(Note: This was previously published on The Pakistan Forum, but since that site will soon be retired, I am republishing it here: First published on October 24, 2014))
As you enter the office building of Dr. Fakhar Abbas’s Bio Resource Centre, the first thing that hits you is the exceedingly efficient use of space in this Islamabad house that serves as office space, a biological lab, and as a space to study endangered bird species.
We often visit Dr. Abbas to get the news about his ambitious project to rescue endangered bears from bear-baiting events, but also for the best cup of coffee that he makes and serves you himself.
That this one person, with a dedicated team of workers, has saved more than forty bears from abuse and has been instrumental in changing the Pakistani law is not what one thinks of when we meet him. Sadly, while our mullahs and politicians have their pulpits and megaphones, Dr. Abbas works mostly unnoticed by the otherwise voracious media of Pakistan. But, maybe, it is this anonymity that gives him the strength and the vision to do what he does. For to save animals in a country where millions of humans are suffering the vagaries of every day life, is something that would only occur to someone unique and special.
Bear baiting, or bear fighting, is a cruel sport that entered our culture, probably, because of the British colonialism, for it used to be an established sport in England. The fact that rules applied to the sport in Pakistan are pretty much the same as elaborated and enacted by our erstwhile colonizers further supports my claim that the sport, if we could call it a sport, is not native to northern India but was introduced here by the British. One can also assume that it were the native elite sympathetic to the British who adopted it in order to offer it as entertainment to their British masters. This must have been the case, as the current supporters of ” this traditional right” to cruelty are the Tiwanas of Sargodha, most of whom were pro-British touts until the end of British colonial rule in India.
There are two camps against Dr. Abbas: the powerful zamindars (the old pithoos of British) who want to defend their right to stage bear fights under the garb of tradition and
some of the wildlife officials, who, in their wisdom, attempt to hinder rather than support his efforts. But Dr. Abbas plods on, or should we say Waltz’s on, to save the bears from these torturous fights.At a typical bear baiting event, a bear is tethered to a post in the middle of a stadium. The rope or chain is between 2 to 5 meters long. The bear’s claws have been blunted, his/her canine teeth removed and a nose ring inserted. At least two dogs are then let loose to attack the tethered bear. The dogs are removed when the bear submits; this is seen when the bear rolls on the ground to avoid further attack by the dogs. The bear is forced to do this up to as much as seven times per day.
The fights are not fair: in most of the cases a bear’s claws are shorn and his teeth removed and then he is made to fight two or sometimes four British bull-terriers. It is a miracle that even against these odds, most bears survive the ordeal, to fight another day. Thankfully, due to the efforts of Dr. Abbas and his supporters all over Pakistan, bear fightings are now illegal in Pakistan. But in the rural heart of Pakistan, in the territories of these so-called feudals, the law is not so seamlessly implemented as it should be. That is where Dr. Abbas and his team come in. The vast network of their sympathizers informs them of an impending bear fight and that is when, Dr. Abbas, along with the police (if the police are willing, for sometimes the zamindar is too powerful for the police to interfere) move to confiscate the bears. The confiscated bears are then brought to the sanctuary. I am not providing the address of the sanctuary here, because that is the best way to keep the place outside the public eye and also safe from anyone who may not like Dr. Abbas’s initiative.
Visiting the sanctuary was a moving and unique experience: There I was, standing by the fence, when a brown bear walked up to me, just inches away on the other side of the fence. He looked happy, but you could discern the writ of human cruelty all over his body: his face and muzzle were scarred, he walked precariously on his twisted paws and when he opened his mouth to yawn, you could see the missing teeth, removed by human hands. It is at moments like these when you come face to face with the nobility of a wild animal that you realize how cruel, callous, and destructive we humans can be. It is also at moments like these when you want to reach out to grasp some shred of human goodness just to remind yourself that, maybe, there is some hope for us as a species and that is where figures like Dr. Abbas become crucial, for they restore our hope in our human future.
