In dismissing a special leave petition that questioned the incarceration of a man-eating tiger in a zoo, the Supreme Court has brought the curtain down on a nearly year-long saga. The tiger in question, popularly known as Ustad by his admirers, was a star attraction at the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. In May last year, the nine-year-old tiger, known in official records as T24, ambushed and killed forest guard Rampal Saini who was on a foot patrol with his colleagues. During the previous five years, Ustad is believed to have killed three other people, two of whom were partially eaten. Saini’s killing was the last straw for the locals. They demanded that the tiger be removed forthwith, failing which they would unleash retribution against the reserve. Moving swiftly, forest officials tranquilised Ustad and moved him to a large enclosure in the Sajjangarh Biological Park in Udaipur.
The matter ought to have ended there, with the Forest Department commended for its decisive action. Instead, the move ignited a storm of protest from Ustad’s legion of fans — visitors who had watched him in action and lovingly captured his magnificence on their cameras — as well as thousands of others who had never seen him but felt strongly that it was cruel to punish a tiger for being a tiger. The majority opinion was that since Ranthambore was his territory, he could not be faulted for attacking humans who invaded his space. Thousands of angry protesters on social media drowned out the voices of experienced conservationists who believed that the right thing had been done. Candlelight marches, demonstrations, and petitions in court followed — not to demand prompt and adequate compensation for Saini’s bereaved family, but for the return of Ustad to his usual haunt.
Now that the Supreme Court has settled the matter, it might be opportune to dispassionately examine the issue of man-eating tigers, and how to deal with them.Fear factor
I have filmed wildlife in India’s jungles for 30 years, often sitting alone and unarmed in flimsy ‘hides’, which a tiger could easily swat aside. Every day, forest guards on anti-poaching foot patrols and wildlife researchers studying ecology go about their work in our forests freely, because most wild tigers have an inherent, deep-seated fear of humans on foot. With their keen senses, the canny predators silently slip away into the forest when they become aware of our presence. It is only on rare occasions that one of them might be provoked to attack in self-defence — for example, when someone stumbles upon a sleeping tiger or gets too close to a mother with young cubs.
There are, however, exceptions to this rule. When a tiger becomes too old to hunt its fleet-footed natural prey, or is disabled as a result of an injury, it might, in sheer desperation brought on by hunger, turn to killing humans. Once it learns how easy this is, it proceeds to deliberately target us to assuage its hunger. After a few such kills, it loses its innate fear of man, rendering it extremely dangerous to anyone living in the area.
Admittedly, Ustad did not fit the profile of a typical man-eater. He was neither past his prime nor incapacitated in any way. His human kills were made far apart, and he was perfectly capable of bringing down wild prey. Social media pundits heatedly debated whether he could even be termed a man-eater. Hair-splitting apart, the incontrovertible facts are that he seemed to have lost all fear of humans and deliberately killed Saini, when he could have simply moved away like any normal wild tiger. Given how dangerous he had become, the forest authorities had no option but to move him to captivity.
In contrast, releasing this known human killer back into the wild would not only have been unconscionable, it would have also put Ranthambhore and all its tigers in danger. In our crowded country, no wildlife reserve can survive without the tolerance of the people who live around it. Had misplaced sentiment resulted in Ustad being allowed to roam free, local people would have undoubtedly taken the law into their own hands, as we have seen time and again in similar situations elsewhere. Ranthambore would have witnessed a spate of poisonings, resulting in the killing of not just Ustad but also many other tigers that have never harmed a human. The antipathy this would have created between park authorities and local people would have spiralled into a destructive cycle of attrition that would have endangered Ranthambore for years to come.
Despite such concerns, many State Forest Departments all over India continue the deadly game of trapping man-eaters in one area and dumping them in another, simply transferring the problem. In some cases, the releases are done along inter-State boundaries, in the hope that the problematic animal will slip over the border and become the neighbouring State’s headache. Given this state of affairs, the Rajasthan Forest Department must be congratulated for taking an unpopular but sensible stance in the face of tremendous pressure from well-meaning enthusiasts ignorant of ground realities.Caring for the species
Many people, including those who should know better, such as some forest officials and wildlife enthusiasts, believe that by releasing man-eaters back into the wild, they are serving the cause of conservation. Nothing can be farther from the truth. The goal of conservation is not the preservation of every individual of a species, but the safeguarding of the species as a whole. Protecting wild tigers and their prey from poaching — and preventing the destruction of their habitat — will ensure healthy tiger numbers in our forests, especially since they are such prolific breeders. Removing a few confirmed man-eaters will not negatively impact the overall population of tigers in any way.
It is time we recognised that releasing such dangerous animals is morally and ethically wrong, and almost always leads to tragedy. The best place for a man-eater is a zoo. The sooner we accept this, the better it will be for big cats and people.
Shekar Dattatri is a wildlife filmmaker and a former member of the National Board for Wildlife