Ranthambhore’s Ustad Saga
The attack and killing of a forest guard in Ranthambhore, Rajasthan, by a tiger identified as T24, and the cat’s subsequent incarceration has created a national uproar on social media. The Sanctuary Asia editorial team, with help from Chandra Rampuria, auditor, passionate wildlife photographer, and a part of our vibrant conservation network, attempted to condense the over 3,000 Facebook posts on this burning issue, a task to which full justice could not possibly be done.
Photo Courtesy: Shivaram Subramaniam .
On May 8, 2015, in a tragic turn of events, a nine-year-old male tiger, T24 (popularly called Ustad) attacked and killed a veteran forest guard, Rampal Saini, who had gone on foot, in the company of two other guards, to check on reports of a tiger in the undergrowth, right next to the main road near the entrance gate of the park. Each year scores of people in India are killed as a result of wildlife interactions gone awry. But this event turned out to be more significant than most others in recent history.
For one, under orders from the Chief Wildlife Warden of Rajasthan, there was an extraordinarily swift response by the Forest Department. Though initially it was presumed that the cat responsible was T72 (Sultan), about 30 minutes after the incident, T24, already under the scanner for three human deaths, was sighted at the exact spot, apparently searching for the body, which had by then been removed. The whole saga started from here. And it opened up massive, emotional debates that polarised wildlife lovers.
T24 OR T72?
Doubts on the identity of the tiger that did the killing arose because the territory ‘belongs’ to T72. Eyewitness accounts of death by tiger attack are rare. Conclusions are arrived at by deduction, knowledge of territoriality and the behaviour of the carnivore in question. Sanctuary is not aware whether DNA tests were carried out from saliva traces left on the victim’s body, but if they were, then all speculation would be put to rest. In any event, the officers, guards and field biologists involved came to the conclusion that it was indeed T24 and that given his past record, the tiger posed a clear and present danger to human life, particularly forest guards for whom foot patrols are a daily routine. Another worry was that T24’s territory included the route used by thousands of villagers and devotees who visit a Ganesh temple within the Ranthambhore Fort. The Forest Minister of Rajasthan announced that an enquiry would take place, but without making the deliberations of the Committee public, on May 16, the authorities tranquillised and moved T24 to Sajjangarh. Was T24 a threat to human life? Valmik Thapar, Member of the Rajasthan Wildlife Board and a globally renowned tiger expert, said to the Hindustan Times: “In my 40 years of experience of Ranthambhore tigers, T24 is the most dangerous one. He killed four people including two forest guards and two locals. The Forest Department and the government of Rajasthan have done a successful job in relocating a man-killing and eating tiger.” A Tiger Watch (the NGO started by the late Fateh Singh Rathore) report authored by Dr. Dharmendra Khandal added that T24 appears to have stalked his human victims, killed them with deliberate bites to the neck, rather than merely swatting at them and making good its escape, as most alarmed tigers do if they have no intention to kill. Dr. Ullas Karanth, wildlife biologist and Director, Science-Asia, Wildlife Conservation Society, wrote to Sanctuary Asia, saying, “Any tiger that loses its inherent fear of human beings on foot, and displays aberrant behaviour of stalking or attacking human beings should be immediately removed. In my opinion, T24 should have been removed after the very first human attack years ago. Our focus should be saving the tiger as a species and not on saving every individual tiger. Excessive focus on individual tigers while ignoring threats from them to local people and forest staff, will ultimately lead to major loss of public support for our Protected Areas. This has already happened in many places because of both non-removal of aberrant tigers or introduction of tigers that are totally unwarranted based on ecological considerations. We should stop obsessing over T24 or any other individual tiger and develop a vision for India possessing a tiger population of more than 5,000 wild tigers, rather than half that number we have now. This cannot be achieved if local people do not support tiger-occupied Protected Areas.”
