Seeking the bear truth about World Society work in India

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2001:

LONDON, NEW DELHI–“A major story should come out on the World Society for the Protection of Animals, especially the campaign on behalf of dancing bears,” wrote Maneka Gandhi on March 4 to ANIMAL PEOPLE publisher Kim Bartlett.

The WSPA web site was full of pages describing relief work in India after the January 26 earthquake that shattered the Kutch region of Gujarat–but Mrs. Gandhi, the Indian federal minister for social justice and empowerment, did not have praise in mind. “Ask WSPA president Andrew Dickson how much money they have collected from the bear campaign,” suggested Mrs. Gandhi.

To build and operate a 30-acre bear sanctuary in India, Mrs. Gandhi said, “WSPA finally coughed up, after four years of
haranguing them, the miniscule sum of $24,000. This was after they had collected more than a million pounds for the [promised] bear centers of Pakistan and India. Even this money came only when I wrote an official letter of complaint to the Charities Commissioner in Britain and he instituted an inquiry.

“However,” Mrs. Gandhi added, “they got away scot-free. The Charities Commission said that while WSPA had collected $1.6 million or thereabouts,” from mailings about dancing bears in India and elsewhere, “according to their charter they could spend it on anything, not just the bear sanctuaries. So that is all we got. They, in turn, got to come to India and stay in fine hotels at least three times a year, have cocktail parties, travel all over, and lament the corruption of India and the impossibility of doing anything here. They told me that they could not set up anything here because Indians are dishonest! This, from people who are getting huge salaries on our bear account! Anyway, the bear shelter is coming up,” Mrs. Gandhi acknowledged, “but very slowly, because WSPA has washed its hands of providing further funding and disappeared.”

Mrs. Gandhi charged that the Indian experience reflects a global pattern. “WSPA collected a large amount for the bears in Ecuador,” Mrs. Gandhi said. “Then they sent an Australian expert and another person to Ecuador several times. They traveled all over South America. Ultimately they did not build a rescue center, or give money to any local groups to build one, as they found everyone was too corrupt. The same thing happened in Pakistan. They have sent
photographers over the years to take pathetic pictures to use in collecting money–but no rescue center. They claim to have rescued some bears in Turkey,” Mrs. Gandhi continued, “but I found that it was a government-funded effort. They also claim to have a few bears in a sanctuary in Thailand. This needs to be checked out. Our ambassador there has never heard of it.”

Long delay

The ANIMAL PEOPLE files affirm that WSPA mailings and press releases have repeatedly promised since 1993 that rescue centers would be built in Pakistan and India, as well as Greece, Hungary, Turkey, and Thailand, to house bears confiscated from abusive traveling shows.

The 1993 WSPA materials refer to a directive Mrs. Gandhi issued in 1990, when she was federal minister for environment and forests, ordering that in compliance with the Wildlife Act of 1972, all bears and other large carnivores should be confiscated from traveling shows and placed in sanctuaries. Like much of the Wildlife Act itself, the 1990 directive went ignored until late 1999, as Mrs. Gandhi lost her office in 1991, and was ousted from the then-ruling Congress Party for forcefully denouncing corruption.

Re-elected to the Indian Parliament as an independent, Mrs. Gandhi was not able to compel enforcement until after the Hindu nationalist Bharitiya Janata party toppled 51 years of Congress rule in 1998 and invited her to join the ruling coalition.WSPA mailings and press releases during those years asserted that bears were not being confiscated and sent to sanctuaries because no sanctuaries existed.

There are still no bear sanctuaries funded by WSPA up and running in India. In the interim, however, many other organizations have started sanctuaries in India, and while at least one attempts by a U.S. citizen to start a sanctuary collapsed due to alleged corruption involving Indian trustees, projects begun and directed from within India, by Indians, have been much more successful.

The Compassionate Crusaders Trust, of Calcutta, for instance, had barely formed when WSPA first promised to build a bear sanctuary in India. The Compassionate Crusaders now have two sanctuaries up and running, described by ANIMAL PEOPLE in January/February 2001, and also manage a variety of other animal welfare projects.

