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The unlucky Prince of Ranthambore

The rugged forests of Ranthambore, the last homeland of the tiger in Rajasthan, offers views and vistas that are starkly different from anywhere else in India. With its massive fort overlooking vast forest stretches, Ranthambore has always been a delight for wildlife lovers. It beckons them from all over the world. Its terrain – a mix of impregnable dry, deciduous forest and open bush – has become synonymous with the tiger. There's a saying that only the real unlucky return from Ranthambore without sighting the majestic animal. There is something rare and unusual about the big cats that inhabit this national park. They don't mind the cameras and to some extent even allow enthusiastic photographers to get up close and personal. This land of the tigers is replete with stories of the imposing animal. One such story is of Ustad, also called Tiger Number 24 – ferocious, handsome, dominant and, one of the most photographed male tiger of Ranthambore. His territory was zone number 1 of the park and he took great pride in ruling it. Born to the 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 was one of the most ferocious, handsome and most photographed male tiger of Ranthambore, who lost all fear of human beings and had developed the habit of venturing out of the forest quite regularly, those days, often seen on the Ranthambore road, on the outskirts of Sawai Madhopur town. For a predatory species that like to stay clear of humans, this was a rather unusual behaviour. At times he would even go charging at jeeps and would chase them away. Once, his paw got pricked by a thorn and got infected. So he had to be tranquilised and treated. But while the vets were bandaging his wound, the effect of the anesthesia wore off and Ustad got up with such a great force that the doctors and attendants fled for their lives, leaving their kits behind.
Ustad got up and dashed into the forest. Some say that encounter with humans in such close proximity left him traumatised and suspicious building foundation for his troubled future relationships with humans. But those who have followed and filmed him closely have also seen his gentle side. They have seen him as a doting father and a loving, loyal mate. At times, I had spotted him with Noor (T-39), another magnificent tigress in the park.
Ustad shared his territory with four-year-old Sultan from the first litter of Noor (T-39) and her two male cubs of fourteen months age. At times, all of them could be seen together too. I was always comfortable while filming and photographing him at a close distance from my gypsy, as I always believed him to be magnanimous and harmless. One of my most memorable encounters with T-24 was on a monsoon evening while I was having my drinks on the lush green lawns 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 wild-lifer's interest and I was 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 immediately bolted to the first-floor terrace of Jhoomar Baodi, to its very edge, from where it is possible to look at the ground outside the main entrance, right up to 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 middle stood T24. He threw one carefree look in my direction, turned back and vanished into the darkness.
Ustad grabbed the attention of both the Indian and international media – unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons. On the evening of May 8, 2015, this dominant male tiger allegedly mauled forest guard Rampal Saini, who was on a routine patrol with two other members of the forest team when a tiger attacked and killed him. The incident took place near the Atal Sagar area, barely 100 meters from the main entrance of the national park. I remember Saini as a forest guard near Sherpur gate since the last 20 years, who would often share greetings whenever my car/gypsy crossed the barrier a little ahead after the main entrance. His death has been attributed to Ustad – a claim that several wildlife conservationists contest. The incident has, however, raised an alarm over the increasing episodes of man-animal conflict in the area. Before Saini, Ustad was already accused of having killed three humans between 2010 and 2012. In October 2012, assistant forest officer Ghisu Singh was mauled by a tiger.
Ghisu had accompanied a group of road laborers who were working on a path in Ustad's territory. He was attacked from behind and grabbed by the neck. The suspect was Ustad, whose first alleged human kill was reported in 2010; the victim, an 18-year-old young local village boy named Ghamandi who had gone to collect firewood. 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. Today, Ustad has already been branded as a notorious tiger and stands accused of having attacked and killed four humans, which is extremely rare. Some have even called him a man-eater, though I could at the most label him a human killer as the killings by him were more territorial, circumstantial and instinctive rather than targeted human killings. I share equal sympathy with the families of Saini and other victims but I am still defending Ustad… Yes! I am, not because of my love for tigers but because I have got a fair reason. The road to the famous Ganesh temple inside the park was a part of his territory. Every year, lakhs of pilgrims visit the temple but there were no cases of him attacking any pilgrim. In fact, the last case of him killing a human was in 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, 2015, we had a detailed discussion on his fate and the fate of his two fourteen-month-old cubs from Noor and his elder son Sultan. As both the cubs of Noor were males, she alone couldn't defend her smaller cubs… and Sultan was no match to any other adult tiger in case of a territorial fight and chances are Noor and Sultan getting killed or injured were high. Unfortunately, the odds weighed more against Ustad. Our discussion ended with us leaving things to the committee constituted by the Forest Minister Shri Rajkumar Rinwa. I am a tiger lover but my only point is, tigers need space to survive, and we humans must respect their privacy. My arguments are backed by logic and a keen understanding of the tiger's nature.
