The puzzling case of what to do with ‘T24’, India’s man-eating tiger

The case of India’s Ranthambore Tiger #24, aka Ustad—transferred from his jungle-bound reserve home to a zoo after killing four humans—has recieved a lot of attention from the media, general public, and activists. But according to those who actually work on the front lines of conservation in the country, this decision is one based on careful consideration and ultimately, in the best interest of the species as a whole.

Anytime wildlife—particularly of the endangered or rare kind—and humans clash, the results are almost never good. That’s why it’s so impressive that India, a country of some nearly 1.3 billion people, boasts about 70 per cent of the world’s remaining wild tiger population. Laws like the Wildlife Protection Act, adopted way back in 1972, including an outright ban on species depleting activities like hunting and trade, make India one of the strictest national wildlife guardians on the planet.

‘Most people may know of India as a heavily populated country, full of inequities and problems. But somehow the government has managed to protect tigers and wildlife, making strict laws and enforcing them. They just did it, ’ says Dr. Anish Andheria, President of Wildlife Conservation Trust, an NGO that works to fill in the gaps left by government services, currently operating in 10 national parks and sanctuaries across 19 states in India, covering 72 per cent of 47 tiger reserves.

‘Tigers today are doing pretty well in India compared to their other range countries,’ says Andheria, ‘their population remaining stable or increasing in the past 10 years.’

While India’s government has done a truly exceptional job thus far ensuring the country remains a holdout for wild tigers, a big part of the species’ success story is also based on the general public’s tolerance and reverence of the big cats.

Andheria says as part of Hindu religion and culture people worship animals and have a very deep respect for nature. People will, for example, generally accept livestock deaths linked to tigers as part of the tradeoff of protecting them. It’s only when human life and security is at risk, really at risk, that officials consider action.

So when protests began over forest official’s call to relocate a publicly well known and beloved tiger, Ranthambore Tiger #24, aka Ustad, after he stalked and then mauled a park gatekeeper to death, the uproar came as quite a let down to the people behind the scenes. At the end of March, following nearly a year of legal battles plus public protests galore on both the streets and social media, the Indian Supreme Court ruled the Rajasthan Forest Department had made the right decision, removing the dangerous offender from the world-famous Ranthambore National Park.

An unknown tiger observed by tourists in Ranthambore National Park. Photo by Adam Fraise / Shutterstock
An unknown tiger observed by tourists in Ranthambore National Park. Photo by Adam Fraise / Shutterstock

Ustad’s fate seems finally sealed once and for all, but how did a standard wildlife management procedure manage to spark a countrywide debate that wound up in the Supreme Court? And did Ustad’s case really deserve all this attention?

Here’s the low down on the truth—or the best version we of it right now—behind the case of ‘man-eating Tiger #24’, and some insight into why it’s important to go beyond the headlines and work through knee-jerk reactions when it comes to conservation issues.

India—the wild tiger’s last true frontier

Of the 13 countries worldwide that are home to the estimated 3,800 or so wild tigers still left, India has about 2,560 of then. That’s because the government’s really stepped up their game in the last decade or so, with 1973’s Project Tiger over time designating 49 tiger reserves, which together comprise 70244.10 sq. km. That may sound like a lot, but to true tiger-lovers like Andheria, that percentage should be much higher. Tiger reserves are not 100 per cent safeguarded locations for the animals, compromised of core protection areas—spots entirely monitored like National Parks, refuges, and sanctuaries—surrounded by much larger buffer zones without such stringent protection.

‘And within these buffer zones, tigers live side by side some three million people,’ says Andheria.

Ullas Karanth, Senior Conservation Scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society and Technical Director of their Tiger Conservation Program, elaborates on these stats in an email to Love Nature.

‘Breeding tiger populations are now confined to less than 50,000 sq. km out of 300,000 sq. km potential habitat in India, which is a country with an area of 3.0 million sq. km,’ writes Karanth. ‘The interface between tigers and people is restricted to a very small fraction of the land.’

Firm laws are in place to manage the delicate balance of these close quarters living arrangement. And for the most part they’ve worked. Tigers are classified as a Schedule 1 species under the country’s WPA, deemed highly endangered and hence fully protected by law against any harmful human activity. And the punishments for tiger-offences are harsh. Killing a tiger in the core area of a reserve draws a minimum three-year jail sentence that can extend to a seven-year term and fines starting at 10,000Rs.

These legal deterrents have been enough to essentially squash most internal demand for hunting and poaching, Andheria says. But the demand from foreign markets, in particular where tiger parts are used for traditional medicine, continues to fuel the illegal industry.

‘Today the biggest threat inside the country for tigers isn’t poaching, it’s habitat loss,’ says Andheria. ‘And external poaching threats from places like China and now Vietnam too.’