“WSPA needs to be asked what they have spent on the bear campaigns in travel, staff hired, and advertising,” Mrs. Gandhi opined, “as well as asking about the number of shelters built, the number of bears rescued, and where they are.” ANIMAL PEOPLE detailed Mrs. Gandhi’s allegations to WSPA president Andrew Dickson on March 5, asking by e-mail, “Can you furnish a financial accounting for the WSPA ‘Libearty’ campaign, detailing expenditures and receipts, so as to document that the funds raised in the name of various projects are in fact being spent to advance those projects?”

Responded Dickson, “Any responsible person in animal welfare knows these allegations are complete rubbish and can easily be proved to be rubbish.” But he provided no data. ANIMAL PEOPLE asked Dickson two more times for the “Libearty” cumulative balance sheet. None was ever forthcoming. However, WSPA operations director Trevor Wheeler responded for Dickson on March 12. “Mrs. Gandhi made the same allegations to the Charity Commission here in London,” Wheeler confirmed, “and as a result, WSPA had a formal visit from the Charities Commission. WSPA was
completely exonerated. The construction of the sanctuary and first year running costs will amount to approximately $120,000. In addition to this, we have costs associated with WSPA personnel travelling to the sanctuary, bear confiscation costs, transportation of the bears within India, and veterinary costs. The statement that these costs only amount to 1.5% of funds raised by WSPA on this issue,” as Mrs. Gandhi’s math suggested, “would indicate that WSPA would have raised over $10 million” for bear projects, “which is quite ridiculous,” Wheeler asserted, “given
that our total income from all sources last year was $12 million.” “If you should wish to see our audited accounts,” Wheeler concluded, “you can apply for a copy to our office in Boston.”

In fact, ANIMAL PEOPLE already had copies of the most recent WSPA accountability documents filed with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and the British Charities Commission. They actually show combined U.S. and British income of $15.7 million, with about two-thirds coming from the U.S. The U.S. filings do not show any separate accounting for the bear projects. The British documents show the availability in 1997 and 1998 of about $283,000 in restricted funds raised for the bear projects. Bear projects spending by the British branch in 1997 totalled $286,400, falling to $174,400 in 1998.

The numbers do not distinguish between “project support and directly attributable fundraising costs,” says a footnote. Neither is there any indication of the volume of non-dedicated funds received in response to bear-oriented appeals.
Said Mrs. Gandhi of Wheeler’s reply, “This is rubbish. For instance, the money spent on the bears is only $24,000. But they have claimed that they have paid for the first year’s running costs as well. The money from WSPA is not enough to even cover the building of the moat, much less the running costs when the whole sanctuary is built.”

Further, Mrs. Gandhi said, “Not one rupee has been spent on confiscating, transporting, and veterinary costs–because in six years not a single animal has been confiscated, transported, or medically treated. “If you look at each country’s achievement,” Mrs. Gandhi reiterated, “you will see what they have done–absolutely nothing, and it is always the country’s fault. You will get the same report from animal groups in Pakistan, Ecuador, Thailand, and Turkey,” Mrs. Gandhi said.

Pakistan intrigue

ANIMAL PEOPLE had already asked WSPA about the bear projects it claims to be sponsoring in other nations. “The sanctuary in Pakistan has been ready for months to receive bears,” Wheeler said. “Due to a lack of co-operation from
local government offices within Pakistan, the [planned] confiscations were unable to go ahead.” However, Wheeler added, “We are confident that the completed sanctuary will soon be home to a number of confiscated bears who have been used in bear-baiting. On March 8,” Wheeler went on, “a WSPA team was dispatched to liase with the government of Pakistan to commence the confiscation program.”

