Many among us who have seen bears being paraded on the streets may have felt pity for the poor animals and perhaps after the bear and its master moved on so did our thoughts. But for Kartick Satyanarayan, who also witnessed the bears, something had to be done to mitigate this situation. With this started a journey which has now come to be known to us as Wildlife SOS. Kedar Bhide talks to Kartick as to how he came to the rescue.

1. You grew up in Bangalore. You went camping with friends and were interested in the outdoors. Can you tell us more about your childhood?

A large part of my childhood was spent in the midst of nature. I recall running away to the nearest parks and wooded areas to spend time watching birds, butterflies and animals at every given opportunity. I would spend every full moon night atop trees near a water-hole in a national park on the outskirts of Bangalore, where I would conceal myself to watch wild elephants, gaur, leopards, bears and other wildlife that came to the water-hole to drink. They were some of my most thrilling experiences and inspired me to become a wildlife conservationist.

I was severely addicted to the outdoors and was hungry to do everything I could to protect and conserve the forests and the beautiful creatures that lived in these vanishing forests. As a school student, I would volunteer with the forest department and accompany night patrol teams and also try to rehabilitate birds, snakes etc.

Kartick feeding a rescued Dusky Eagle Owl

2. Who were your heroes? What influenced you the most during your growing up days? 

As a child, my heroes were Jim Corbett and Kenneth Anderson whose books I could not put down at all. Growing up, I drew inspiration from my parents who encouraged my interest in wildlife conservation and also from forest officers like Bhupen Talukdar and the likes of Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey, David Attenborough.

Geeta Seshamani was a great inspiration and I eventually started working with her to establish Wildlife SOS, where she plays a visionary role in our conservation projects.

3. We know you as a conservationist. What made you start Wildlife SOS?

I was in awe of the beauty of the natural wealth our country and was appalled at the lack of tolerance and disregard of our rapidly vanishing biodiversity. Also, the large scale poaching of wildlife and habitat destruction sickened me and I decided to do something about it. The trigger was a series of incidents that included one where I tracked and apprehended a forest criminal (timber smuggler) from inside a National Park, where I worked there as a wildlife biologist gathering data on wild animals using line transect systems. This incident sparked what eventually became a raging fire inside of me. I could not stand by and watch any longer and had to be a catalyst, a change maker and use every living moment to help this cause.

Kartick Satyanarayan with a rescued rat snake at the Wildlife SOS Helpline unit in Delhi.

It was an emergency situation – “a real SOS for India’s forests and wildlife.” And thus I started Wildlife SOS and co founded this organisation with Geeta Seshamani who also had a high level of dedication, integrity, compassion and willingness to bring about lasting change to help India’s wildlife.

4. Could you tell our readers briefly about the ‘dancing bear’ culture that was prevalent? How did your association with bears begin?

The Dancing Bear tradition in India started around 400 years ago when a nomadic gypsy community entered India from Persia and performed tricks to entertain the harem of Mughal emperors. They used monkeys and bears in their public performances. Over centuries, the emperors and kingdoms disappeared and sadly the dancing bear trade stayed on, transitioning to a cheap street entertainment for tourists who paid to watch the bears. The nomadic gypsy community, also called the Kalandars, had by now five distinct populations settled across several villages and hamlets across India, continuing to depend on exploiting Sloth Bears for a livelihood.

Sloth bears are extremely shy, seldom seen but will fiercely protect their young. This bear is only found in the Indian subcontinent with a subspecies in Sri Lanka, thus making it a rare and endangered species that enjoys the same level of protection as the tiger under Indian law. According to the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, capture of these bears is a punishable offence with a jail sentence of up to 7 years if convicted. Yet, this practice of dancing bears carried on in blatant disregard of the law. Hundreds of Sloth Bear cubs were poached mercilessly across India and the mother bears brutally killed so poachers could remove the cubs and meet the demands created by the Kalandar community to replace the dancing bears that died or were sold off each year. Body parts of the bears were harvested at every opportunity.

Rescued Sloth Bears playing on their hammock

As soon as the poached bear cubs would reach a Kalandar community settlement, they would be staked to stumps into the ground for a vulgar display to potential buyers and then sold off to the highest bidders, where they would then be subjected to some training to teach these wild bears how to obey and perform tricks. To start with, a red-hot iron poker would be hammered through the baby bear’s delicate muzzle, often at the tender age of 6 to 8 weeks. A rough, thick rope would then be thrust through the oozing wound to control the bear. The tugging of this rope through this painful wound would create a great deal of pain and would soon teach the traumatised bear to cooperate and jump when the rope was tugged thereby inducing ‘dancing’ performances on demand! These bears lived at the end of a four-foot long rope performing on streets for tourists.

5. How exactly did you tackle the issue of rescuing and subsequently rehabilitating the dancing bears? Going against an unquestioned tradition couldn’t have been easy. 

Geeta Seshamani and I investigated the illegal practice of dancing sloth bears from 1995 to 1997. A report was submitted to the Government of India and the story of the dancing bears circulated worldwide which helped Wildlife SOS establish the first ever Sloth Bear Rehabilitation and Conservation center in India. In order to protect the Sloth Bear population, we realised that we had to begin at a different point –starting with the upliftment of the Kalandar community, who depended on dancing bears to earn a living. To enable the Kalandar community to surrender their sloth bears and not exploit wildlife as a source of income and livelihood, we started encouraging them to take up alternative livelihoods by provides vocational training and financial rehabilitation support to the families. By empowering the men and women to earn incomes and improve their living standards, we had proved our commitment to providing them a life of quality. The results were phenomenal as over time, the Kalandars started to voluntarily surrender their bears to Wildlife SOS and choose a more sustainable future.

