For the past two weeks, there has been an unusual absence at the the Sherpur gate checkpost of Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. Rampal Saini has not been reporting to work. For 27 years, the frail 56-year-old forest guard would be a daily fixture at the ‘chowki’, diligently jotting down the vehicle numbers of devotees trekking up the four-kilometre rugged pathway to the Ganesha temple atop the Ranthambore Fort inside the national park.
Saini, though, has left his ‘mark’ behind — a blotch of dried, darkened blood a few metres up the fort road. On May 8, Saini was looking for T24, which had been sighted in a waterbody close to the fort road. Just as he had ventured into the hedges, the tiger launched on him from behind and mauled him to death.
Two other forest guards trailing close by raised an alarm. A jeep hurtled in, scared away T24, and collected Saini’s corpse, its head dangling. Minutes later, as forest officials drove to the spot to look for T24, the tiger emerged from the hedges, licking off the blood. Just as it was about to slink back into the hedges, the officials’ vehicle braked unsteadily and a biologist, who was filming its movement, slipped to the ground. T24 turned and, as the scared officials sped away, gave their vehicle a slow chase.
Eight days later, the tiger that has so far left four people dead in the last five years was put in a cage.
After Saini’s death, forest officials closely tracked T24’s movement, looking for a chance to nab him. On May 16 morning, as T24, popularly known as Ustad, was sauntering in his territory, forest officials tranquilised him, put him in a 7-by-4-feet perforated plywood box and drove him over 400 km away to Sajjangarh Biological Park in Udaipur.
Late that night, Ustad was released into an enclosure spread over less than a hectare at the park — a wildlife-simulating facility inaugurated last month. In the nine years of his life spent in a 5,000-hectare universe, Ustad slept in captivity for the first time on May 16.
On his first night there, T24 refused to eat food offered on a platter. Only when authorities offered him a live bait of a young buffalo did he give in, reminded perhaps of his good old days in the wild, when he’d be too lazy to hunt for prey and would bully his partner T39 to surrender her kill.
Six days into his new residence, Ustad is beginning to settle down, officials say. “He needs a little more time, but he is doing well,” says Rahul Bhatnagar, chief conservator of forests, Udaipur.
Three CCTV cameras installed at vantage points monitor T24’s many moods. “The footage shows Ustad lying listless during day and pacing restlessly at night, usually sitting next to his cell’s wall, 30 metres from the opposite cell, occupied by a tigress,” says Bhatnagar. When Ustad is released from his cell in the larger open area of the enclosure, the tigress is held back, and vice-a-versa, to avoid a confrontation. Park officials joke that when Ustad growls, the tigress growls back and the two could make a great pair, making him feel less homesick.
Ustad was born in late 2005 to T22, a tigress in the Lahpur area of the Ranthambore reserve — the reserve has several villages and sanctuaries inside it — and was fathered most likely by T20. He spent his early days in Lahpur with his two brothers T23 and T25, before moving on to Sawai Man Singh Sanctuary and later to Zone 1, covering Sultanpur, Sherpur and Raipur checkposts on the periphery of the reserve. At a mighty 250 kg, Ustad thundered about in his territory with little competition from other males, except minor face-offs with T28 and T25 who lived in the vicinity. He also lived a reasonably contented life with his partner T39, popularly known as Noor. The two produced three male cubs — the eldest, 4-year-old Sultan or T72, and two 14-month-olds.
The only thing which could overpower T24 was his weak digestive system. He had chronic constipation “because of which he couldn’t get up or walk for days”, says Balendu Singh, former honorary wildlife warden. But once he was up and running, he returned to his fierce ways. “Once, his paw got infected after being pricked by a thorn, so he had to be tranquilised and treated. But as the vets were bandaging the wound, he emerged out of anesthesia with such force that the doctors and attendants left all their kits behind and ran for their lives. Ustad quietly got up and went into the woods with a swagger,” Singh laughs.
When hungry, T24 would also gobble up his son’s feed. “On two occasions, we saw Noor sitting protectively next to Sultan while he was feeding on the kill so that Ustad could not snatch it away. To divert his attention, she seduced him and kept him distracted all day,” says Singh.
As Ustad grew old — a tiger’s average lifespan in the wild is 12-14 years — he started facing competition from his own son. Sultan would now authoritatively strut around his dad’s territory. Reserve officials estimate that in a year or so, Sultan would have driven Ustad out of his territory.
With T24 out of the picture, at least temporarily, residents of villages around the tiger’s territory, such as Sherpur, Khilchipur, Ramsinpura and Kutulpura, are relieved. Sherpur continues to mourn Saini’s death. His family has been promised Rs 22 lakh in compensation, a government job for son Mohan Lal Saini and the salary that he drew till what would have been the end of his tenure. The family proudly shows an old framed picture of Saini holding a live bait as a tiger approaches from behind. Saini, they add, lived fearlessly among the tigers. However, T24 was a different story. “He’d fear T24’s changing behaviour.”
The villagers say Saini’s death “could have been averted”. “We repeatedly complained to authorities about Ustad’s menacing ways. When we rode our bikes back from work late at night, Ustad would often be walking around freely on the main road. Sometimes, he’d even chase after us,” says Kamlesh Singh, Saini’s nephew.
