• DAY 215: BEAR RESCUE ENDS MYSTERIOUSLY

    May 02 2013
    A chained monkey looks on as we enter the small community

    A chained monkey looks on as we enter the small community

    I’m in a strange situation.

    I’m walking into a small village accompanied by thirty policemen, many with guns.  We are looking for a single illegal bear cub. Our intelligence is rock solid, I’m told that Kartick has not failed on a mission like this for ten years but I fear we are about as conspicious as a burning meteor.

    What is the point of my cunning disguise? Will anyone appreciate my mascara?

    The police and Wildlife SOS team park the cars 100 metres from the entrance to the Muslim community.

    ‘Too dangerous to go closer’ says the officer with three stars on his shoulder. The informer seems mighty nervous.

    We all flow down the street and turn into an ever-narrowing alleyway, pushing onward ike a stream forcing new channels. Children poke heads out of doorways and then retreat to let us past.

    searching for the bear cub

    Police going into homes searching for the bear cub

     

    Monkeys

    I see monkey’s chained to walls, one seems blind and truly terrified.

    ‘Can we rescue these?’ I asked my guide/rescuer keenly while taking some photo. I am told to keep quiet and move on. The monkeys need help but first we must get the bear.

    An old, semi-blind, chained and very confused monkey.

    An old, semi-blind, chained and very confused monkey.

    bearraid-3

    bearraid-4

     

    Do not lose your man, Martin.

    We enter the main area of the community where families come out to see the commotion. It its a sunny day, no one in the community has guns, kids are around, I’m surrounded by police. Suddenly it all feels safe. What was I worried about?

    But my UK antennae are not tuned to Indian life. In London I can read undercurrents of aggression from a hundred metres. I learnt it at school when Louis Peterson threatened to beat me up for accidentally hitting him on the head when I threw a basketball and missed the hoop by about ten metres. He prowled the school and I watched his every twitch. But here it seems to me that all is calm. When a man brushes past me, knocking my camera I presume it is an accident. When it happens again I forgive him too easily. Thankfully in a few minutes I’ll be forced to get out of here before I find that on the third strike I might be out.

    Entering the main square. Things seem perfectly under control...

    Entering the main square. Things seem perfectly under control…

    Police start tapping on doors. No bear here. More doors are knocked. Then one is smashed down. People come to crowd around.

    Still no bear.

    I see two more monkeys tied by chains but this time their necks are held together by a few links. I go to take photos. The camera is a dangerous thing. When pushed to your eye its offers a safe and dark enclosure.

    I get lost photographing these two monkeys tied together by a tiny chain

    I get lost photographing these two monkeys tied together by a tiny chain

     

    My mind climbs into the camera and looks out of its neat window. Snap, snap, snap. When I put the camera down I see that my guide has gone. Do not lose your man, Kartick told me

    I call my man quicky. ‘Come, come!’ he says frantically. But I don’t know where he is. The police are dispersing in three different directions so I follow the ones with the biggest guns – as you do.

    ‘I’ll meet you by the monkey’ I say, which is about as useful as telling a farmer you’ll meet him by the sheep.

    ‘Come now, come NOW!’ he says more urgently.

    Has he found the bear?

    We go faster now. When I turn the corner I see my guide in the distance waving to me. I run over and he pushes me into the car and we race off down small streets which become ever wider as we reach safety.

    ‘Do we have the bear?’ I ask as I look back at the receding plume of dust behind the car.

    ‘No. We have to go. It was getting very dangerous.’

    ‘It was? ‘

     

    more monkeys tied by chains

    more monkeys tied by chains

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    Undercurrents at work

    So we never saw the bear.

    Why?

    Only later did I find out the whole story.

    It is common knowledge in India that in order to survive most people in local communities set up relatonships with the lower ranking police officer – this is called a HAFDA which is a regular protection fee to make sure they don’t get in trouble. This was the first time in almost a decade that no bear was seized by Kartick’s team. There’s a distinct possibility that some undercurrents were at work here that allowed the community to be forewarned but we can’t be sure. Things certainly don’t stack up.

    Saving animals in India is not just physical and emotional. It is deeply political and divisive.

    The community we visited has a reputation for disorder and violence. Someone had found out that Kartick was involved and apparently people had threatened to kill him. He wasn’t present but things were escalating fast. I saw none of this in my ignorant haze but the police quickly recognized a tipping point on the near-horizon. We had to leave

    So we just left the bear there?

