Animal exploitation: Sloth bears in India and civets in Vietnam

This is the first of what will probably be a few posts about our trip to India over the winter break. We needed to go somewhere warm, and we’d never been to India, so it seemed like a logical choice. We spent the first three days in Delhi, our port of entry, and then went on to Agra for a couple of days, before flying down to Kochi in Kerala to spend a week on the beach in Alleppey. We had a great time, and I’ll admit it was hard to come back to Mongolia, but Devin started school again on January 9, so we had to.

One of the things we always try to learn about when we travel is the animal life, so I always look for opportunities to visit wildlife parks and sanctuaries. But our encounter with sloth bears was purely spontaneous. We’d arrived in Agra by car from Delhi (opted not to take the train because of Devin’s mobility issues, which are having an increasing impact on our travel). It was still early afternoon, so after a late lunch, we decided to check out something called the Taj Nature Walk, a park on the edge of the Taj Protected Forest near our hotel, Hotel Taj Resorts (which I recommend because of its proximity to the Taj Mahal and the helpfulness of the staff at the front desk). I had chosen our hotel in part because it was close to this forest, because I thought it would give us something to explore. I wasn’t disappointed.

The Taj Nature Walk was a lot of fun, and it was a chance to walk around without too many people trying to sell us things (more on this in another post). For the most part. There was the guy who kept following us while I was trying to take a photo of a hornbill. The bird ended up getting away because we had to speedwalk in another direction. The bird life in the park was wonderful, and we were able to watch a Eurasian Hoopoe eating its dinner (they are one of my favorite birds). We also caught our first glimpses of the Taj Mahal, glowing in the late afternoon sunlight and pollution above the trees. Even from this distance it was breathtaking. But the unexpected highlight was the map of parks and nature areas that I looked at on our way out, as we were heading back to the hotel, which happened to include reference to a sloth bear sanctuary run by Wildlife SOS. We were in.

The next day we were scheduled to go to the Taj Mahal (I’d already bought our tickets online), and then the Agra Fort in the afternoon, but we had a extra full day to see what else we could see, so I asked the guy at the front desk about the sloth bear sanctuary. He didn’t seem to know much about it, but I booked a taxi to take us out there and then to some of the other monuments on our way back.

When we took the taxi to the Agra Fort, the driver asked us about our appointment at the bear sanctuary, but I hadn’t seen anything on their website about needing an appointment, so I asked the front desk staff at the hotel when I got back. He called the sanctuary, and it turns out we needed to send them an email requesting a visit, with our preferred time from a choice of morning or afternoon, and they would send confirmation back. I emailed right away and got a reply within a couple of hours, so we were all set. I was relieved that the taxi driver mentioned it, because when we got there, I found out that if you showed up without an appointment, you could walk into the sanctuary for a little ways in an enclosed walkway, but with an appointment, you got a 90-minute tour.

The official name of the sanctuary we went to is the Agra Sloth Bear Rescue Facility, operated by the Indian NGO Wildlife SOS, which runs a number of animal rescues and sanctuaries around India for animals including elephants and leopards. It’s about an hour and a half drive from Agra, within the Soor Sarovar Bird Sanctuary at Keetham Lake. The organization has an arrangement with the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department for the land (you pay an entrance fee to the bird sanctuary when you enter, and I paid an extra 1000 rupees—about $12 USD—just for having a camera). The sanctuary is home to around 200 bears, of which we were able to see around ten on our tour.

Our guide started out by telling us about sloth bears generally, their role in their forest ecosystems (they eat termites and ants and generally keep the insect population under control), and their life cycles. After a bit, he got into the nitty gritty of why the sloth bear sanctuary had been founded: the history of bear dancing in India.

Bear dancing has been a way of life for a nomadic group of people, the Kalandars, for over 400 years. It began as entertainment for the Mughal emperors and continued as entertainment for villagers and tourists until quite recently. The “dancing” is a bit of a misnomer, since it’s really bears rearing up on their hind legs and trying to escape the pain of a rope that’s been tied through the flesh of their muzzle. “Dancing” bears were usually captured as cubs (their mother would be killed and sold as body parts for traditional medicine). The cubs’ canine teeth would be broken off, and a red-hot poker forced through their muzzle to make the hole through which the rope would be tied. You can see the scars from this on the faces of the older bears at the Agra rescue facility. The young bears that survived all of this would then be trained to “dance” at the end of the rope and live their whole lives “performing.”

One of the rescued “dancing” bears, with the scars clearly visible

Eve though sloth bears were accorded protections by the Indian government, little was done to control or end the poaching and the practice of bear dancing. The Indian government also classify the Kalandar as “economically deprived,” but little has been done to help them, either. Bear dancing was outlawed by the Indian government in 1972, but the practice and illegal poaching continued, in part because it had been the Kalandar way of life for hundreds of years, and they didn’t have an alternative. In 1996, Wildlife SOS identified over 1200 “dancing” bears and set about establishing the rescue facility, with the help of partner organizations and the Indian government.

