A Tiger's plight

May 8, 2015, after a day full of meetings and conferences, I was having dinner with my wife when MD 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 May 8 when T-24 attacked 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 a 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 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 YK 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 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 tranquilised 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 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 wild-lifer 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 T-24. 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 continues to live a refugee life while themultiple 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 tranquilisations 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 sentenced 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 news came after that, since past 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
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