Herein lies the wide chasm of disagreement. According to the ‘Je Suis Ustad’ group fighting to free T24 from ‘imprisonment’, the veracity of the earlier incidents was never clearly established. They add that T24 never did venture into human territory, nor did he stalk cattle. In their view, all the earlier instances of human deaths were only a natural outcome of humans approaching the tiger too closely. However, given T24’s past record, it is difficult to deny that in the right (wrong!) circumstances, he may attack another human being again. Officials and experts opine that four human kills in five years makes it impossible to give the tiger any further benefit of doubt. What is more, the tiger allegedly often went beyond a flash attack and once actually dragged a body some 500 m. away and partly devoured it. The dilemma is where the line should be drawn. Thapar and others say it was drawn after the first two attacks. Others suggest that such arguments are esoteric and removal of the tiger instantly was imperative as no foot patrols were possible and nor could anyone expect villagers not to move about in conduct of their daily lives.
Photo: Ranthambhore Forest Department
WAS A ZOO THE ONLY OPTION?
In other cases; Karnataka, Corbett, Maharashtra… once declared dangerous to human life, tigers have been shot, after going through carefully laid down National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) protocols and guidelines. Questions have also been raised on the need to relocate T24 to Sajjangarh, a glorified zoo. The very angry group asked why could he not be shifted to either a buffer zone in the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve or to Sariska, or other similar reserves? A forest official whose service rules do not permit him to speak on the record, told Sanctuary that the Sariska authorities refused to accept T24 because they were aware of his propensity to attack humans and this would risk the tentative peace between man and tiger in a reserve where locals had conspired with poachers to wipe out every last tiger in 2004. Shifting any tiger is an incredibly complex task. Other allied and consequential implications in this case further complicate the matter. T24 is over nine-years-old and his time of dominance and peak health are over. In the area vacated by T24, another male tiger will stake claim and he could threaten the year-old cubs believed to have been sired by T24 with T39 (Noor).
We know considerably more about tiger behaviour than we used to, but not enough to accurately predict behaviour and dynamics. If T24 had been allowed to stay, or if he is reintroduced into the wild on the orders of the court… and another human is killed, the simmering anger against the park promises to trigger an uncontrollable backlash that could escalate into violent conflicts. Such communities have offered safe refuge to poachers who removed more than 20 tigers from Ranthambhore between 2003 and 2005. This is one of the most pressing worries in the minds of those who decided that T24 simply had to be separated from human contact.
A visit to the Sanctuary Asia Facebook Group will reveal the huge support that this one individual tiger has garnered. Multiple questions kept popping up at multiple times, with multiple rebuttals. While we wait for the courts to decide, the worry is that the incarceration may already have damaged T24’s ability to return to his old life in Ranthambhore.
In Sanctuary’s opinion, the entire episode was poorly handled from the communications point of view. We advocated, before T24 was removed, that a public statement from the Office of the Chief Wildlife Warden be issued. We also suggested that T24 be satellite collared and monitored and that all pedestrian traffic to and from the park gate and the fort be curbed, while an empowered committee go into the business of what should be done about T24. At the very least an official press release should have been issued, explaining the steps taken, the rationale, and the state of health of T24 in Sajjangarh. In the absence of credible information, all manner of assumptions were made and reproduced in both the national and international media, through the Internet and also through television channels such as NDTV and BBC. The people who champion T24’s freedom are angry that their queries and genuine concern for the fate of the cat fell on deaf ears. Because they live far from the park, they strongly articulated, did not mean they had no right to be informed about the matter. They also questioned the haste with which the operation was carried out. To be fair, however, if a cat is believed to be dangerous to human life, no wildlife manager can reasonably be expected to postpone taking action. Of course only after taking care that protocol is followed in letter and spirit. Hopefully, this experience will spur government and the NTCA to revisit protocols for ground action when similar occasions arise in the future. The T24 case should also teach the system the importance of a public communications protocol to be applied in emergency situations. Communications with villagers, department staff, and the interested public, without whose help conservation plans would have little hope of being implemented effectively by the political system of any nation, is imperative.
