May <g data-gr-id="100">8</g> 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 said, “Ustad killed Rampal Saini”. Unbelievably unfortunate! I started making calls from the dinner table to the forest officials, to get more details of the incident.
Ustad has 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 was reported in October 2012 when he killed assistant forest officer <g data-gr-id="102">Ghisu</g> Singh who was relieving himself behind a jungle bush. I have 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 last victim Rampal Saini was on a routine patrol with two other members in the evening of 8th May when T-24 <g data-gr-id="101">attacked on</g> him. The incident took place near Atal Sagar area, around 100 metres from the main entrance of the park. I remember Rampal 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.
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 with his two brothers, T-23 and T-25. Ustad has been the most ferocious, handsome and recently, the most photographed male tiger of Ranthambore, who had lost all fear of human beings and had developed the habit of venturing out of the forest quite regularly and could often be seen on the Ranthambore road, on the outskirts of Sawai Madhopur town.
Ustad had been a doting father and an honest spouse too. At <g data-gr-id="128">times</g> I spotted him with Noor (T-39), another magnificent tigress in the park. Ustad ji shared his territory with <g data-gr-id="127">four year old</g> 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. I believe 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 <g data-gr-id="134">victims</g> 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, 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. In case T-24 was shifted, his territory was likely to be overtaken by another male, <g data-gr-id="135">may be</g> T-25 or T-34 or T-28.
As both the cubs of Noor were males, she alone cannot defend her two new cubs … and for now Sultan seems to be no match to be able to defend the territory and chances are Noor and Sultan might get injured or killed in a male territorial fight. But we 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 us leaving things to the committee constituted by the forest minister Shri Rajkumar Rinwa. I am a tiger <g data-gr-id="94">lover</g> but my only point is, 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 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 tranquilized him. As the tourists came out of the park, he was picked up in a swift and secret operation. No one even knew when the poor fellow suddenly found himself pacing in a tiny, 1 hectare enclosure at Sajjangarh Biological Park in Udaipur, after darkness had set in. Sadly, his days of freedom were over in Ranthambore.
One of my most memorable encounters with T-24 was on a monsoon evening while I was having a drink on the 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 kilometre away. Nevertheless, a single deer call is enough to arouse a wild-lifer’s interest and I was no exception.
Ten minutes later, a <g data-gr-id="90">sambhar</g> made another alarm call and was joined by one more <g data-gr-id="91">sambhar</g> 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 <g data-gr-id="103">Baodi</g>, to its very edge, from where it is possible to look at the ground outside the main entrance, right <g data-gr-id="104">upto</g> the wide parking lot situated some 70 <g data-gr-id="105">mts</g> 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 – the darkness which will never
come alive again.
Unfortunately, T-24 bore the brunt just because it had a history of conflicts with humans. It’s heartbreaking; I will not have any more encounters with him. What will happen to Sultan, Noor and their two male cubs of just 14 months now?
Well, time and destiney will take its course. 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 kilometres is caged into less than a hectare, and a prison cage cell of a few square feet.
(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)