Soon after Saini’s death on May 8, angry villagers had approached forest officials, threatening that had the tiger killed a simple villager instead of a forest guard, they would not have been spared. Officials feared that villagers would leave a poisoned carcass in T24’s territory, hoping he would feed on it, and that other tigers may consume it by mistake.
Y K Sahoo, Conservator of Forests, Field Director and Chief of the Reserve, talks of the villagers’ reaction to T24’s first killing of a villager in July 2010. “Before we could retrieve the partly eaten body, a mob had attacked our office and threatened to burn alive the local SHO,” he says.
The first death had been dismissed as an “accident”, but when T24 had claimed two victims two years later — a villager and a forest guard in March and October 2012 respectively — forest officials had written to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) seeking suggestions on how to deal with the tiger.
Deputy Field Director Sudarshan Sharma, who oversaw Ustad’s relocation to Sajjangarh park, says, “After 2012, we kept a close tab on T24. We did not want it to go but its instinctive human fear was fading and it had started chasing after vehicles. Tigers usually avoid confrontation with humans. They growl or slap with their paws if forcibly confronted with humans. But T24 was catching them by their neck as it would do with its preys.”
T24 was not moved to another sanctuary like Sariska, Sharma explains, as that “would have meant a new fight for territory and a repeat of the threat to the neighbouring human settlements in the area”.
Wildlife experts and enthusiasts, however, do not buy the ‘murderous’ tag that has come to be attached to T24.
Former environment and forest minister Bina Kak, who has extensively photographed Ranthambore’s tigers and was the first to give tigers like Ustad names instead of numbers, says, “It was T25 ‘Zaalim’ who was the aggressive one. If your eyes met his, he would growl. But Ustad was never like that. Hundreds of devotees crossed his way daily but he never chased after them.”
Kak shows a set of pictures of three women carrying stacks of fuelwood and walking on a dirt track coming face to face with Ustad. Even as the women freeze seeing the giant, Ustad ignores them and walks off. “Does a man-eater behave like that? Every time Ustad has killed anybody, it’s because that person got too close to him and intruded into his space,” she says. Kak is also worried about T24’s health in his new home. “His constipation may worsen at the park as there is less space for him to walk. At the reserve, where he walked several kilometres, he would be administered enema to treat severe bouts of constipation.”
Guards give another example to show Ustad wasn’t as fearsome as made out to be. “Once, when he was mating with T39, a bear with two cubs walked in on them. Both the tigers fled the spot,” says a guard who claims to have seen T24 grow up. But experts clarify that tigers avoid confrontation with bears which are difficult to overpower.
Former chief wildlife warden R N Mehrotra blames the spurt of tourists for changing T24. “Before T24, there was barely any sighting in Zone 1. But once it came, visitors and tourists were unleashed on this tiger, causing it to change its behaviour,” he says. T 24, Mehrotra adds, is a “a bold and fearless animal, a beautiful specimen the reserve should have never parted with”.
Officials “succumbed to pressure of hoteliers and relocated T24 in haste”, he adds, implying that some feared his reputation would scare tourists away.
Hoteliers, interestingly, say a man-eater tag would have helped business. Balendu Singh, who was part of the local committee formed to decide on the relocation, says, “Ustad was one of the most photographed tigers in
Ranthambore as its territory was right at the entrance… If its man-eater tag stuck on, would it not have made great business? It was not as if it was attacking tourists on jeeps or canters anyway.”
Dismissing the allegations of a hasty relocation bypassing authorities, Chief Wildlife Warden R K Tyagi says, “We did inform the NTCA and due procedure was followed.” Sahoo cites a provision in the Wildlife Act 1972 that empowers the chief wildlife warden to declare a tiger a ‘threat to human life’ and order its relocation, captivity or shooting. Citing the shooting of a tiger in the Nilgiris after it had killed two people, forest officials say “we showed more sensitivity by just sending Ustad away”.
They also cite a piece by tiger expert Ullas Karanth which says that ‘conservationists should focus on saving the species as a whole rather than worry about saving every individual’. “True man-eaters… pose a serious risk to local people and must be swiftly removed,” Karanth writes.
Tyagi also talks of experts having advised earlier to relocate the tiger “but it just did not happen”. He says that blood samples of the tiger had been sent for testing canine distemper virus, which is found to be present in man-eaters.“But even if the virus is not present, it will still be considered a threat to human life.”
While officials add T24 had lost the “instinctive fear of humans”, Mehrotra disagrees. “If it were a man-eater, why did it not prey on humans for the past two years?” he says.
The Supreme Court had dismissed a plea filed against the relocation on May 21, but the High Court is slated to hear the case on May 28. The state government, on its part, “is exploring possibilities of alternative homes for T24”, says Forest Minister Rajkumar Rinwa.
Support for Ustad has been pouring in on social media, and animal lovers have even organised candlelight marches. Oblivious to the storm he has raised though, Ustad continues to stare blankly at the CCTV cameras in his new enclosure, perhaps craving only a long walk.