Ustad the Tiger Belongs in the Forest, Not in a Jail

Did vested interests centred around wildlife tourism in Ranthambore conspire to send away a tiger whose presence was bad for business?

Ustad in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. Credit: Himangini Rathore Hooja/Wikimedia Commons, CC0

Ustad in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. Credit: Himangini Rathore Hooja/Wikimedia Commons, CC0

It’s been a year since the magnificent Bengal tiger Ustad – Urdu for ‘master’ – was punished and ‘incarcerated’ in Sajjangarh Zoo. Though forest officials claim he is in fine fettle, the mystery of the tiger’s complete isolation is baffling. Notwithstanding department staff, veterinary and some officials keeping watch through CCTV cameras, no one has set eyes on him since his relocation to a ‘non-display’ area even as voices for his release to a forest enclosure – as opposed to imprisonment in a zoo enclosure – have been rising in pitch.

A year later, his story needs recounting. Even if the Supreme Court has condemned this nine-year-old cat in the prime of his life to an ignominious life of captivity, Ustad’s record needs to be set right to save his reputation and hopefully his life.

If Ustad, also known as T24, who once roamed in his 40 sq. km. territory in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, Rajasthan, could speak, he may have asked why he was taken away from the forest, separated from his beloved Noor and two cubs, and locked up in a rat-infested enclosure (whose previous occupant, a tiger named Monu, had died of leptospirosis) in complete solitude, and projected as a dangerous man-eater.

Failed to follow procedures

The apex court’s dismissal of a special leave petition (SLP) consequently upheld the continued incarceration of Ustad despite no verifiable proof that he killed a forest guard, Rampal Saini, on May 8, 2015, or was responsible for two other killings he is accused of (PDF). This, despite a National Tiger Conservation Agency (NTCA) report which explicitly states (PDF) that the Rajasthan Forest Department violated all standard operating procedures (PDF) for a methodical investigation into the removal of any tiger from the reserve, and that Ustad  should be re-wildened.

Following a ‘Save Ustad Campaign’, which started on May 9, 2015, noted environmental activist Ajay Dubey filed an SLP in the Supreme Court in January 2016. A bench headed by Chief Justice T.S. Thakur insisted that experts had officially declared T24 to be a man-eater and that he could not therefore be be released. He had been condemned without a fair trial.

On that fateful summer day, Ustad had no idea that a gang of hoteliers, NGOs, forest officers, tourism officials, mafia groups and politicians, from a fiefdom called the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve, would swoop in on an opportunity that literally fell into their laps: the death of Rampal Saini. The quick ambush and capture of Ustad while he was eating his kill with Noor and their two cubs, and his subsequent transfer to a zoo, with the haste and efficiency so atypical of Indian red-tape only makes us gawk in amazement at the power of all those who ganged up against him.

Ustad’s habitat is Zone 1, a deep forest bordered by human settlements, the largest territory of 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.

This is the setting of the incident that cost the tiger his freedom. On May 8, 2015, Saini was mauled and killed by an animal around 5.30 pm. At around 5 pm, Saini’s wife had noticed a tiger in her vicinity while illegally collecting firewood and grass inside the reserve. She dropped her load and ran to inform her husband, a sentry, and told him about the tiger in the bushes. Rampal picked up a stick and ventured more than 500 metres into the forest, ignoring his fellow forest guards’ warnings and in complete violation of the NTCA’s rules. He was attacked and killed by an animal at about 5.30 pm.

Was it Ustad? Initial speculation mentioned that it could have been Sultan (designated T72), Ustad’s son who shares the same territory. This statement was later retracted. However, there was not a single eyewitness. Two hours later, Ustad (who was regularly in the habit of patrolling his territory at dusk) was spotted sniffing at the bloody spot on which Rampal’s body lay, as tigers are known to do. Little did he know that this perfectly natural and instinctive act would be his downfall. Photos were taken and Ustad was declared a maneater.

Humans to blame

From then on, knee-jerk responses, tumbling into a series of contrived events, tried desperately to implicate Ustad. Neither the investigations nor the team that conducted them met the NTCA guidelines (PDF). Moreover, RTIs filed did not yield any report of a forensic analysis of the loose soil around Rampal’s body for pug marks nor a DNA test. With inexplicable haste, Ustad was sent to Sajjangarh Zoo. Post-mortem results on Saini referred to shock caused by the bite of an animal with a ‘long canine tooth’ – implicating one of a tiger, leopard, bear or hyena (all of whom are found in the reserve forest).

A notice board points to the presence of panthers in Ranthambore Reserve Forest. Source: Rukmini Sekhar

A notice board points to the presence of panthers in Ranthambore Reserve Forest. Source: Rukmini Sekhar

The field director forwarded an official letter implicating Ustad to the chief wildlife warden, R.K.Tyagi. On May 14, 2015, Rajasthan’s minister for forests, Rajkumar Rinwa, declared that no action regarding Ustad’s relocation would be taken till all reports were filed. On May 15, Tyagi, in contravention, issued an order to capture and relocate Ustad.

