At the centre of a heated debate now is T-24, popularly known as Ustad, with the Supreme Court ruling that the tiger must be in captivity for being a ‘man-eater’. Ustad has been accused of killing two other people, though RTIs obtained show that he was not mentioned as the killer. After the death of a forest guard, Rampal Saini, in 2015 in the Ranthambore tiger reserve, the ambush, capture and removal of Ustad was amazingly swift. It was then that the debate on whether Ustad is a man-eater or not reached a crescendo.
No evidence There is no reason to lock up Ustad in an enclosure in the Sajjangarh Biological Park because there is no verifiable proof that he is a man-eater. Also, supporters of the court’s decision fail to pay attention to the National Tiger Conservation Authority’s report which states that the Rajasthan Forest Department violated all standard operating procedures in this case.
Following a huge ‘Save Ustad’ campaign, environmental activist Ajay Dubey filed a petition in the Supreme Court in January 2016. The bench of justices, including Chief Justice T.S. Thakur, insisted that T-24 must not be released, as ‘experts’ had officially declared him to be a man-eater.
Let’s go back to the day Rampal Saini was killed in Zone 1, a deep forest area bordered by human settlements. Ustad’s is the largest territory (more than 40 sq km) for any male tiger in Ranthambore. The main road of the reserve falls within this area and is used by thousands of pilgrims walking to the Ganesh temple in Ranthambore fort.
On May 8, 2015, at about 5 p.m., Saini’s wife, while collecting firewood and grass inside the reserve, albeit illegally, noticed a tiger nearby. She dropped her load and ran to inform her husband, a sentry. Saini, ignoring his fellow forest guards’ warnings and in complete violation of the NTCA’s rules, picked up a stick and ventured more than 500 metres into the deep forest. He was killed around 5.30 p.m.
The question is, was he killed by Ustad? Initially, it was surmised that Ustad’s son Sultan (T-72) was the killer, but this statement was later retracted. However, the indisputable fact is that there was not a single eyewitness. Two hours after Saini’s death, Ustad was spotted sniffing the bloody spot where Saini’s body lay, as tigers are known to do. This single perfectly natural and instinctive act proved to be his downfall. Photos were taken and Ustad was declared a man-eater.
From then on, knee-jerk responses have tried desperately to implicate the animal. Neither the investigations nor the team met the NTCA guidelines. The forensics department did not analyse the loose soil around Saini’s body for pugmarks or conduct a DNA test. The post-mortem report on Saini referred to death due to shock caused by the bite of an animal with a ‘long canine tooth’. But this could mean any animal — a tiger, leopard, bear, or a hyena.
The Field Director forwarded the post-mortem report to the Chief Wildlife Warden, R.K. Tyagi. On May 14, 2015, Rajasthan’s Minister for Forests declared that no action regarding relocation would be taken until all reports were filed. Despite this, Mr. Tyagi issued an order the next day to relocate Ustad.
The NTCA report filed on June 2 clearly says that the Rajasthan Forest Department’s response did not follow standard guidelines, which means cordoning off the area in order to monitor the suspected animal, and that Ustad, instead of being sent to a zoo, should have been released into the wild. The report also says that the attack on Saini, as well as the two previous attacks, had taken place deep in tiger territory and that humans are at fault for trespassing.
The files floated about here and there, but nothing happened except that Mr. Tyagi admitted to the Director General of Wildlife that he was “under pressure” to move the tiger and that he was unaware of NTCA’s protocols. Sensing that disciplinary action would be taken against him, he opted for voluntary retirement.
Tourism versus conservation So, while Ustad languishes in his concrete prison, who is responsible for this mess? The Ranthambore reserve has been encroached upon by more than 40 commercial interests, most of them hotels and resorts in violation of the 500-metre buffer zone. Some hotels allegedly indulge in ‘baiting tigers’, offering guests a ‘premium’ experience of seeing a tiger up close. Machli, a tigress, has often leapt over walls to be fed in front of gawking tourists. Ustad, who is known to be aggressive and whose territory falls under most of the encroached hotel properties, started appearing at the baiting points too, spelling trouble for the hotels. Some of these hotels also enable guests on park safaris to get off the vehicles and approach tigers in deep forest, on foot, for a closer view. This would have been impossible around Ustad. After Saini’s death, proper investigations would have resulted in the area being cordoned off for a few weeks; in other words, this would have resulted in a loss of several crores of rupees during the peak tourist season of May/June.
Why was Ustad taken to Sajjangarh, nearly 500 km away from Ranthambore? As per NTCA protocol, a ‘man-eater’ should be sent to the nearest zoo, which should have been the Nahargarh Biological Park near Jaipur in this case. But Monu, the last tiger in Sajjangarh, died of negligence. Enter Ustad to fill the spot. For luxury resorts coming up in the periphery, Ustad, with his man-eating lore, would be a huge draw and could be milked for money.
Coming back to the important question whether Ustad was a man-eater or not, R.N. Mehrotra, former principal chief conservator of forests, and wildlife warden of Rajasthan, says: “A tiger is declared a man-eater if he selectively kills only humans. It is much harder to chase a prey, and if any tiger is still doing that, he is not a man-eater.” Ustad never attacked a pilgrim, picked up cattle, or charged at a vehicle. How then could he be declared a man-eater?
Noisy tourists who hound tigers do not aid conservation; they violate the need for a safe distance between man and animal. Venturing into deep tiger habitat is akin to putting your hand into a snake pit and expecting the snake not to bite. As Mr. Mehrotra adds: “Tiger reserves are areas essentially for the conservation of tigers; tourism is only a by-product. But in this case, the hotel lobby in Ranthambore called the shots, preventing proper investigations. In India, if conservation is not a money-spinner, there is no conservation. Tourism has failed the tiger.”
Clearly, Ustad’s removal lay in political and not scientific hands. At the very least, for a modicum of justice, he should be taken out of the Sajjangarh Biological Park enclosure and moved into a forest enclosure where he can enjoy some freedom and breed.
Rukmini Sekhar is a writer and activist committed to justice for animals.