NEW DELHI — It was supposed to be a heartwarming tale of a man who brought an orphaned bear cub home from the forests of eastern India to become part of the family, consoling his small daughter who had just lost her mother.
But when wildlife officials saw the story in the local media last week, it turned to tragedy.
Ram Singh Munda, 35, was arrested and jailed for violating wildlife laws, the bear was sent to a zoo where it has refused to eat, and the abandoned six-year-old daughter has been shipped off to a state-run boarding school.
Now animal rights activists, impressed by Munda's compassion, are trying to win his freedom and reunite the family.
'Poor and illiterate'
"We strongly condemn the manner in which the forest department officials arrested the poor and illiterate man who was not aware of the government's rules and regulations," Jiban Ballav Das, the head of People for Animals in India's Orissa state, said Tuesday.
Munda, a laborer from the indigenous tribes that live in the forests some 125 miles north of the state capital Bhubaneswar, said he found the sloth bear cub last year while gathering firewood.
He brought the bear home, named her Rani, or Queen, and she became a member of the family, which was still struggling to overcome the death of Munda's wife the previous year.
Television footage taken at a happier time shows the bear frolicking with his daughter, Dulki, the two of them clumsily trying to climb up on the back of Munda's bicycle.
Three years in jail?
Wildlife officials saw the news stories and arrested Munda last week for breaking the county's wildlife act that prohibits keeping wild animals. If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison.
"They have sent me to the jail. How will my daughter survive?" Munda told the CNN-IBN news channel while being taken to prison.
"I cannot understand why I was punished for taking good care of a bear that was deserted in the forest and would have died had I not brought her home," he said.
Munda said that when wildlife officials first approached him he tried to return the bear to the forest but it found its way home.
Local government official Biranchi Nayak said the daughter would be sent to a boarding school until her father was released.
'Protection of wildlife'
Ajit Kumar Patnaik, a senior wildlife officer and director of the Nandan Kanan Zoo, where Rani was taken, defended the decision.
"Munda was arrested according to the provision of the law meant for protection of wildlife," he told the Press Trust of India, adding that sloth bears are a protected species.
But animal rights activists said that while they condemn taking wild animals out the forest and support the decision to try to rehabilitate the bear, the government was being too harsh on Munda.
"He never tortured the animal. Neither was he was using the bear for any commercial purposes. Therefore, we feel he should not have been arrested," said Das.
The bear, too, was being unfairly treated and might die if the sudden separation from her adopted family was not managed properly, animal activists said.
The bear was being kept in an isolated cage at the zoo and was refusing to eat, apparently pining for Munda and his daughter, said Biswajit Mohanty, the secretary of the Wildlife Society of Orissa.
"Bears are known for the strong bonding they develop with human beings and therefore they are highly attached to their keepers," he told PTI.
Das said the animal organizations were mobilizing to help Munda, organizing legal aid and trying to make better arrangements for his daughter.
"We have decided to give him a job in our animal rehabilitation center in Bhubaneswar as a caretaker," he said.
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