    Kartick later assured me that the bear would be saved soon and that the monkeys would as well. That just wasn’t our moment.

    To be honest, I am surprised sometimes that Kartick is still with us. I’ll let you know of any updates. But for now I am glad to be back and safe.

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  • DAY 214: BEAR CUB RESCUE (part 1)

    May 01 2013
    Arriving in the village where the bear-cub was reportedly being kept illegally.

    Arriving in the village where the bear-cub was reportedly being kept illegally.

    Phew, I made it.

    But the outcome was not as I had expected. We raided a community that got very heated and the plan had to change quickly…

    …and what of the bear?

    At 4:30am I woke up to a thunderstorm.

    This is not the ideal start to one’s first day of bear-rescuing. It would only have been made worse if the grim-reaper had tickled his fingers on my window. The fierce rain came through the hot darkness. I re-applied my mascara, sorry, I mean bear-rescue disguise, and got ready to meet my pick-up man at 5am.

    An unmarked vehicle arrived some 45 minutes late with a driver who spoke little English. I had been told by Kartick not to engage in conversation. The driver obliged by not speaking a word back and we set off in silence into the sunrise.

    During the journey we picked up three more people, one of whom seemed aggressive and was unwilling to sit in the back. I assumed he was the informer to the Muslim community. He was agitated and often broke out into protest with my driver  about something I could not understand. I stared out of the window the whole way without saying a word

     

    Charging into the small Muslim community with an army of police. Just for one baby bear

    Charging into the small Muslim community with an army of police. Just for one baby bear

     

    Meeting the undercover cops

    We arrived at the pre-arranged location to meet the plain-clothed cops. Their portly bellies and moustache-stroking nonchalance didn’t fill me with confidence -but what did I know?

    By now Kartick was regularly texting me. He seemed nervous that I was alright. Which made me nervous.

    Have they got weapons? R there women with them?

    I presumed women would be used to soften any possible violent tendencies

    Neither –  I wrote back

    How many cops?

    Six

    Is that all? – he wrote.

    Should I go if they have no weapons?

    They probably have concealed weapons 

    I could see nothing of the sort in their tight fitting trousers and t-shirts stretched over their full frames.

    Then, just when I was considering bailing on the whole thing, we drove the car to another station and were joined by more police. First five more, then ten, then twenty. All of them were dressed in uniform and most were carrying rifles, pistols, one with an AK-47.

    Jesus. I wasn’t sure if I should feel relieved or terrified. Why so many cops for a bear cub? And why did I need to wear mascara and a bad disguise? With this much police protection I could have been Salman Rushdie reading the Satanic verses aloud and they wouldn’t have been able to touch me.

    But these police were not for me. Someone thought this raid demanded it.

    Local kids look on concerned. I wondered at the point of my finely applied mascara intended for blending in when I was surrounded by 30 cops

    Taken from my hip. Local kids look on concerned. I wondered at the point of my finely applied mascara intended for blending in when I was surrounded by 30 cops

    Martin, do not lose your man – another text.

    Kartick had made very clear that under no circumstances should I stray from the side of my driver – who was apparently an expert in these raids . I promised I would stick by him closely.

    We set off for the small village compound where we new the bear cub was being kept. There was no way in hell this number of police would not arouse suspicion – or prepare – the people who we were coming for.

    Something felt very wrong.

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  • DAY 210: I’VE OPENED UP A CAN OF BEARS

    Apr 27 2013
    An Indian sloth bear. Cuddly...but not to be messed with. But how can I help?

    An Indian sloth bear. How can I help these vast creatures?


    I’ve arrived at the bear sanctuary 
    run by Wildlife SOS in the middle of the Indian forest/jungle.

    ‘Coochi-coo’, I whisper through the electric fence.

    A fluffy bear races up to me, stands on his back legs and then lets out a vast roar.  I jump back. 

    These are the rescued dancing bears AKA ‘sloth bears’ – large, black and deceptively cute until they show their claws.

    How – I wonder – can I help a bear that is strong enough to rip my face off?

     

    The location is full of 'enrichments' , purpose built structures to keep the bears happy - or very comfortable when they sleep

    The location is full of ‘enrichments’ , purpose built structures to keep the bears happy – or very comfortable when they sleep

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    yes, they look sweet but they are fiercely strong

    Monumental effort

    These impressive bears are the fruit of Kartick and Wildlife SOS’s monumental efforts.