More about that surfaced in the March 26 edition of the London Independent. Wrote news correspondent Meriel Beattie, from Kund, Pakistan, “WSPA fieldworkers said a team of journalists from the [London] Daily Mail arrived in Pakistan two weeks ago, to follow WSPA’s ongoing campaign to save fighting bears [baited by dogs in public spectacles] and suitable cubs, and transfer them to the WSPA sanctuary. However, when it seemed as if no official rescue would take place before their deadline, the Mail journalists inquired about buying a bear from gypsies near Islamabad.

Said John Joseph, WSPA regional manager for Asia, “If people just come into the country and start brandishing a checkbook and buying animals illegally and then try to pass them to us, and we accept those animals, it will blow any credibility we have with the Pakistani authorities. We’ve always been against any sort of purchasing. It sets a precedent that animals have a value. All it will do is increase the amount of illegal trade in these animals in
the long run.”

Added Beattie, “The bear the Mail chose to ‘rescue’ was a dancing bear, which did not fit the charity’s criteria,” for the
sanctuary of only accepting baited bears–although dancing bears are the focus of the WSPA bear campaign elsewhere. When WSPA fieldworkers refused to cooperate,” Beattie charged, “the charity was warned by its head office that the Mail would criticize it in print for refusing to cooperate in a rescue.” Beattie said the Mail, the arch-rival of The Independent, did not return her calls. The alleged bear purchase apparently did not take place–but Pakistani forest officials finally brought WSPA their first bear, a two-year-old reportedly confiscated in Kashmir. She was not a
fighting bear either, Beattie said.

Turkey, Ecuador

Of the WSPA bear project in Turkey, Wheeler explained, “Following a meeting with the Director General from the Ministry of Forestry in Ankara, it was agreed that the Turkish government would adopt full financial and management responsibility of the sanctuary from January 1, 2001. So it would be true to say that since that date, the major support for that project comes from the Turkish government. Previously, the majority of funding was provided by WSPA. In 1993 WSPA funded the construction of a veterinary rescue center for Turkish bears,” Wheeler said. “WSPA then funded construction of the bear sanctuary, opened in 1995. Since 1995,” Wheeler claimed, “WSPA has funded veterinary costs, feeding costs, staff salaries, development and improvement costs, and further construction.

“As with all of the WSPA-supported bear sanctuaries,” Wheeler continued, WSPA agreed to cover the construction of the sanctuary and first-year running costs, after which “the government would accept the ongoing financial and managerial responsibilities. In the case of Turkey, due to budgetary constraints of the government, WSPA financed the sanctuary for a further five years.

“The project in Ecuador commenced in 1994,” Wheeling explained further. “WSPA funded the confiscation of a number of illegally owned spectacled bear cubs and their veterinary treatment. Four years ago, WSPA funded the transfer of three bears into a reserve in Ecuador and last year a further three bears were taken to another reserve in the country. We had intended to build a full-scale sanctuary in Ecuador some years ago, and received a donation from The Body Shop in New Zealand of around $50,000 for this purpose,” Wheeler said. “After months of negotiation, the Ecuadoran government failed to provide a suitable site. With the full endorsement of The Body Shop, this money was used to construct a sanctuary in Hungary to re-home abused ex circus, zoo, and film bears,” opened in 1998.

Southeast Asia

At Banglamung, Thailand, Wheeler said, “WSPA funded the first bear sanctuary in the nation, to house 40-plus confiscated Asiatic black bears, which were held in very poor condition in a government compound. During 1999, WSPA funded the construction of two further sanctuaries,” one at Banlamung, which “is now home to a number of sun bears,” and the other, “for a small number of Asiatic black bears, at a separate location in northern Thailand called Salween.”

Wheeler’s account of the work in Thailand paralleled a description of Free the Bears Fund work in Cambodia that ANIMAL PEOPLE had just received from Free the Bears representative Karon Church. “Despite the fact that keeping or poaching bears is illegal in Cambodia,” Church wrote, “Free the Bears Fund was quick to realize that national wildlife legislation could not be enforced if no facility to house confiscated bears exists.”