What now? Well there are two options. Three really, if the court orders that dice be played with the lives of people who cross the path of a tiger judged to be dangerous and it is released back into the wild. 1. T24 stays in captivity in a zoo. 2. He is released into a much larger enclosed area with simulated quasi-natural conditions and closely observed. 3. He is released in Ranthambhore, but collared and carefully monitored. It is the Forest Department, headed by the Chief Wildlife Warden of the state, the NTCA and their advisors, who are empowered to take a call on which of the three options should be taken. But what seem to be small local matters are no longer small… or local. The Internet has brought down governments. Dismantled the cosy partnerships between big business and big media. And helped India’s Prime Minister come to power in the largest democracy in the world. There is an air of openness and free access to information that simply will not, indeed cannot, be bottled up any longer. Not anywhere in the world. Here are some outcomes that Sanctuary Asia would like to see emerge from the very traumatic T24 episode, which may benefit not only the tiger, but all of our wildlife and our wilderness areas. 1. Broader level national protocols on how such conflicts should be handled in the future. 2. A planned programme to minimise dangerous carnivore-human interface. As an example a free shuttle bus between the park entrance and the Ranthambhore Fort, a route taken by thousands of people each year. 3. Vastly-improved physical and political support for our forest guards including equipment and training to better handle man-animal problems. 4. A revamp of the very confused and frankly ineffective tourism policy that the NTCA forced on all tiger reserves. (The final draft was altered by the the-then Member Secretary, after it was signed by the Chairman and approved by members of its own Ecotourism Policy Drafting Committee.) Another important perspective in this story relates back to the source of tiger-human conflicts. Encroachment by humans is nibbling away buffers of Protected Areas. The area each tiger needs depends on prey abundance, the availability of water and cover, the degree of isolation and effectiveness of protection. Even if tiger populations rise in the relatively small core areas designated for them, the fact is that the buffer forests surrounding such areas are in steep decline on account of parallel human developmental pressures. A resolution of this inherent conflict, therefore, becomes the most fundamental issue. For any wildlife conservation effort to work, it is important that a fair balance be maintained between wildlife considerations and human considerations. Conservation efforts can only succeed if this equilibrium is established.
We realise that neither those asking for T24 to be shifted out, nor those asking for it to be left alone to live out its natural life in the wild will be satisfied with this honest attempt to share their views. We therefore asked for help from an independent auditor to read through and help put this text together.– Ed.
POSTSCRIPT: June 3, 2015
The Supreme Court on June 1, 2015 refused to entertain the PIL against the tiger T-24 aka Ustad’s shifting to Sajjangarh Biological Park, Udaipur, Rajasthan after the predator killed Rampal Saini, a veteran forest guard in Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve on May 8, 2015.
Forest officials had deemed Ustad as too dangerous to be allowed to be free in the wild as his territory overlapped with a zone that was frequented by too many humans. However, the large outpouring of support for T24 continued to rouse thousands in India and overseas. It was their desire that a wild tiger should not have his wildness snatched away from him.
It was Pune-based builder and tiger aficionado, Chandrabal Singh, who had filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Rajasthan High Court of Rajasthan demanding that the T24 be allowed to stay where he was. But this plea was dismissed. When approached for relief, a vacation bench of the Supreme Court, comprising Justices P C Pant and Amitava Roy said they found no merit in interfering with the earlier order of the Rajasthan High Court.
The matter now stands closed, however, Sanctuary Asia hopes that in the days to come, in a spirit of unity, individuals from both sides of the current divide, find within themselves the strength and wisdom to work jointly to protect tigers and their wild homes from a system that grossly undervalues natural ecosystems.
More on Ranthambhore and tiger conservation in India:
IN GRATITUDE: We have all gone through a very traumatic time on account of the T24 issue. Both the for and against comments, were speaking FOR tigers. Keeping cynicism and anger aside, in the hope that the phenomenal energy generated by Je Suis Ustad supporters AND the very dedicated people who differed with them on the issue of whether T24 could be left in place... Sanctuary would like to offer a small token of our gratitude -- a free digital issue of Sanctuary Asia, June 2015. All you need do is send a mail to
, with a copy to
and write: "Count me in to save India's wildlife." Add your name and email id and within a day a link to the free gift copy will be with you.
