Requiem for the Bears

By Hussain Kazmi
Bear versus Hound

Many amongst us grew up reading fantasy tales and fables that cast bears as the wise, strong companions of the protagonist: from timeless classics such as Kipling’s Baloo to comparatively recent incarnations in contemporary masterpieces such as Tolkien’s Beorn (appearing in The Hobbit), and Philip Pulman’s Iorek Byrnison (in His Dark Materials trilogy). Flipside: soon, these pages and some YouTube or National Geographic footage might become the only places to find bears. With every passing day, the once mighty species edges towards extinction. Of the eight major classes of the bear species (including notable members as the Panda, Polar Bear, and Grizzly Bear), six are now classified as endangered or threatened by extinction. A number of the sub-species have already become extinct during this last century. These include, sadly enough, one ofour national bears: the Balochi Bear.

The reasons for this decline in numbers are multifarious. The ancient custom of hunting bears for game ultimately gave way to mercenaries hunting bears for their fur. This, in turn, paved the path for the bear baiters. Bear baiting is the act of pitting a bear – with its claws removed and limbs tied to a stall – against a pair of pure-breed dogs orhounds. If the bear can defeat the dogs, it is proclaimed the winner; but even victory comes at a hefty price: the loss of one or more limbs and participation in future baitingevents as their “reward”. Is anyone else reminded of the Roman Gladiatorial games?

This sport (if it can be so called) finds its roots in 16th century England, where thorough-bred mastiffs were used for the purpose. In the 19th century, the English ‘exported’ it to the Indian subcontinent, where it lingers to date. Besides being outrageously inhumane, it is one of the major causes of falling numbers of bears in the region. The game has outlived its original players; in large areas, the socio economic conditions remain thesame, with the colonials being replaced by feudal lords.

In the far off reaches of Sindh and Punjab, bear baiting has become a regular feature invillage games, where it is considered synonymous with a display of power. Gypsies fromafar converge to these events with captive bears and sell them to local feudal lords, who then proceed to set up a show for intimidating the serfs. Commonly reported atrocities to the animal kingdom, such as dancing monkeys and circus animals, pale in comparison; only Spanish bull fighting is at par with this outrage.

Current legislation includes up to five years imprisonment along with a fine for injuring, maiming, or killing another person’s animal worth more than Rs. 50. These laws, besides being highly vague and not accounting for wanton cruelty, are seldom implemented. An important factor contributing to this is a lack of support of the feudal and tribal lords, who see these events as an effective way of ‘keeping the serfs in place’. Cruelty to animals is, however, only one factor to consider while pushing for legislation towards heavy punishments.

The gypsies selling bears have no other means of income and the attendees of these events have come to see them as perfectly normal. Lately, initiative has been taken to discourage these gypsies by finding them alternate employment and by creating a more aware populace that turns to other, less brutal forms of entertainment. Citations of text from the Qur’an have been employed to communicate the brutality of this sport to the attendees. Another significant step was the establishment of Kund Sanctuary for bearsin 2001, which was designed to provide shelter to bears rescued from baiting. Things seemed to be moving in the right direction until very recently, when there was another unforeseen catastrophe threatening the existence of these bears.

Much has been (rightly) said and written about the recent floods in Pakistan, but the total annihilation of the Kund sanctuary has somewhat passed under the media radar. Home to more than two dozen rescued bears and a number of other exotic, endangered animals, all that remains now is wreckage and carcasses, with ravens cawing overhead. It is heartbreaking that the bears that lived their lives in such abject misery ended it on the same note. The surviving bears are now scattered and new homes need to be found forthem.

One viable option is the Deosai National Park, where the Himalayan Brown Bear has already found safe haven. The Deosai plains are home to millions of flowers in the springand summer season. By careful tweaking of the ecological balance, more bears couldeasily find sanctuary in that vast expanse. With over 3000 square kilometers in available area, there certainly is no shortage of space.

The support of the tribal lords is something that must be ensured to guarantee that bear baiting is stamped out within the next few years. However, putting an end to bear baiting is just the first step; a proper sanctuary needs to be found for the bears, alternative means of employment for the gypsies and alternative means of entertainment must be found for the masses. The gypsies could be employed as bear keepers in the sanctuaries and in fact could end up being an invaluable human resource. Some government support has been garnered in this context, but much remains to be done to create a bearbaiting free society.

Hussain Kazmi helps prevent robots from taking over the world by contributing exasperating solutions in the field of machine learning. Tackling one nemesis at a time, biographies are next on his ever growing to-do list.