Therefore, working with the Cambodian Wildlife Protection Office, Free the Bears Fund overseas project direct David Ware in 1997 built the first of three bear enclosures at the Phnom Tamao Zoological Gardens and Wildlife Rescue Center. “The following year saw the construction of a sun bear nursery to house cubs who had either been orphaned or were abandoned by their mothers,” Church wrote.

“Until 2000,” Church continued, “confiscated Asiatic black bears were housed with the sun bears. However, their growing numbers and tendency to strip the vegetation necessitated building their own enclosure. Designed by Fund volunteer Matt Jeffrey, this enclosure adjoins and is interconnected to the other pair of sun bear enclosures. Like the others, it is equipped with native vegetation, pools, night dens, and play equipment to provide much needed mental stimulation.”

ANIMAL PEOPLE wondered whether there was any relationship between the WSPA project in Thailand and the Free the Bears Fund work in Cambodia. Responded Free the Bears Fund founder Mary Hutton, “We have also established a sanctuary for bears within the grounds of the Lopburi Zoo in Thailand. This sanctuary was designed, built, and
financed entirely with Free the Bears Fund money. It was built during 1997 and opened in 1998. WSPA had absolutely no involvement with this project.”

But David Ware of Free the Bears Fund affirmed that WSPA had funded a “large Asiatic bear enclosure at Banlamung” and a sanctuary “in the north” known to him as Om Goi, “through a local nonprofit organization called the Thai Society for the Conservation of Wild Animals.”

Cows and character

“It is interesting,” fumed WSPA president Andrew Dickson, while refusing to provide the cumulative balance sheet on the bear projects which ANIMAL PEOPLE three times requested, “that Mrs. Gandhi has made no comment about the fact that WSPA has had a team of three staff in the earthquake zone in India for the last four weeks, bringing food and medicines to nearly 20,000 cattle in affected farming communities. Without our help these animals would have starved to death, with disastrous effect on these poor people.”

An internal “Summary of Green Fodder Distribution” shared by Wheeler indicated that WSPA from February 10 through March 18 actually fed 5,935 cattle at eight gaushalas. The 167 truckloads of fodder supplied, the WSPA internal document stated, were enough “to feed approximately 2,250 animals on a daily basis.”Thus WSPA provided just under half of the animals’ recommended diet, at cost of about $36,740 total.

That was considerable–but at least five India-based animal protection organizations known to ANIMAL PEOPLE reportedly sent more, including Mrs. Gandhi’s own organization, People For Animals. Meanwhile, Mrs. Gandhi faxed to ANIMAL PEOPLE a copy of a February 8 letter from Andrew Dickson to Kartick Sayanarayan and Geeta Sheshamani of Wildlife S.O.S.–“the very organisation,” acknowledged Wheeler, “that is managing the WSPA-funded construction
of the bear sanctuary in India.”

Wrote Dickson, “I am appalled by what appears to be an attempt by you to collect money from both the Brooke Animal Hospital and WSPA for the same activities. These are: 1) Your initial trip to the disaster area at a cost of nearly $5,000. You attempted to get this money paid by WSPA despite the fact that Brooke had already agreed to fund you for this to the sum of $5,000. 2) Your proposal for a second visit, including the expenses of two veterinarians and animal food at a total of nearly $10,000. WSPA agreed to pay this without knowing that Brooke had also agreed to fund a similar project plus your air travel and expenses during the same period. It was only due to a telephone conversation among Rick Butson of Brooke, Trevor Wheeler, and myself, that we realized you had approached both societies for basically the same activities.

“Since neither society was told from the outset of the involvement of the other,” Dickson said, “I can only assume that
the additional $15,000 you would have received would not have been utilized for the intended purpose of helping stricken animals in the wake of this national tragedy. “We expect you to honor agreements to complete the bear
sanctuary,” Dickson finished, “but in light of this saga, any future collaboration between us is highly unlikely.”

