many bear species exist in India? What are they?