Debate: The Case for Ustad's Relocation Out of Ranthambore

No normal tiger approaches a fallen man, drags and guards a corpse defiantly and eats it, and kills victims with a bite to the neck.

No normal tiger approaches a fallen man, drags and guards a corpse defiantly and eats it, and kills victims with a bite to the neck, writes Janaki Lenin. A reply by Rukmini Sekhar, who wrote the article arguing for Ustad’s reinstatement at Ranthambore, follows.

Ustad the tiger draws more tears, articles, and petitions than any other tiger, living or dead. More than a month after the Supreme Court refused to free the famous cat, also known as T24, the clamour for his liberation refuses to die down.

An article published in The Wire May 18, 2016, alleges, “hoteliers, NGOs, forest officers, tourism officials, mafia groups and politicians” conspired to throw the poor tiger from Ranthambore into life in captivity. It claims Ustad’s only crime was to sniff the spot where forest guard Rampal Saini had been killed moments earlier. And it asserts, “However, there was not a single eyewitness.”

Rarely does anyone witness a wild animal attack a human – especially not by a stealthy predator like a cat. Nor can evidence of the kind used to try humans in a court of law be produced to indict animals. Proof is by necessity circumstantial, and forest officials are forced to act based on faint clues in the dirt. You’d have to face a mob of irate and distraught villagers to know that no one can reason, ‘There were no eyewitnesses. We can’t do anything.’

A car-full of people witnessed the attack on Saini. They arrived on the scene first, and its occupants, including the brother of a local sarpanch, tried hard to free him from the tiger’s jaws. The driver honked and revved his engine to scare the animal away. Three forest guards and an employee of a local NGO Tiger Watch arrived next, but by then the tiger had left. They rushed the grievously injured guard to hospital that declared him dead on arrival. No one paused to get a photograph of the tiger.

Within half an hour, forest officials and others congregated at the site and the search for the culprit began. An hour after the incident, the assistant conservator of forests Daulat Singh, Dharmendra Khandal, who heads Tiger Watch, and accompanying guards saw Ustad sniffing the spot where Saini had been killed. As they followed the animal by jeep, Khandal fell off the vehicle when the driver braked hard. The tiger turned around and headed for the fallen man. A fit Khandal scrambled into the vehicle before the cat got close.

The forest guard wasn’t the only victim. At least three other humans were killed, and Ustad is the suspected culprit in all those cases.

T24 wore a radio-collar that put him at the site of the first human killing in 2010. Researchers removed the radio-collar subsequently. On the night of Holi 2012, people found the remains of the second victim.  A lot of it had already been eaten. More than a hundred people helped foresters scare off the tiger before recovering parts of the corpse that night. The next day, foresters followed pugmarks from the site to a tiger resting under a bush. It was Ustad.

In October 2012, a forest-department driver found T24 sitting on the corpse of a third victim, a guard like Saini, within moments of the attack. The tiger was licking blood oozing from the dead man’s wounds. Like the previous two human kills, the body had been dragged some distance. This is not a sign of an accidental mauling. Foresters burst fire crackers to get the animal to budge. But the cat was so bold that neither the onlookers nor the noise fazed him. And then there was Saini, the fourth person to be killed.

As Khandal points out, a startled tiger lashes out with its paws. When a tiger tiptoes behind a human and snaps her neck, like it would a deer, it’s hunting. All four victims bore deep canine puncture wounds on the neck; they were the tiger’s prey.

This track record, more than any conspiracy, is the reason no conservationist or tiger biologist of repute agrees with the ‘Free Ustad’ brigade. They are of the unanimous view that Ustad had to be removed.

No normal tiger approaches a fallen man, drags and guards a corpse defiantly and eats it, and kills victims with a bite to the neck. These are enough grounds for action against the one tiger that was present at four locations where humans had been killed.

According to the standard operating procedure (PDF) of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), “[C]onfirmed habituated tiger/leopard which ‘stalk’ human beings and feed on the dead body are likely to be ‘man-eaters.’”

Noted conservationist Valmik Thapar says he asked the state Forest Department to remove Ustad after the second death in 2012. Tiger biologist Ullas Karanth says the tiger ought to have been removed after the first death in 2010. However, the department mistakenly gave the tiger more than one chance and two of its poor employees paid the price.

Even if all the evidence is thrown out, Ustad had to be removed simply because he was too familiar with people. No doubt baiting and repeated captures made him a bold animal. These blunders can’t be compounded by the graver and unconscionable one of allowing the tiger to run loose.

This situation echoes another that played out in Karnataka a couple of years ago. A tiger in Coorg lost its fear of humans, chasing cars and following motorcyclists. Against expert advice, the state Forest Department relocated it to Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary. It was shot dead only after it killed a young pregnant woman.

The Rajasthan Forest Department ought to have followed the NTCA’s guidelines in capturing Ustad, but it didn’t. A court can free a human prisoner if procedural lapses mar her trial. Such nuances have no place in dealing with a suspected man-eater. More importantly, the department followed the law. The Wildlife Protection Act is clear – any animal that is a threat to human life can be captured with the permission of the Chief Wildlife Warden. This is the reason that neither the Rajasthan High Court nor the Supreme Court thought it fit to release Ustad.

In Himachal Pradesh, many leopards are declared man-eaters on even flimsier grounds and shot dead by sharpshooters. Often, innocent animals are killed. This is not to justify Ustad’s incarceration but to highlight that India doesn’t have the forensic wherewithal to deal with animal attacks to the degree the Western world does. When tigers target humans, the department has to act fast before the situation becomes worse. Not only does it become a law and order problem, there is every possibility of losing another human life.