    For many generations a small population of Indians have stolen cubs from their mothers and reared them to dance for money in the streets. Using a hot poker, a rope was threaded through their sensitive snout which then became a leash for life. A tug on it hurt so much the bears stood up ….and danced (I presume they did so as elegantly as the Spanish dogs who are hung from trees ‘play the piano’)

    Sloth bears suck up their food through long snouts. The scar on the snout from where the rope was passed through is still painfully clear.

    Sloth bears suck up their food through long snouts. The scar on the snout from where the rope was passed through is still painfully clear.

    Although the bears have a wonderful environment many still show the signs of previous abuse and anxiety, moving back and forth.

    Although the bears have a wonderful environment many still show the signs of previous abuse and anxiety, moving back and forth.

    Kartick’s solution to this problem drew criticism.

    Not only did he rescue ALL the bears from the streets and give them a home for life but he also turned the ‘poachers into protectors’ by giving jobs to the very people that owned the bears in the first place.

    Why?

    ‘People said we should punish these people rather than give them money. But they weren’t necessarily bad. They needed to make a living. You have to provide an alternative income to stop the problem coming back all over again.’

    It makes sense.

     

    The sanctuary extends out into the forest where bears can climb and socialise freely

    The sanctuary extends out into the forest where bears can climb and socialise freely

    Ahh....

    Ahh….

    An early evening play session

    An early evening play session

     

    How many bears can I help a few weeks?

    ‘And how long did it take to rescue the first bear?’ I ask Kartick.

    ‘Oh!’ he says, raising his eyes up ‘years! We had to work with the government and find a sanctuary and raise the money and then deal with…’

    My mind shrinks inwards. I’m here only for two weeks.

    A bear juggling a coconut cask

    A bear juggling a coconut cask

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    Hanging out

    Hanging out

     

    Kartick is reminding me of the same old problem. Helping is holistic. It is interconnected. It takes time. It is rarely an individual pursuit. You cannot arrive in India, see the Taj Mahal, save a bear and go home. Where do you put it? In your hand luggage?

     

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    To keep the bears busy - and cool - staff hang ice blocks frozen with berries and honey just out of reach.

    To keep the bears busy – and cool – staff hang ice blocks frozen with berries and honey just out of reach.

    I spend the day photographing these magnificent creatures. It saddens me that some still swing their heads from side to side,  traumatised from years of abuse. But the sanctuary offers a rich environment with plenty of food, climbing and social interaction. It is the best place for their heavy hearts.

    The bears seem highly social, often playing vigorously - but normally only when the day is cooler

    The bears seem highly social, often playing vigorously – but normally only when the day is cooler

    hulllo?

    hulllo?

    Some bears are not so friendly.

    Some bears are not so friendly.

    Arun the vet - I asked if he'd ever been hurt by wildlife. No, he said, but his friend had. A sloth bear attacked him and ripped his backside clean off - Arun indicated this with a flat swipe behind him and a wry smile.

    Arun the vet – I asked if he’d ever been hurt by wildlife. No, he said, but his friend had. A sloth bear attacked him and ripped his backside clean off – Arun indicated this with a flat swipe behind him and a wry smile.

    A bear suffering from TB. His days are numbered but pain relief is administered regularly

    A bear suffering from TB. His days are numbered but pain relief is administered regularly

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    At the end of the day I collapse into the sheltered accommodation. The heat almost exactly matches my raised body temperature – 38 degrees – means that my sweating body and the muggy air blend into a delirious whole.

    Kartick calls We finally have the last jigsaw of intelligence on the bear cub that has been stolen and identified in a small muslim community.

    ‘Can you look ….more Indian?’ he asks.

    ‘Er…how do you mean?’

    ‘It’s imperative that you don’t stand out. It could be dangerous. Maybe dye your hair, your eyebrows. Get some thick glasses. Grow your moustache’

    I imagine myself as a 6’4″ Groucho Marx going on a raid. Trying to blend in

    ‘Sure,’ I say. ‘Of course I can’

    Maybe I shoudl cut my legs down?

    NEXT BLOG: I’m off to dress up to rescue a bear.  It feels vaguely racist. This is becoming surreal. And dangerous. Apparently there will be guns. Nice

    The drive back from the sanctuary at sunset

    The drive back from the sanctuary at sunset

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