A widowed Indian peasant’s heart-warming decision to raise an orphaned bear cub as part of his family has ended with him being jailed for breaking wildlife laws.
Ram Singh Munda hoped the sloth bear cub would help his six-year-old daughter get over the recent loss of her mother.
But now the girl has been put in care and the bear taken off to a zoo where it is refusing to eat, pining for its owners.
Mr Munda was discovered after his local paper carried his story and wildlife officials saw it.
Now animal rights activists, impressed by his compassion, are trying to win his freedom and reunite the family.
“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.
Mr Munda, a labourer from the indigenous tribes that live in the forests some 125 miles north of the state capital Bhubaneswar, said he found the 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 Mr Munda’s wife the previous year.
Television footage taken at the time shows the bear frolicking with his daughter, Dulki, the two of them clumsily trying to climb up on the back of Mr Munda’s bicycle.
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?” Mr Munda said 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.
Mr Munda said that when wildlife officials first approached him he tried to return the bear to the forest but it found its way home.
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 said, 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 Mr Mandu
“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 Mr 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 said.