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Kartick Satyanarayan | Animal spirit

Kartick Satyanarayan, 47, Wildlife conservationist and co-founder, Wildlife SOS, New Delhi

Once a source of endless joy, few were aware of what the ‘dancing bear’ went through. Baby bears would be forcibly taken from their mothers, a rope put through their nose, pulling which would cause pain and force them to obey the owner’s command. It took Kartick Satyanarayan and his team at Wildlife SOS 20 years to completely eradicate the practice.

Once a source of endless joy, few were aware of what the ‘dancing bear’ went through. Baby bears would be forcibly taken from their mothers, a rope put through their nose, pulling which would cause pain and force them to obey the owner’s command. It took Kartick Satyanarayan and his team at Wildlife SOS 20 years to completely eradicate the practice.

Seeing their plight, Kartick founded Wildlife SOS in 1995 with Geeta Seshamani, who had a long association with animal shelter Friendicoes. Today, it runs several projects to support bear conservation in India, including the world’s largest rehabilitation centre for sloth bears in Agra. “The ‘dancing bear’ trade,” says Kartick, “happened in the Kalandar community. The work was largely out of compulsion, ignorance about laws and lack of opportunities. They had no other means of living.”

Wildlife SOS’s approach, therefore, was to include the community to end the practice. “When we began to crack down on bear poaching,” says Kartick, “we also worked with the community to improve their social status. We helped them with women’s empowerment, skill training, alternative employment and also sent over 7,600 children to school.” Today, almost 40 per cent of the staff at Wildlife SOS are members of the community.

The success of their effort can be gauged from the fact that no Kalandar child born after 2009 has seen a bear in his or her home. The 4,000-odd Kalandar families no longer depend on this illegal trade for sustenance. The ‘Kalandar Rehabilitation Project’ has ended the 400-year-old tradition.

Rehabilitating both man and beast, Wildlife SOS has also taken on the responsibility of providing a home to the bears they have rescued. Six hundred and twenty eight rescued dancing bears are now looked after at their centres in Agra, Bengaluru, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal.

Motivated by their success with bears, Kartick expanded his conservation efforts to include other animals. The organisation now works with elephants, leopards and reptiles, protecting them from illegal poaching and providing them vital medical care. “Each one of our 12 animal rescue centres in India gives me happiness,” says Kartick. “I just have to sit and watch an elephant play in the river or receive treatment at the elephant hospital, a leopard peek out of his den, or a bear climbing a tree at the rescue centre, and I am at peace knowing I have brought these animals dignity and freedom.”

Looking after thousands of rescued animals or protecting those living in the wild is by no means an easy task. But Kartick firmly believes animals and people can live together in harmony and balance. “In educating people on wildlife, including teaching them avoidance behaviour and how to cope with man-animal conflict, I believe we are building the bridge to coexistence and respect for nature,” he says.

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