Despite that letter, WSPA press officer Jonathan Owen just one day later announced to ANIMAL PEOPLE by e-mail that, “WSPA has established a mobile wildlife rescue unit to deal with injured or trapped animals. The mobile unit is run by Wildlife S.O.S.,” whose application for WSPA funding had actually just been denied. Away working in the earthquake zone, Sayanarayan and Sheshamani did not learn that Dickson had axed their funding until February 26.

“We have now worked with WSPA on various projects for five or six years, and WSPA has never found reason to accuse us of dishonesty or a lack of commitment and integrity,” Sayanarayan responded. “For relief work in Gujarat, Trevor Wheeler had already informed us that WSPA would be working through the Animal Help Foundation in Ahmedabad,” as was done; however, Sayanarayan continued, it was unclear whether WSPA might also fund work by
Wildlife S.O.S.

In any event, Sayanarayan explained, “From the very start, Rick Butson of the Brooke Hospital was aware that we would be requesting WSPA to help in the earthquake relief work, and he was happy to coordinate with WSPA. For the record, at the time of our requesting funding from you, neither organization had actually funded us. We had indeed borrowed the money,” in order to get started, in hopes that both the Brooke and WSPA might contribute something.

“In view of the distrust between our organizations and in view of the fact that the supervision and construction of the bear rescue facility, including the liaison work to obtain permits and a site were all done by us on our own time without seeking a consultancy fee from WSPA,” Satyanarayan concluded, “the belated recognition from WSPA of my hard work in the form of a consultancy fee of $2,000 sent to my account” at some recent date “is neither acceptable nor necessary. I shall be donating this amount into the bear facility fund of Wildlife S.O.S., and the contract with WSPA
stands null and void. However, we will complete the construction of the bear rescue facility as per our agreement. Contrary to your strong and malicious accusation of greed, we are dedicated to doing something about the Indian sloth bear problems. We can and will achieve what we have set out to do, with or without WSPA.”

[Wildlife S.O.S. is located at D-210, Defence Colony, New Delhi 110 024, India; telephone 91-11-462-1939; fax 91-11-464-4231; <>.] More about Free the Bears Fund

It was with great interest that I read the article “Tapping the wells of kindness in China and southern Asia” in the January/ February 2001 edition of Animal People. It is encouraging to note that cultural beliefs ingrained over many generations are slowly bending to the concept that animals are no longer simply a food source devoid of feelings, but are sentient creatures worthy of respect.

To this end I wish to share the success of the Western Australian-based charity Free the Bears Fund, founded by Mary Hutton in 1995. We have campaigned extensively for the protection of bears worldwide, but our success within Cambodia is especially noteworthy. Cambodia has endured enormous political strife over the years and yet, despite extreme poverty, has from the beginning been enthusiastic and cooperative toward us.

Both bears native to Cambodia, the sun bear and the Asiatic black bear, are endangered, as victims of habitat destruction, poaching, and illegal trade. They have been the focus of widespread attention since Free the Bears Fund alerted the world to their plight in the restaurants and markets of Phnom Penh.

We have placed many bears in the rescue facilities we have created within the Phnom Tamao Zoological Gardens, and we have relocated six Cambodian sun bears, confiscated from restaurants, to Australian zoos. But we acknowledge that these habitats are only an intermediate solution to the problem of illegal wildlife trade. Native habitat must also be secured.

Free the Bears Fund aims to assist indigenous communities to seek alternative, sustainable relationships with bears, and puts emphasis on improving human as well as animal welfare. We are aware that the people of Cambodia need financially sustainable alternatives to poaching, and that unless this is provided, poaching will not decrease.
Emulating projects already undertaken throughout the game parks of southern and eastern Africa, Thailand and Russia, Free the Bears Fund hopes to develop a Protected Areas Ranger program in Cambodia. We aim to integrate daily initiatives such as anti-poaching patrols, medium-term objectives including education and financial sustainability for indigenous communities, and our long term goal of preserving bio-diversity and facilitating the repopulation of endangered species.
We shall be happy to provide further particulars to ANIMAL PEOPLE readers.

–Karon Church
Free the Bears Fund
5 Laga Court
Stirling, W.A. 6021

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