Kartick attempts to negotiate the seizure of a dancing bear near Agra.

Till date we have successfully rescued 628 dancing bears and in a historic moment in 2009, Wildlife SOS brought an end to this barbaric practise by taking the last dancing bears off the streets of India. In fact today, almost 40% of the Wildlife SOS staff comprise of members of this community, who opted for a more sustainable future.

6. Wildlife SOS has also worked on alternatives for communities like the Kalandars that were dependent on the use of animals. How do you find the middle ground between the survival of such communities and the welfare of the animals involved?

Our journey has been quite a challenge, as it was difficult to gain the trust and co-operation from this hostile community, who felt that Wildlife SOS was attempting to take away their only means of survival. But over time they realised that our intention was to help them and support them with alternative form of livelihood. Additionally, Wildlife SOS has designed and carried out several initiatives to empower the women of the community in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Like in the case of most societies, the Kalandar women too face various cultural and societal challenges that are difficult to break away from. Therefore, the aim is to provide a platform that gives employability to them and help develop capabilities and skills that enable these women to become self-employed entrepreneurs.

Today, more and more members of this community are opening up to newer possibilities. They are encouraging their children to pursue an education and supporting their women to develop skills and gain a more prominent status in the society.

7. Over the last two-and-a-half decades, your work has had a tremendous impact on how we handle human-animal conflicts in India today. How often do you have to deal with people more than the animal itself? 

Conflicts between humans and animals have negative impacts for both sides. People suffer crop damage, depletion of livestock, and destruction of property and sometimes even lose their lives in such encounters. On the other hand, this also result in destruction of habitat, the collapse of wildlife populations and intensifies negative human attitudes towards wildlife, which can also lead to violent and brutal consequences for wildlife species that are caught in man-animal encounters.

Rescued elephants Chanchal, Bijli, Laxmi, Maya, Phoolkali

In an attempt to overcome this growing challenge, we have made it our responsibility to educate not just the local communities but also the younger generation living in man-wildlife conflict zones, about their surrounding environment and the animals that are a part of it. Our teams conduct awareness programs to educate the public about using techniques for avoiding and resolving man-animal conflicts as well as encouraging responsible community participation in various conservation initiatives through our centres Maharashtra, Jammu and Kashmir, Agra, Bannerghatta and New Delhi.

8. Having rescued a wild animal, you are probably in a dilemma about the future of the animal. What parameters would you use to determine whether you would release it back into the wild or retain it in captivity?

 The parameters we use for determining the release-ability of the animal is its fitness and ability to survive on its own in its natural habitat. Rescued animals receive veterinary treatment if required, and are kept under observation and if found fit for release are then, released back into the wild. For this, permissions are secured from concerned authorities to release the animals in suitable habitat. The release is done in presence of officers from the wildlife department and the same is also documented by photos or videos.

Wild animals found not fit for release (as described above) are provided life time care at our Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Centres, located across the country after we have received permission from the concerned forest department and Chief Wildlife Warden.

A Sloth Bear relishing an ice popsicle

9. Social media played a huge role in drawing attention to some captured animals, particularly in the case of Raju the Elephant. Has your work benefitted by the popularity and attention your organisation gains from social media?

Social media plays a vital role in promoting and highlighting our work with Indian wildlife. The viral nature of social media has made a huge difference to our organisation. We got a taste of this when we rescued an elephant named ‘Raju’ back in 2014 and a picture of him crying when his rescue took place went viral and suddenly it was all over news channels. The picture was shared by thousands of followers and later news agencies started calling us to cover this story. There was a rapid increase in our Facebook page likes, shares and a huge audience all over the world came to know about our organisation. Even today, we get messages from people who have seen CNN’s coverage of Raju’s rescue and land on our social media pages and connect with us. We learnt that social media and news coverage goes hand-in-hand and that’s how stories go viral and this helps create awareness which is the main goal and purpose of our effort.

Kartick feeding Raju at the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre

1o. Wildlife SOS is a little over two decades old now. In this day and age, how difficult is it to run/manage an NGO? 

It is extremely challenging to run a non profit organisation and to also find people committed to the cause.

Rescuing and caring for animals is always a financial challenge whether it is buying food or medicines for the animals, treatment costs, field equipment, vehicle fuel and maintenance or even staff salary. We are a non-profit charity and operate from donations and grants. We request people to support our efforts by making donations to and by also becoming monthly donors and sponsoring the care of our rescued and rehabilitated animals.

Kartick feeding blind bear cub

Creating awareness amongst the public is also a big challenge. Many times when we request our callers to contribute towards the cost of transportation to attend their rescue calls, or to contribute to the medical care of the rescued animals, we are faced with hostility. On the other hand, there are many people who have become lifetime supporters of our work and pledged to contribute to the cause after interacting with us.

11. What’s next for you and Wildlife SOS?

We at Wildlife SOS are taking efforts to mitigate the increasing human wildlife conflict around India and provide practical sustainable solutions to help people coexist with wildlife. Much like our work with the Kalandar community, we hope to turn poachers into protectors by creating sustainable alternative livelihoods for them. Finally, we hope to changing the future for elephants in India through protection, conservation and humane management