Everything about the sanctuary is emblematic of native innovation: the transport cages, the rooms with enclosures where the bears are first rehabilitated, and then eventually the large fenced reserve where the bears are eventually released. As we sat and drank tea at the central command center of the sanctuary, we could hear the bears move around in the holding pens, waiting to be released while those already released in the sanctuary roamed the land in pairs or alone. Two of them, one a Himalayan brown bear and the other a black bear, stayed closer to the fence and as we drank our tea they played in the shade, like two carefree retirees.
Sitting there in the yard, I could not help but wonder at the nature of this fight for conservation: on one side of it was Dr. Fakhar Abbas, this taciturn unassuming man, and on the other the feudal lords of Pakistani rural heartlands. One man against the monstrous power of those for whom holding the unjust spectacle of a bear fight was more than just the event: it was a display of their material and symbolic power to their constituents and their captive labor force.
While Dr. Abbas claims to defend the bears in the name of Pakistani law and general human decency toward other species, the zamindars claim their legitimacy under the general guise of tradition. In a nutshell, they claim, that they have the right to hold bear-baiting events as they are part of our tradition. But as I suggested earlier, bear-baiting is not OUR tradition: it is a basterdized version of the practices introduced by our erstwhile British masters. Those still enacting this so-called tradition were the supporters of our former masters and now want to continue the same cruel “tradition” as a status symbol. Just how does being cruel to animals become our tradition is beyond me? Right now there are four bears at the sanctuary whose future is uncertain. The bears were handed over to the sanctuary for safe custody until the court case is decided.
In the court, the fight is between Dr. Abbas and his supporters and the powerful zamindars of Sargodha. While one side hopes to preserve life, the other wants to maintain the right to destroy life. The case is extremely crucial, for the future of bear conservation in Pakistan depends on it. I do hope that the bears win and the zamindars lose, but in Pakistani politics these powerful zamindars have always been able to protect their privilege under all kinds of regimes and governments. This is where some public support for Dr. Abbas and his project would be crucial and while Dr. Abbas himself shuns the limelight, this brief article is an attempt to highlight the current fight and is written in solidarity.
Beyond its literal function as a conservation project, the bear sanctuary also has a deeply symbolic value for our culture. Its mere presence as a functional and laudable initiative, assures us that despite the troubles that besiege Pakistan, there are people and places in Pakistan that give us hope, for if we can accomplish something such as this under harsh circumstances, imagine what we could do if the material circumstances were more favorable.
This is not a story of one man against all odds, even though the will of this one man drives the entire project; it is rather a tale of one man in solidarity with so many others engaged in an intricate power struggle to save some of the most magnificent animals of Pakistan. The project had started with three rescued bear cubs that Dr. Abbas and his staff had hand-raised years ago. The previous sanctuary was destroyed by the 2005 floods, but that destruction also provides the most moving story that Dr. Abbas narrates. After the floods, he says, the team went back to the sanctuary fearing the worst. Most of the bears then in the sanctuary had been carried away by the sixty feet tall waves of flooded Indus, so the team was not expecting any miracles.
As soon as they reached the site, Dr. Abbas saw some movement at the top of a lofty pine. Soon, the black dot on the top descended downward and sat down in the lowest branches, his head in his paws, waiting to be rescued: this was the first of the three cubs that Dr. Abbas had hand-raised. Soon, his other sibling was found hiding in the water tank, and the third was found crouching in an intact bathroom. This miraculous survival of the three cubs, hence became the beginning for the new sanctuary, the one that houses more than forty bears rescued from torturous fights from all across Pakistan.
We all live in a world of unspeakable injustices, a world that seems to be OK with majority of its population living in misery. In such a world, it takes extraordinary vision and will to dedicate one’s life to saving non-human animals. Saving bears, therefore, is not just a conservation project: it is a testament to our collective humanity. This conservation miracle is, therefore, worthy of our support as a nation, as Pakistanis, and as members of the human race!