“He who harms even a sparrow, so shall he answer to Allah on the Day of Judgement.” (Hadith)
Bear-baiting was a popular form of entertainment in Elizabethan England, but due to widespread horror at animal cruelty, it was finally made illegal in 1835, with the ban being later applied throughout the British Empire.
How sad then to learn that bear-baiting is still active in Pakistan. A distressing video posted this month on social media by wildlife carers carried a plea to the international community to condemn this heinous practice.
In fact bear-baiting is officially illegal in Pakistan, but the law is rarely enforced with authorities often in cahoots with dog-owners. Not in the least that gambling — thousands of rupees may be waged on a fight — is considered as much an abomination as alcohol by the Holy Qur’an.
Every week during summer, bear-dog fights are held in the notorious city of Rahim Yar Khan in the southern Punjab. Watched by hundreds of men and boys (women are not allowed) a bear is released in a dusty circle to be set upon by savage dogs, multiple times, during the afternoon program.
As puppies, hunting dogs are taught to attack by chasing rabbits. When training is complete, they are taken into the natural environment where any creature is seen as fair game: a civet cat, jackal, wolf, a wild boar; nothing is safe. There are even competitions with prizes awarded to the most aggressive canine.
Wildlife expert Fahad Malik in Lahore says that hunting wildlife is seen as a game, or a hobby, with small children also taking part. Sometimes a rare striped hyena is trapped and secured in a pit for the dogs to worry it.
Brown bears and the endangered Asian black bear used in such contests are poached in Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. The mother bear is usually killed in order to capture her cubs whose teeth are extracted, their claws trimmed and a ring with a spike is inserted in their nose so they can be led by a rope.
Pakistan does not generally enjoy a compassionate reputation — remember Kavaan, the elephant rescued from Islamabad Zoo and flown to sanctuary in Cambodia? But there is genuine concern among the educated for animal welfare both wild and domestic.
Dog owners arrested over a fight in Rahima Yar Khan on 22 July 2022
In 2001 General Musharraf proposed that a sanctuary should be established for rescued dancing bears and those baited in dog fights.
Located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the first such centre was destroyed in the catastrophic 2010 floods when thirty bears were drowned.
Following this tragedy, the Balkasar Bear Sanctuary was set up by WSPA (World Society for the Protection of Animals) and BRC bio-resource centre Pakistan, a seven hectare wilderness haven in the Punjab, where rescued animals they can live out their days.
But saving bears from a miserable existence is a sensitive process. It involves lengthy negotiations with the owner and the provision of a viable alternative livelihood. When the owner agrees to surrender their bear, BRC then offers training so they may set up a new business.
Balkasar offers hope to wipe out bear baiting forever. However perhaps one should not be too harsh on Pakistan when it is considered that Britain banned fox-hunting under the Hunting Act of 2004, but toffs still defy the law to ride to hounds.