On June 2, the NTCA report clearly says that the Rajasthan forest department acted rashly, did not follow standard guidelines (including cordoning off the area in order to monitor the suspected animal), and that instead of sending him to a zoo, Ustad should have been brought back into the wild. It also says that the attacks on Saini and two others had occurred deep in tiger-territory and that the human victims were at fault for trespassing.

After much to-and-fro-ing of files (orders, reports, counter-orders, etc.), nothing happened except that Tyagi admitted to the director-general, wildlife, that he was ‘under pressure’ to move the tiger and that he had been unaware of the NTCA protocols. At the same time, the NTCA was also under pressure from environmentalists and activists to sack Tyagi. Sensing that disciplinary action would be taken against him, he put in his papers for voluntary retirement.

Commercial interests in play

As Ustad languishes in his concrete prison, who is to blame? The reserve is now encroached by more than forty commercial entities, at least 38 of them hotels and resorts in violation of the requirement to maintain a 500-metre buffer zone – prompting suspicions of political patronage. According to some witnesses, some of the hotels allegedly indulge in ‘baiting’ the tigers, luring them closer, and so offering guests a ‘premium’ experience of seeing the animal up close. The tigress Machli often leapt over the walls to be fed in front of gawking tourists.

Ustad, a fierce and aggressive tiger, whose territory includes most of the encroached hotel properties, began to appear at the baiting points, too, spelling trouble for the establishments. Some of them also allow guests on park safaris to get off the vehicles and approach tigers in deep-forest for a closer view on foot. This would have been impossible around Ustad. After the Saini incident, proper investigations would have meant that the area would have to be cordoned off for a few weeks, smothering opportunities for tourism in May and June, translating into a loss of several crores of rupees.

The ‘Capture Ustad’ group tried to further strengthen its case by saying that the villagers were pushing for Ustad to be removed as his presence compromised their safety.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Village grassroots movements like Bhoo Premi Pariwar Sangathan, from the Sawai Madhopur zilla, and the Ranthambore Bachao Andolan Samiti have been campaigning for the last year to bring Ustad back to Ranthambore.

Ustad’s tourism value was on the decline. Sightings were rare. His exit paves the way for Sultan, his son and a far more ‘visible’ tiger, to step into his father’s territory. Hidden tigers are not good for business. The timber, sand-mining and fodder mafia, all politically connected, also stand to benefit from Ustad’s absence.

Moreover, why was he taken to Sajjangarh Zoo, nearly 500 km away from Ranthambore? Per NTCA protocols, a man-eater should be sent to the nearest zoo, which in this case is the Nahargarh Zoo near Jaipur. He was accommodated in Sajjangarh because of Monu had died recently and there was a vacancy. For luxury resorts coming up on the periphery, Ustad, with his marginal reputation for eating humans, would be a huge draw. He could continue to be milked for money. On April 12, 2015, Prakash Javadekar, the Union environment minister, inaugurated Sajjangarh Zoo and promised that a tiger would soon be sent there. His promise was fulfilled less than a month later.

It is routine practice for the people in the position Saini occupied to call safari-vehicle drivers upon spotting a tiger, and the drivers in turn would quickly usher in the sightseers – even if they are explicitly forbidden from venturing into critical tiger habitat, an area reserved just for tigers.

And was Ustad a maneater? R.N. Mehrotra, ex-principal chief conservator of forests and wildlife warden of Rajasthan (2005-2011), says, “A tiger is declared a man-eater only if he continues to prowl and selectively kills only humans. It is much harder to chase prey, and if any tiger is still doing that, he is not a man-eater.” Ustad had never before been accused of attacking a single pilgrim, picking up cattle or charging at vehicles. His relocation and imprisonment, thus, find little justification in reason but much more in politics.

Noisy tourists do not aid conservation and violate the need for a safe, statutory distance between man and animal. Venturing into deep tiger-habitat is akin to putting your hand in a snake pit and expecting the snake to not bite. Mehrotra adds, “Tiger reserves are areas essentially for [the] conservation of tigers [and] tourism is only a byproduct. But in this case, the hotel lobby in Ranthambore called the shots, preventing proper investigations by cordoning off the area. In India, if conservation is not a money spinner, there is no conservation. Tourism has failed the tiger.”

Sajjangarh Zoo should not be Ustad’s permanent home. He should be shifted into a forest enclosure, not a zoo enclosure. Only nine years old, he still has the capacity to sire cubs and breed. But for now, he has lost complete control over his life and has been denied all rights. He deserves to be freed. 

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

Note: This article was edited on May 19, 2016, for clarity.