A TIGERS’ PLIGHT

Airports India - - CONTENTS - PHO­TOS & TEXT: NAVIN M RAHEJA

May 8 2015, af­ter a day full of meet­ings and con­fer­ences, I was hav­ing din­ner with my wife when M D Parashar called from Ran­tham­bore. As I picked up the call, Parashar told, “Us­tad killed Ram­pal Saini”. Un­be­liev­able and un­for­tu­nate! I started call­ing from the din­ner ta­ble to the for­est of­fi­cials to get more de­tails of the in­ci­dent.

Us­tad, had been a prom­i­nent and fear­less tiger of Ran­tham­bore, gen­er­ally known as T-24. He al­ready had 3 deaths to his credit be­tween 2010 and 2012; the last be­ing re­ported in Oc­to­ber 2012 when he killed as­sis­tant for­est of­fi­cer Ghisu Singh who was re­liev­ing him­self be­hind a jun­gle bush.

I had al­ways kept my fin­gers crossed from the time it made its first hu­man kill in June 2010. Though ev­ery­one la­beled him a man-eater, I could at the most la­bel him a man killer as it had never killed to eat.

His lat­est vic­tim Ram­pal Saini was on a rou­tine pa­trol with two other mem­bers in the evening of 8th May when T-24 at­tacked on him. The in­ci­dent took place near Atal Sa­gar area, around 100 me­ters from the main en­trance of the park. I re­mem­ber Ram­pal Saini as a for­est guard near Sher­pur gate who would of­ten share greet­ings when­ever my car/gypsy crossed the bar­rier a lit­tle ahead af­ter main en­trance.

Us­tad was a dom­i­nant male of Zone No.1 of the park. Born to Ti­gress T-22

some­time in 2005 in Lah­pur area of the park, T-24 grew up with his two broth­ers, T-23 and T - 25. Us­tad had been the most fe­ro­cious, hand­some and one of the most pho­tographed male tiger of Ran­tham­bore, who had lost fear of hu­man be­ings and had de­vel­oped habit of ven­tur­ing out of the for­est quite reg­u­larly and could of­ten be seen on the Ran­tham­bore road, at the out­skirts of Sawai Mad­hopur town.

Us­tad had been a dot­ing father and an de­voted spouse too. At times I had spot­ted him with Noor (T-39), an­other mag­nif­i­cent ti­gress of the park. Us­tad shared his ter­ri­tory with four year old Sul­tan from the first lit­ter of Noor (T-39) and her two four­teen month old male cubs. At times, all of them could be seen to­gether too. De­spite be­ing branded as a man-eater, I was al­ways com­fort­able while film­ing and pho­tograph­ing him from a close dis­tance from my gypsy as I al­ways be­lieved him to be mag­nan­i­mous and harm­less. I

Still be­lieve, the killings by him were more ter­ri­to­rial, cir­cum­stan­tial and in­stinc­tive rather than be­ing tar­geted hu­man killings.

I share equal sym­pa­thy with fam­i­lies of Saini and other vic­tims but I am still de­fend­ing Us­tad… Yes! I am, not be­cause of my love to­wards tigers but for I have got some fair log­ics. The road to fa­mous Ganesh tem­ple in­side the park was a part of his ter­ri­tory. Ev­ery year, lacs of pil­grims visit the tem­ple but there were no cases of him at­tack­ing a pil­grim. In fact, the last case of him killing a hu­man was of 2012. No ca­su­al­ties were re­ported af­ter that. I am sure some­thing might have re­ally gone wrong that pro­voked Us­tad.

When I called Shri Y K Sahu, the chief con­ser­va­tor at Ran­tham­bore Tiger re­serve on the evening of May 12, we had a de­tailed dis­cus­sion on on his fate and the fate of his two four­teen month old cubs from Noor and for his el­der son Sul­tan. In case T-24 was shifted his ter­ri­tory was likely to be over­taken by other male may be T-25 or T-34 or T-28. Noor alone couldn’t de­fend her two young cubs and Sul­tan seemed to be no match to be able to de­fend the ter­ri­tory and there were chances of Noor and Sul­tan get­ting in­jured or killed in ter­ri­to­rial fight. We had also dis­cussed and re­called when T-24 had killed the 18 year old young boy Ghamandi on July 3 2010. The un­con­trol­lable mob was ready to lynch even the lo­cal SHO when he tried to de­fend for­est of­fi­cers for re­triev­ing the partly eaten body of the boy.

Un­for­tu­nately the risks weighed more against Us­tad. Our dis­cus­sion ended with leav­ing the things to the com­mit­tee con­sti­tuted by the then for­est min­is­ter Shri Ra­jku­mar Rinwa. I am a tiger lover but my only point was, Tigers need space to sur­vive, and we hu­mans must re­spect their pri­vacy.

Deputy Field direc­tor Su­dar­shan Sharma was keep­ing an eye on the move­ments of Us­tad. While all the de­bates stip­u­lat­ing on Us­tad’s re­lo­ca­tion were go­ing on in the me­dia, the com­mit­tee dis­cretely sealed the fate of his free­dom. On the morn­ing of May 16, Us­tad was saun­ter­ing in his ter­ri­tory when for­est of­fi­cials tran­quil­ized him. As the tourists came out of the park he was picked up in a swift and se­cre­tive op­er­a­tion. Not even a sin­gle soul knew about this till the time the poor fel­low found him­self in a one hectare en­clo­sure of Sa­j­jan­garh Bi­o­log­i­cal Park, Udaipur af­ter the dark­ness had set in. Sadly his free­dom in Ran­tham­bore Wilder­ness was over.

