Two sides of the wildlife law: Animals protected but Kalandar tribe trying to make ends meet

Zamil Ahmed dresses in a black fur costume in absence of bear. Photo by Madhav Sharma

Zamil Ahmed dresses in a black fur costume in absence of bear. Photo by Madhav Sharma

  • After the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 came into force in India, it hit the livelihood of the nomadic madari community known for its public performances with live animals.
  • The animals, primarily bears, had to be surrendered to the government that setup bear rescue centres around the country. In 2006, the last of the remaining bears were handed over and the age-old profession came to an end.
  • The members of the tribe, even today, are trying to find a footing to earn a steady income. They say that if the government can employ them in the forest department, it could help them in reducing their hardships.

Noor Mohammad travels around Rajasthan holding live street performances with his ‘pet’. With a damru (two-headed drum) in one hand and a stick in the other, he and his ‘bear’ put up public performances that attract crowds. These shows are particularly popular among children.

But the excitement and awe among the children soon dies down when they realise that the ‘bear’ is in fact a man in costume. That’s Zameel Ahmed, who dresses in a black fur costume, standing in for Ruby, the live bear that was once the star performer in these shows. The disappointment on the children’s faces tugs at the hearts of Mohammad and Ahmed. “But what can we do? Since our childhood we have only learnt and know this profession. Our public performances with Ruby helped us sustain ourselves. Now, after the government took away the protagonist of our shows, we are trying to sustain ourselves in this way, without any other skills and qualifications,” said Mohammad, adding that Ruby was like a member of their family. Ruby is now at a bear rescue centre in Bhopal.

Similar is the fate of several other madaris (people who conduct live street performances, usually with animals) who had been living at Bahir colony in Tonk city of Rajasthan. Soon after the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 came into force, the government began taking away the lead performers of their shows, usually bears or monkeys. With stricter crackdowns, the traditional profession of the madaris came to an end and their source of income dwindled.

In absence of bear, Kalandar use the black fur costume to dress as bear. Photo by Madhav Sharma
A bear costume in which Zameel Ahmed performs at the public shows. Earlier, a live bear was the protagonist of these shows. Photo by Madhav Sharma.

Noor Mohammad, who spent most of his life travelling with his bear, Ruby, for public performances, was among the last six members of the Kalandar tribe who, in 2006, surrendered their bears to the Wildlife SOS NGO. In return, they received Rs. 50,000 as compensation to start any other form of business or search for other livelihood options. Mohammad claims that since all the skills he learnt from his community and forefathers were declared as ‘illegal’, starting anything new was difficult him and for most of his community that was dependent on this profession.

Reminiscing about his journey as a madari, Mohammad said, “I do not remember the exact date, but the year was 1972 when I just started playing the role of the ringmaster in such plays. The Wildlife Protection Act was also framed in the same year.” His father had bought Ruby, a two-day old bear then, at Rs. 800 from the Ranthambore forests in Sawai Madhopur. The price of an adult bear at that time was around Rs. 5000. “We started training her as soon as she turned three months old. We used to train her on walking, using the cycle and sewing machines, walking on two legs, sitting, nodding and other performances,” Mohammad told Mongabay-India. Raising a bear for public performances was a traditional art passed down generations of his tribe. Mohammad and his family would travel around the country hosting bear shows and would remain outside Rajasthan for almost 10 months in a year. “We would load our belongings on donkeys and travel, organising public shows throughout our journey,” he said.

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Who are the madaris?

While there is only limited information available on the history of the Kalandar tribe, it is believed that in the 12th Century, Zalali Kalandar community members came to Punjab through Multan in now-Pakistan. Later they moved to Bengal via Panipat and Karnal, Mohammad said.

Naveen Narayan, an expert on nomadic tribes and a human rights activist also validates the theory. He, however, says that the current Kalandar community cannot be traced to the same ancestory. While written records are limited, it is evident that the Kalandar tribe is nomadic in nature and is dependent on the traditional trade of pet shows involving bears and monkeys, he said.

Read more: Life and struggles of the sloth bear in human-dominated areas

With the nomadic life now coming to an end, most of the Kalandar community has made Bahir colony in Rajasthan’s Tonk city its permanent home. Several of them have settled in other parts of the state with settlements in Bharatpur, Dousa, Ajmer, Kota, Bara, Bundi and Bhilwara. Narayan estimates a population of around 5,000 Kalandars in the state. People who work on the issue of nomadic tribes claim that there are around two lakh (200,000) Kalandars in the country.

The law that saved wildlife but orphaned madaris

After the Wildlife Act came into force, the forest department began to book the tribal community involved in such performances, or owning wild animals, for cruelty against animals. Soon the madaris stopped bringing in new bears. In 2006, Mohammad was among the five others who still had their bears which they then surrendered to an NGO.