As part of our tour, the guide explained how Wildlife SOS had recognized that the practice of bear “dancing” wouldn’t end unless the Kalandar were given an economic alternative. They were willing to give up the practice in exchange for other livelihoods, so part of the NGO’s program has included helping former bear “dancing” families to transition to other ways of making a living, including soap- and incense-making, textiles, welding, running small shops, and other micro-enterprises. Wildlife SOS helps provide vocational training and encourages education for Kalandar children; you can read more about it on their website. What is believed to be the last “dancing” bear was surrendered in 2009, and the practice of bear “dancing” had been effectively eradicated.

The tour of the facility included a cup of hot masala tea (most welcome on the chilly morning we were there) and a brief video about bear “dancing” and how the practice was ended. We also saw the veterinary facilities and were told how the rescued bears needed care to heal the wounds in their muzzles and dental care to surgically remove their broken canines, as well as heal infections and abscesses. Finally, there was a small shop selling crafts made by the Kalandar.

Even though the bear “dancing” has ended, new bears come into the facility, especially cubs who have been orphaned by poachers. The illegal trade in sloth bear body parts for traditional medicine continues, and they are often sold on to China. Some of the cubs have retained enough wild habits to be rehabilitated and returned to the wild, but often they would not survive and are kept in the sanctuary. Bears are also rescued from poachers while being smuggled out of the country. We met a couple such bears, including Ron, who was rescued in 2019, along with Ginny and Charlie (named after the Weasleys from Harry Potter) while being smuggled across the border into Nepal. (You can read more about the individual bears, see their photos and videos, and even sponsor one on the organization’s website.)

Ron, sniffing around his enclosure

Devin and I were really happy we’d found out about the Agra Bear Rescue Centre. It’s one of four sloth bear rescues operated by Wildlife SOS, and it’s also not far from the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre, which we didn’t have time to visit. (You can read about our visit to an elephant rescue in Thailand here, though, which explains why you should never ride an elephant, among other things.) They do amazing work, and they also rescue and rehabilitate injured wildlife of all kinds.

So, what about civets? This came up when we were home from India, and I was doing an annual kitchen inspection, looking for expired food and trying to organize things better. I found a box of “Weasel Coffee” I had bought last spring on our trip to Vietnam (which I never wrote about since my arm was still in a sling following a dogsledding accident, which I did write about briefly). I had bought it because I thought Weasel was the brand, but no. Of course not. When I posted a photo of the box on Facebook (yes, I use that; sorry, I’m old), a friend of mine pointed me to information on what’s usually called “civet coffee” (it’s translated to “weasel” from Vietnamese). Civet coffee, or kopi luwak, is coffee made from coffee berries that have passed through a civet’s digestive tract. In other words, pooped out.

I’m still curious how someone discovered that civet poop made good coffee (and will look into it more someday). It’s connected to colonial coffee plantations in Indonesia, where the practice originated. I googled the particular brand of coffee I’d bought, Me Trang’s Weasel Coffee, and discovered that it’s not made from weasel or civet poop, but rather a chemical process where coffee berries are washed in an enzyme solution intended to mimic civets’ digestive juices.

Apparently real civet poop coffee is quite a luxury item and can be very expensive. So it’s not enough to scour coffee plantations in search of wild civet poop (though wild-collected beans can sell for as much as $1300 USD a kilogram, according to the Eleven Coffees website). Instead, civets are captured and caged, force-fed coffee beans so their poop can be harvested and made into coffee. The practice is incredibly inhumane (think industrial chicken farming in the US), and several campaigns have been launched to stop it, starting around ten years ago. And apparently the coffee doesn’t necessarily taste better than that made from more…conventionally procured…beans, according to tests reported by Lily Kubota of the Specialty Coffee Chronicle.

The chemically processed coffee I brought back from Vietnam really is quite good, though I can’t—and won’t—compare it to genuine kopi luwak. Unfortunately, the trade is lucrative enough for the inhumane practices to persist, and civet coffee is produced in several countries, including Indonesia (where it originated), the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, and even Ethiopia.

 So that was my second encounter with animal exploitation within two weeks. It’s not always possible to keep on top of every way that humans find to exploit and immiserate their fellow creatures, and I think I may have read about civet coffee when the negative publicity first started ten years ago. I’d also learned about sloth bear “dancing” through the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, from a presentation Devin saw at a summer camp there and subsequently told me about.

But these things often remain peripheral until you have the chance to come across them in very concrete ways. It’s good to learn about and support the organizations that are working to stop animal exploitation and cruelty, especially ones like Wildlife SOS that recognize the need to provide the humans who make a living from it with viable alternatives. Often people will change their livelihoods if given an opportunity to do so and enough support.

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