Ranthambore Tiger #24, aka Ustad

Long before Ustad caught notice for his unfortunate behaviour, he was a bit of a local celebrity. Born in 2005, the male was getting on years in tiger-terms, but remained a force to be reckoned with. A massive 250 kg, Ustad had a mate, T-39 aka Noor, three male cubs, and a choice stretch of territory running between three check posts on the periphery of the Northern Rajasthan State reserve. Because of the location of his range, Ustad was well known to park staff, hoteliers in the area, and visitors alike, often spotted on safari tours.

Ranthambore Tiger #24, aka Ustad
Ranthambore Tiger #24, aka Ustad. Photo source: The Indian Express

But Ustad’s life was at a time of flux. Recently his eldest son Sultan had naturally begun to steal the spotlight. And a huge rise in tourist numbers over the past few years had begun to acclimatise Ustad to humans. Karanth explains that tigers are by nature afraid of humans and normally avoid them through stealth. They will attack and kill people when they’re mobbed and feel threatened, but normally continue to fear humans after such events.

‘It is only when, rarely, a tigers loses this natural fear and starts stalking humans like it would hunt other prey, that it becomes dangerous,’ he writes. ‘Once tigers do this, they cannot be left loose to run around to kill more people.’

It is not the act of killing or even eating the human kill per se, he adds, but the deliberate predation that is the key problem. When the people living in these reserves become fearful of such a tiger, the real trouble begins. And this is precisely how the stage was beginning to set itself up in Ranthambore last spring.

Andheria says Ustad had already been implicated in the death of three men between 2010 and 2013, but it was not until the death of the gatekeeper that the question of removing the animal was really posed.

‘In the first three cases, the officials determined the men had been in the tiger’s area, some illegally. He was not branded a man-eater, and park staff didn’t want him to have to leave,’ says Andheria. But in the spring of 2015, Ustad waited behind a group of bushes, then stalked, charged, and mauled a forest guard, 56 year-old Rampal Saini, to death.

‘You must understand this tiger lives on the main road, very close to many people and visitors,’ says Andheria. ‘He was not removed because he was a man-eater—a word I don’t believe in anyways—but because he had habituated to people and precautions needed to be made.’

When it came down to it, the potential future risks of allowing Ustad to remain freely roaming in Ranthambore simply outweighed the benefits. The tiger was an older male who from a scientific standpoint had served his purpose for the species— no longer really adding to the gene pool and soon to be rightfully replaced by his heir. And what if Ustad’s next victim was a villager, someone totally uninvolved in the park’s management or defence whose death would surely spark the desire for revenge.

‘The response would be burnt forests, and people would poison other tigers on top of that,’ he says. ‘This is one reason most people in tiger conservation don’t give much priority to individuals. The mistaken action of one can fuel the death of many, many more.’

Karanth adds the after effects of such unfortunate events can also be damaging to the very people trying to protect tigers.

‘Tiger attacks on humans create massive riot-like conditions, government staff are beaten up, offices burnt, parks invaded etc. In my own state which has the largest wild tiger population of 400 or so, only two to three predation on human incidents may occur in a year but each lead to huge anti-conservation agitations,’ he writes.

Locals and some forest staff had begun to call for Ustad’s removal, citing concern he’d strike again. And the victim’s family claimed the attack could have been prevented. This time there really was no other option than to consider relocating Ustad to a venue with far less access to humans. So according to Andheria, following procedure a committee was formed consisting of forest officials, tiger experts and non-governmental representatives to look into the matter further. He says the rules for removing a tiger from a reserve are very strict and take into consideration a range of factors. Each case is discussed separately at great length, and it is determined the animal is indeed habituated to killing do they recommend to the Chief Wildlife Warden (who makes the final call) that the animal be removed or eliminated.

‘In this case, those actions were all taken, and the decision was made to move the tiger to Sajjangarh Zoo,’ he says. ‘We cannot talk to the tiger, so we look at the circumstances and make a best judgement.’

Karanth also believes based on the circumstances, the best choice was likely made. ‘I am not an eye witness… but from all accounts of people who I know have worked for decades to save Ranthambore and know its tigers well, there was more than enough evidence to warrant the removal of that tiger.’

Making Ustad a ‘man-eater’

So if the forest department, wildlife officials, and experts never called Ustad a man-eater, why do so many headlines state otherwise? Very likely the media, it turns out, and rather ironically, those who probably thought they were operating on the animal’s behalf.

Ustad in his new enclosure. Photo source: The Indian Express
Ustad in his new enclosure. Photo source: The Indian Express

Ustad was a public figure of sorts, explains Andheria, which is really why news of his transfer plucked on the heartstrings of the general public and drew ire from activists, many of whom didn’t really care to know the full story. Protests occurred and soon after, a petition was filed for the case to be reviewed in court.

‘In the end the case was taken all the way to India’s highest court, the Supreme Court, who ruled the forest department’s action had been correct,’ Andheria says. ‘Their directive means this is the final word, the ordeal is done.’