One of my most mem­o­rable en­coun­ters with T-24 was of a mon­soon evening while I was hav­ing a drink in the lawn of Jhu­mar Baodi- the RTDC run her­itage Haveli sit­u­ated within a short dis­tance of the park. It was still two hours to mid­night and si­lence had crept in unan­nounced, as it usu­ally does in places sit­u­ated near a for­est. Sud­denly, a spot­ted deer gave an alarm call some half a kilo­me­ter away. Nev­er­the­less, a sin­gle deer call is enough to arouse a wildlifer and I am no ex­cep­tion.

Ten min­utes later, a samb­har made an­other alarm call and was joined by one more samb­har call. Then I heard that un­mis­tak­able sound which all wildlife lovers yearn for in a for­est; the deep growl of a tiger. “Looks like T24 is around”, I ex­claimed with en­thu­si­asm. I im­me­di­ately bolted to the first-floor ter­race of Jhoomar Baodi, to its very edge from where it was pos­si­ble to look at the ground out­side the main en­trance, right un­til the wide park­ing lot sit­u­ated some 70 me­ters away on a down­ward slope. Luck­ily, I was armed with my high-pow­ered torch.

My pa­tience was fi­nally re­warded. The third growl reached my ears af­ter 10 min­utes or so and al­most in­stan­ta­neously my thumb — as if act­ing on its own vo­li­tion — pressed the yel­low knob on the torch. The park­ing lot was awash with white light and in the midst, stood T24. He threw one care­free look in my di­rec­tion, turned back and van­ished into the dark­ness – the dark­ness which will never come alive again.

Nearly two years have passed since Us­tad’s quick im­petu­ous translo­ca­tion to the small en­clo­sure at Udaipur, and ever since that day, Ran­tham­bore’s Princely tiger

I share equal sym­pa­thy with fam­i­lies of Saini and other vic­tims but I am still de­fend­ing Us­tad…

con­tin­ues to live a refugee life while the mul­ti­ple au­thor­i­ties have dif­fer­ent takes on de­cid­ing his fate. The for­mer of­fi­cials and wildlife ex­perts, all voic­ing their in­di­vid­ual opin­ions, with some ar­gu­ing for his re­lease into the wild, while oth­ers com­mend­ing the for­est depart­ment for shift­ing him to a zoo in time. Ever since his im­pris­on­ment, Us­tad has been suf­fer­ing from sev­eral health com­pli­ca­tions aris­ing out of fre­quent tran­quil­iza­tions and sud­den change of habi­tat.

To add in­sult to in­jury, Na­tional Tiger Con­ser­va­tion Au­thor­ity (NTCA) the apex body for tiger con­ser­va­tion in In­dia found out that Us­tad was not a man-eater and was translo­cated un­law­fully. Un­for­tu­nately, Us­tad bore the brunt just be­cause it had his­tory of con­flicts with hu­mans. It is heart wrench­ing that while we Hu­mans cher­ish our re­la­tions, how­ever not a sin­gle of­fi­cer blinked an eye­lid be­fore translo­cat­ing him, and thought what would even­tu­ally hap­pen to this Tiger fam­ily. Sul­tan, Noor and Us­tad’s two male cubs of just 14 months age were not the cause of any worry to us, hu­mans! Well, time and des­tiny takes its course. The Mighty Us­tad got sen­tensed to life im­pris­on­ment, for he was in­tol­er­ant and re­peat­edly ob­jected to close in­tru­sion into his life and pri­vacy. His free­dom of hun­dreds of square kilo­me­ters has now been caged into less than a hectare and a prison cage cell of a few square feet.

The year 2017 may bring some good news for Us­tad— with the state gov­ern­ment hint­ing at pro­vid­ing the big cat with a big­ger home. If all goes ac­cord­ing to the plan, Us­tad, could soon be re­leased from his dark dun­geon to “at least a 50-hectare area” in­side a tiger re­serve. Till then Us­tad sits in his cage wait­ing for his des­tiny to change its course.

As I had al­ready con­veyed my ap­pre­hen­sions in a pre­vi­ous story printed in May 2015, Sul­tan van­ished from the area im­me­di­ately and was re­ported to have been seen once at Kailadevi sanc­tu­ary but no new came af­ter that, since last one year

Noor(t 39) also bolted out of the ter­ri­tory along with her two cubs, Kalu and Bholu, who were by now close to ma­tu­rity. Be­ing male cubs was dis­ad­van­ta­geous to fate ac­com­pli.

For a few months, Noor and her cubs took shel­ter in the for­est sur­round­ing jhoomar Baori, close to city habi­ta­tion. But then, their fate too be­came un­known.

Noor mated with ter­ri­to­rial tiger who took over the for­est dom­i­nated by Us­tad and has given birth to three cubs and very likely all these are fe­male cubs. As I write this story in May 2017, she is gen­er­ally seen in zone no 2 along with her new cubs.

A new cy­cle of life has started and the loss of an en­tire fam­ily has given way to a new gen­er­a­tion. (For al­ready pub­lished sto­ries and films on

wildlife by the writer, which have run on Na­tional Geo­graphic chan­nel, Do­or­dar­shan Na­tional chan­nel and Do­or­dar­shan (In­dia),

please log on to www.ra­he­ja­group.org).

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