Photo: Hemraj Meena
SAVING TIGERS IN THE AGE OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Since the incident occurred in the peak of the tourist season, news of the decision to move the tiger out of Ranthambhore became the subject of scathing online debates against the Forest Department, biologists and tiger experts who had taken the decision. Within hours Sanctuary’s social media pages erupted with comments, statements, and questions from very alarmed and concerned citizens. Though much of the debate has been inflammatory, often targeting Sanctuary Asia for not promptly springing to the defence of what tiger lovers call an innocent cat, a good deal of the criticism about the handling of the case was valid and many constructive ideas emerged on how to prevent such incidents from taking place and amending the protocols for the future.
Meanwhile, there is mounting evidence, in the form of images and first-person accounts from very credible sources, that T24’s temperament has become unstable. He would be perfectly normal for long stretches, then go through unprecedented bouts of aggression when he encountered people walking alone in his territory. Wildlife lovers point to the absolute right of a wild animal to freedom, but wildlife managers express their inability to take anything other than a precautionary, practical approach to a very emotive issue. Sanctuary takes the position that the ultimate decision on T24’s future must be left to the Forest Department as they are the ones that have not just the experience, but also the task of protecting tigers ringed by angry and scared human communities worried about risks to their kith and kin. As things turned out, the management took a decision that they say was in the long-term interests of the park, for the conservation of the species as against the welfare of one particular, spectacular tiger. The other issue was that there was staff unrest, with many justifiably expressing their hesitation to return to foot patrol duty while T24 was a continuing threat. They submitted a memorandum to this effect to the Rajasthan Forest Minister. Villagers from Sherpur village also sent a letter to the Forest Department thanking them for agreeing to their demands and taking action immediately.
Interestingly, while the media posited this as an animal rights activists-against-wildlife biologists-and-managers issue, Sanctuary has a very different take on the ‘Return Ustad to Ranthambhore’ social media and on-ground campaigns. Apart from Kids for Tigers (Sanctuary’s Youth Tiger Programme), no significant groups had ever taken to the streets in defense of the tiger. In the case of T24, thousands of cyber warriors made their anger and angst very public. Within days, the national and international media picked up their story. Yes, bitter exchanges took place, but overall we see this episode as one of the most positive recent developments for tiger conservation. We believe that the sheer energy and motivation of people can and should be harnessed for the huge battles that lie ahead. This involves forcing the Indian government to desist from destroying tiger habitats by pushing mines, roads, dams and other commercial infrastructures not just in Ranthambhore, but across India’s remaining wildernesses. Hopefully when the dust settles, all sides of the divide will mend fences, keeping in mind that their differences lay over the perception of whether or not T24 was dangerous and whether or not he should have been allowed to stay where he was. Neither side can hope to ignore, or undermine the importance of the other. Sentiments aside, however, experts and hands-on managers have inspected graphic evidence, some of it having made its way to social media pages, demonstrating that T24 had indeed killed and eaten some of his victims. Expert opinions state unambiguously that this tiger, love him or hate him, has the propensity to kill again.
By procedure the final call on such matters lies with the state Chief Wildlife Warden, who must work with the National Tiger Conservation Authority and local experts with first-hand experience on the ground in Ranthambhore. If such advice were to be ignored and the tiger ended up killing another human then who would ultimately have to wear the crown of accountability? Sanctuary Asia has always advocated that the precautionary principle prevail and that while nature conservation takes root in the heart, it must eventually be guided by the head.
A TIGER CALLED USTAD
One of three cubs born to the tigress known as the Lahpur-Nagdi female and presumably a male tiger known as Jhumaroo, Ustad is a direct descendent of Machali – perhaps the world’s most famous big cat. The three siblings, T23, T24 (Ustad) and T25 (Dollar) grew up in the Lahpur-Nagdi area before dispersing to establish their own territories. Ustad went on to dominate the Chidi Kho valley of the Sawai Mansingh Sanctuary that lies immediately south of the national park. In 2010, when the tiger T12 was translocated to Sariska, T24 took over his territory and became the dominant male of the Sultanpur-Phoota Kot area. In his lifetime this male had already been tranquillised thrice by the Forest Department. First, to be radio-collared, then to have a thorn removed, and again, to treat a life-threatening stomach ailment. May 16, 2015, eight days after killing Rampal Saini, was his fourth tranquillisation experience. This could cause trauma and subsequent unpredictability and make any further interaction with humans extremely risky.