We don’t know enough about the behaviour of man-eaters for obvious reasons. Do they always progress from cattle-lifting to man-eating? Why were the kills spread over a five-year period? No one knows. But forest officials cannot wait for answers and fail to act. If Ustad is released, forest guards’ lives are in danger as they patrol the jungle on foot. They are paid and equipped poorly. In their efforts to drive Ustad away from corpses, they had no more than lathis to defend themselves. Under the circumstances, no forest official can take responsibility for releasing him. If the community feels unsafe, it will deal with the problem using crude cruel means.

Campaigning to free a suspected man-eater displays a breathtaking disdain for people’s lives. Conservationists spend considerable effort to reduce the price local people pay for conservation, such as protecting livestock from predators. Releasing Ustad would be a declaration of war. It doesn’t aid conservation if it jeopardises human lives, the future of the park and other resident tigers.

There’s no dearth of worrisome developments for anyone concerned about the tiger’s future in India. For instance, 30 tigers in Panna will lose their homes if the Ken-Betwa river linking project goes through. The widening of NH7 will snap corridors between the forests of central India, and tiger will be stuck in their tiny forested islands, their future genetic viability under threat. Rather than Ustad, these tigers consume the energy and efforts of any right-thinking conservationist.

Janaki Lenin is the author of My Husband and Other Animals. She lives in a forest with snake-man Rom Whitaker and tweets at @janakilenin.

Rukmini Sekhar, the author of the original piece, replies:

This is a defensive rebuttal. The writer writes with 100% certainty that Ustad was a man eater given all the circumstantial evidence – and then, by the end of the article, says he was a “suspected man eater” and that was why he was removed. The main purpose of my rebuttal is to place points that say Ustad was not a maneater and was the victim of a botched-up and manipulated operation by local NGOs and so called experts, for reasons mentioned in my article.

1. The Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun (WII), is the premier institution for teaching the science of wildlife. The standard operating procedures (SOP) of the National Tiger Conservation Authority clearly state that at least one trained field biologist from WII should be involved and consulted in the identification of an animal as a maneater. This was a compliance deficiency in the case of Ustad, whose arrest was based on this accident, which is only circumstantial. Conservators feel that the WII may have given another opinion – but they were not consulted while Ustad was despatched too hastily for comfort. More reliance was placed on a bunch of enthusiastic photographers and self-declared tiger experts.

2. Why did a jeep-full of people rush to the spot? What was their interest in it?

3. If indeed Ustad did attack Mr. Khandal, how come he (Ustad) sobered up between May 9th and May 16th? He was seen ambling peacefully and without a care in his territory. A tiger cannot be aggressive one day, stalking and killing, and then be completely sober and peaceful after that.

4. “Why were the kills spread over a five-year period? No one knows.” – We know. Look at the span of killings: between 2010 and 2015 there were four. RTIs filed do not implicate Ustad. Had Ustad been a maneater, he could have easily feasted on humans in a highly human-dominated landscape starting from 2010. These humans were sitting ducks. Instead, there were four killings in five years and that too with no shred of evidence to prove that he killed them.

5. Mr. A.C. Chaubey, the chief wildlife warden of Rajasthan in 2012, had this to say and I quote: “a) It is absurd to blame T24 for killings prior to 2012. No report of any field director of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve ever attributed the killing in 2010 and before to T24. b) In 2010, T24 had a radio collar which was later removed. Why? If there was any suspicion about his behaviour, the collar would have been replaced, not removed. Ustad was completely normal in his behaviour.”

Incidentally, the collar was removed by R.K. Tyagi, the chief wildlife warden in 2015, who later signed off on Ustad’s ouster (my statement).

c) Mr. Chaubey’s continues: “If Ustad is also attributed with attacking Ghisu Singh in 2012, why didn’t he eat parts of his body? Because that is the very reason a man eater attacks humans – to eat. Even in 2014, no body part was eaten. A maneater does not wait for years in between killings, especially when pilgrims were easily available in his territory.”

d) Reports after 2012 show that T24’s behaviour was normal and he did not attack pedestrians or chase anyone. So Mr. Khandal falling off the vehicle and being fast enough to be able to save himself from the writer’s … threat carries no weight.”

e) What was Saini doing at that time in the bushes?”

f) Panthers have increased in numbers and are causing more man-animal conflicts. Also it’s very probable that Saini was attacked by one. Remember, there were no witnesses to the actual killing.”

g) Ustad’s so-called loss of fear of humans (which deems him a maneater) flies in the face of his aggressive behaviour in Sajjangarh Zoo, where he still charges at humans.” (End of Mr. Chaubey’s statement.)

6. Being an aggressive tiger is not a crime. Ustad is not a domestic cat.

7. The writer’s statement – “The Rajasthan Forest Department ought to have followed the NTCA’s guidelines in capturing Ustad, but it didn’t. A court can free a human prisoner if procedural lapses mar her trial. But nuances have no place in dealing with a suspected maneater.” I wish to say that God is in the nuances. It is the nuances that decide whether a poor animal is imprisoned for life because of vested interests or gets to roam the jungle like the proud and majestic animal that he is. Ustad is an unhappy tiger, removed from his home because a few people have decided that it be so.

8. Ustad’s removal is not just the removal of one tiger but the utter failure of conservation that rests in the hands of commerce. That is why Ustad is worth fighting for.

Rukmini Sekhar is a writer and activist committed to justice for animals.