Yet despite the concreteness of this ruling, there are still campaigns calling for Ustad’s freedom. Twitter hash tags that raged throughout his trial, like #FreeT24 #bringbackustad and #JeSuisUstad still get tweets every now and then. And Bina Kak, Rajasthan’s former Environment Minister, has publicly stated the dominant male simply lived too long without incident in extremely close proximity to humans to be the man-eater people are claiming he is. She even posted pictures of Ustad strolling by local women on a path without paying them any mind.

And there’s fairly clear evidence that Ustad’s case may not have been handled 100 per cent correctly. According to info the The Indian Express gained under the country’s Right to Information Act, the Rajasthan Forest Department has admitted it did not follow the Standard Operating Procedure guidelines set out by the National Tiger Conservation Authority in 2007 and revised in 2013, only filing their first formal report with the NTCA a reported nine days post-transfer, meaning they didn’t gain permission from the authority before taking matters into their own hands. On top of that, the department claims it hadn’t realised the SOP guidelines had been revised, so used 2007 criteria in their report. In the aftermath of all these revelations, the man ultimately responsible for the whole affair, Chief Wildlife Warden, R.K. Tyagi, has retired.

It also turns out that the NTCA had recommended the state look into Ustad’s situation back in 2012, after his third human kill, which was in fact, another forest guard, Ghisu Singh. While the authority did not respond to numerous emails, calls, and even last-ditch social media attempts, it’s rumoured they’re none to pleased with how things turned out for Ustad. Respected American NGO Big Cat Rescue, a leading group working to end the captive tiger epidemic in the US, has asked their community to email Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a message of discontent over Ustad’s case, referencing this NTCA disconnect. National news outlets have also this disproval, with a representative of the authority demanding Ustad should be rehabilitated per WPA and SOP guidelines, returned to a more isolated region of the park away from human settlements.

And according to Karanth and others familiar with Ranthambore, there was a bit of a historic precedent in the park that may have contributed to Ustad’s habituation.

‘Forest authorities there are to blame too because in the past, for years they have artificially fed tiger cubs, treated injured tigers and in one case kept alive a tigress which should have died a long time ago by such means… they sowed the wind and reaped a whirlwind,’ he writes. ‘I am not at all in favour of this entire approach of ‘humanising’ such a wonderful wild creature that must live and die as nature designed it to a million years ago.’

The final word?

A tiger in Ranthambhore National Park. Photo by Aditya Singh / Shutterstock
A tiger in Ranthambhore National Park. Photo by Aditya Singh / Shutterstock

While these finer points may continue to fuel public calls and activist rallies to reconsider Ustad’s case, all in all, it’s unlikely the ruling will be overturned or even officially revisited. Most of these details were public knowledge well in advance of the recent Supreme Court ruling and as with any news story, eventually public and media interest dissipates and dies out.

So what was really gained by dragging Ustad’s name, and park official’s reputation, through the papers and courts? Nothing, it seems. Andheria, Karanth, and several other leading tiger and wildlife experts argue that instances such as this, when an individual animal is given such focus and attention, actually work against the species on a larger scale.

‘Our focus should be on saving the species and increasing numbers, which means we cannot create conditions that make local people anti-parks and anti-conservation,’ writes Karanth. ‘If we do not eliminate tigers that prey on humans…we are putting their lives at risk, this sets back conservation.’

Instead of railing for tiger’s that have strayed from the norm like Ustad, Karanth recommends focusing on boasting the numbers of tigers in the wild. He claims we still need to build the tiger population ten-fold going forward, so humans and tigers are going to have to get even better at sharing close quarters in the future. Achieving this goal will mean require sacrificing the odd misbehaving tiger for the greater good.

‘The focus on saving every individual tiger, obsessing and romanticizing about them is meaningless act of self gratification for us,’ he writes, ‘but it actually harms the species when carried too far.’

As for Ustad, he’ll probably live out his remaining days in the zoo. Andheria says this zoo in particular, the Sajjangarh Biological Park in Udaipur, some 400 km away from Ranthambore, is larger than many other such facilities in the country. It’s not an ideal living arrangement for a full-size male tiger used to roaming at will, he says, but it’s the best that they could offer him.

Andheria says it’s important during conservation trials like this to remember the bigger picture, which is the awesome success story of wild tigers in India. This triumph wouldn’t have been possible without the continued commitment of government officials, wildlife groups, reserve staff, and most importantly maybe, the general public.

‘People must remember that anywhere else in the world, had a tiger, even in a zoo, stalked and killed a human very few questions would be asked before it was shot and killed,’ says Andheria. ‘In India, we give tigers many chances before interfering with their natural wild lives, and only eliminate an animal as a last resort. I don’t know of anyplace else that has such respect and care for wildlife.


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