Ustad was merely doing what tigers do naturally, given that humans were intruders in his territory. Every death took place in Ustad's territory. But was Ustad really behind every killing? This has been the subject of a heated debate. There have been contradictory statements and several rumors. But while the debate raged on and wildlife enthusiasts campaigned to prevent Ustad from being removed from the forest, a committee called to discuss the matter quietly sealed his fate. Deputy Field director Sudarshan Sharma was keeping an eye on the movements of Ustad. While all the debates were going on in the media whether Ustad would be relocated, the committee had discretely sealed his fate and his freedom. On the morning of May 16, Ustad was sauntering in his territory when forest officials tranquilised him. As the tourists came out of the park, he was picked up in a swift and discreet operation. After gaining consciousness, poor Ustad suddenly found himself pacing in a tiny, 1-hectare enclosure at Sajjangarh Biological Park in Udaipur. Sadly, his days of independence were over in Ranthambore. And now for the even bigger question: Will the man-tiger conflict come to an end with Ustad's removal from Ranthambore? Sadly, no. With the road to the Ganesh temple running through the national park and with lakhs of pilgrims visiting the temple every year, human intervention – or interference – cannot be controlled in this area. And hence, any tiger that takes over the majestic Ustad's territory is bound to react to this intrusion. The conflicts are likely to escalate. Ever since man made an appearance on earth, he has shared a strong bond with its forest and its animals. He has relied on them for his survival. But he has also been responsible for their disappearance. Today, the tiger in India is fighting its last battle for survival. And the odds against this magnificent creature are increasing by the day. But the sword that hangs on its future will not fall on the tiger alone. Experts agree that when – and if – the tiger fades into history, it will not do so alone. It will pull down with it most of India's wilderness and natural wonders. The tiger is a territorial animal. It needs space to breathe. And we humans must respect the privacy of its habitat. The ominous signs are clearly visible in and around India's protected forests. The "man-animal conflict", which has become a fashionable phrase today, unfortunately, fails to convey the extent of the damage it has already caused to our wildlife. A tiger attacking people, a leopard straying into a town, an elephant chasing away humans – these are incidents we now hear of frequently. By eating into their habitat, which has also cost them their prey, it is we humans who have brought this conflict upon ourselves and fellow inhabitants of the Earth. Human settlements border most of our national parks. Roads run through the parks, some of which, like the Ranthambore National Park, also have temples inside. There is a steady stream of pilgrims walking in and out, at times to blaring music. Will humans intruding into their territory, animals will come face to face with the very humans they desperately want to avoid. And then a conflict could take place. And somebody might get hurt. And like always, the animal would be blamed.
Ranthambore's Ustad, Tiger Number 24, the latest victim of this conflict, bore the brunt because he had a history of being in conflict with humans. But the reality is that Ustad, like any other tiger, was only trying to protest his fast shrinking space.
Ustad's is a heartbreaking story. As he is being punished for a mistake/ sin which he never committed. He was merely doing what tigers do naturally, given that humans were intruders in his territory. The killings were more territorial, circumstantial and instinctive rather than targeted human killings.
Ustad has been sentenced to life imprisonment, for he was intolerant and had repeatedly objected to too close an intrusion into his life and privacy. His freedom of hundreds of square kilometers is limited to less than a hectare/ and a prison cage cell of a few square feet. The captive environment he has been condemned to is hardly suitable for him to carry out his natural and instinctive behavior. With time, his regal demeanor has undergone an operation for intestinal complications. Anybody who has been to a zoo would have seen how caged tigers behave.
They either sit listlessly, resigned to their fate, or they display abnormal behavior such as pacing to and fro in the cage. This is a sign of stress and anxiety in the animal. Plucked from an environment where he once lived and roamed with Noor and his cubs with royal abandon, the captive Ustad is also staring at a similar desolate future. I along with a dear friend and Leading theatre & Film personality Late Tom Altar, had even premiered a documentary on Ustad on the 20th of Sep 2015 at Alliance Francaise, Delhi, campaigning for his re-release back into the wild but could not succeed. For the magnificent animal that once ruled his territory freely and fearlessly, this is a tragedy beyond words.
(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).
(Navin M Raheja is a wildlife enthusiast and a passionate photographer. In the past 40 years, he has made several contributions in the field of conservation at various levels. A former member of the Project Tiger's steering committee, under the Ministry of Environment & forests, he worked persistently to ensure that the big cats survive in India. He is also Chairman of the Wildlife Conservation Society of India. With a holistic vision and being one of the top Real estate Developer, Raheja believes that development and protection of environment can happen simultaneously.)

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