Zameel Ahmed, another madari, told Mongabay-India, “There were more than 100 people from our colony who were engaged in this business but only around six got compensation from the government. We want that all those from our community who were engaged in such works should be given jobs in the forest department.”

With the nomadic life now coming to an end, most of the Kalandar community has made Bahir colony in Rajasthan’s Tonk city its permanent home. Photo by Madhav Sharma
With the nomadic life now coming to an end, most of the Kalandar community has made Bahir colony in Rajasthan’s Tonk city its permanent home. Photo by Madhav Sharma.

Arindam Tomar, the Chief Wildlife Warden of Rajasthan, explains that this is not the responsibility of the forest department. “There is no provision of rehabilitation of the Kalandar tribe or the madaris. The act entrusts the forest department with the work of sending the bears to the bear rescue centres. We are working as per the mandate of the law,” he told Mongabay-India.

With the traditional trade coming to an end, incomes started dwindling. Several of the elderly people and children from the community started collecting garbage in urban areas while the women began knitting and other handicraft work. Many of the youth started selling toothpaste powders and moved to different areas for sales.

Animal cruelty or awareness?

The work of seizing live bears from the Kalandar community and sending them to bear rescue centres was taken up by Wildlife SOS, a conservation NGO that rescues and rehabilitates wildlife. Rakhi Sharma, convenor of the NGO told Mongabay-India, “At that time bear rescue centres were started in Agra, Bengaluru, Bhopal, Purulia and Hyderabad. The Hyderabad centre has since been closed down. The highest number of bears are now in the Agra centre. Between 2001 and 2009 there were around 300 bears that came to the centre. Around 250 of these are still alive. In Bengaluru there are 70 bears while in Bhopal there are 25 of them that have been taken from the Kalandar tribe.”

“When the bears were taken from Kalandars to these centres, the health of the animals was poor. They were weak. Many of them had developed infectious diseases like tuberculosis and were under-nourished. Many did not have teeth and nails and many had skin infections. There were also reports that when bears were aggressive, some Kalandars would make them blind. However, there were no such cases from Rajasthan but some other centres had blind bears coming,” Sharma said, adding that animal cruelty was rampant while training the animals for performances.

Atul Gupta, a veterinary officer with Van Vihar National Park in Bhopal was among the people who was involved in the rescue process. He told Mongabay-India, “In 2006 there were around eight bears that were rescued by us. The health of the bears was not good. As they were not exposed to the wildlife environment of the forest, their behaviour was also quite different. They turned into a human-fearing animals unlike their natural instinct.”

The Kalandar community members however deny allegations about animal cruelty and treatment of their bears. “We used to treat bears at par with our kids. If our own child and the bear fell ill at the same time we used to seek treatment for the bear first. It was because only if the bear was well could we earn money for the treatment of our children. We would pray for their health at the dargahs,” Nizam, another madari who now sells toothpaste powders, said.

Women of Kalandar community are learning new skills to get employment with support of an NGO. Photo by Madhav Sharma
Women of Kalandar community are learning new skills to get employment with support of an NGO. Photo by Madhav Sharma.

Ashwani Sharma, a social activist who works with the nomadic tribes, claims that the law was misused to trouble the madaris. “The government has double standards when it comes to cruelty towards animals. The orders for killing of monkeys in Himachal, nilgai in Bihar, pigs in Uttar Pradesh were issued by the government itself. Doesn’t that come under cruelty against animals? In fact, the killers were even awarded. Why are the elephant rides at the Amer fort in Jaipur not considered under this law? Instead, in the same state, the madaris that in fact sustain themselves with pet shows by bears and monkeys, get booked under different sections of the law,” said the activist.

Sharma added that the nomadic tribe travel to different regions of the state and introduce bears to people who may not have seen them – several poor people still do not have an opportunity to visit zoos to see such wild animals. A similar claim is made by Mohammad too.

He also added, “We had been making a long pending demand of including us under the 32 nomadic (de-notified) tribes. This can help us in better jobs, education for our kids, reservation so that we can join the mainstream of the society.” Mohammad claims that even if the community members are given the lowest rank of forest department jobs it could help end their hardships.

Parasram comes from the Banjara community, one among the 32 denotified nomadic tribes of the state. He said, “Nomadic tribes often take their knowledge, science, and culture with them on the move. The government, while framing policies does not consider these things and that puts their very existence in question. That’s what has happened with the Kalandars.”


Banner image: A bear show without the bear. Zameel Ahmed dresses in a black fur costume in absence of a live bear that was traditionally part of these performances. Photo by Madhav Sharma.

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