India Bears

Reporter: Monika Kos

You see it all in India. One point one two billion people live there. It's the largest democracy in the world. They're cricket mad.. and hosts of the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

It's economy's one of the fastest growing in the world, second only to China yet a quarter of its population still live in poverty, earning just 2 dollars a day.

We travelled to Agra.. in northern India.. home to the famous Taj Mahal. It's one of the world's most admired architectural masterpieces, up to three million tourists visit there every year. But there's another side to India also fighting for the tourist dollar and as tragic as it is, people continue to pay.

Dancing bears are endangered wild animals forced to perform on India's streets. The bear's controlled by a rope through it's nose, and trained using pain and starvation… it's a barbaric, centuries-old custom purely for public entertainment.. and it continues to this very day.

Mary Hutton is a grandmother from Perth, on a mission to save India's dancing bears. Mary's passionate about all endangered bears.. so much so, she founded the Free the Bears Fund thirteen years ago. Jo Court, wife of former premier Richard Court, is patron.

Our report focuses on the single biggest rescue ever of endangered wildlife.. one hundred of India's Sloth bears. They're the most endangered of all the bears species.. they're poached from the wild as cubs.. sold to gypsies known as Kalanders.. who then torture them into submission.

Male cubs are also castrated so they're less aggressive.. their noses pierced with a hot iron needle, and a rope forced through. It's cruel… and illegal… but there's been little Indian authorities could do to stop it, until now.

Mary Hutton and animal crusaders have come up with a way to do both.. free the bears AND keep the man happy.

In partnership with Wildlife SOS and the Indian government, Free the Bears set up a sanctuary in Agra to house the rescued animals.

They also launched a scheme to convince the Kalanders to hand over their animals.. and compensate them for their loss. The Kalander hands over their bear in exchange for money.. 50 thousand rupee, or 2000 australian dollars.. money to help them start a new life… The Kalanader must also surrender their licence proving they're the bear's owner.. and sign an agreement that they'll never dance a bear again.

The bears are then checked over by vets and taken to enclosures where their ropes are removed. It'll take around six months to nurse a bear back to health.

The Agra sanctuary is the first of it's kind in the world, and it's been so successful that another bigger sanctuary's being built nearby. It'll need to hold around 300 bears, because that's how many are still out there and the aim is to get all of them off the streets before the Commonwealth Games.

The new sanctuary's just across India's Yamuna River.. the largest tributary of the Ganges.

"And your facilities, you're still in the process of building? We are, we've got a lot of improvements to do in this enclosure, yes, the trees and shade and enrichment we have to put in".

It'll take around three quarters of a million dollars to get this sanctuary up to standard. Free The Bears sends over a hundred thousand dollars a year.. but it's not enough.

"Although the $2000 rescues that bear, once the bear's in the sanctuary, that's when the really big money starts, because you have to provide medicines, veterinary supplies, the best food". (Mary Hutton)

Money's gained through fund raising.. bears are also sponsored.

"A hundred percent of donations goes to the bears, there's not anything taken out for administration, nothing", says Mary.


For more information and sponsorship details see www.freethebears.org.au