Tiger T24 (Ustad)

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Who was Ustad?
Born in 2005 to the tiger, T20 (Jhumroo) and tigress, T22 (Gayatri), T24 (Ustad) is a mighty and attractive male tiger who ruled the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve for 9 years. He lived a happy life with his partner T39 (Noor) and thundered about in his zone without any major competition from other male tigers, except few minor tiffs with his sibling T25 (Zaalim). Once a rising star of the Ranthambore Reserve, T24 was named as ‘Ustad’ by the locals owing to his free spirit. He was always a bit different from other tigers and would drag his prey to highway to eat it in full public view; he would also not move away from the path seeing humans approaching as other normal tigers do. Despite of all his unconventional behaviours, he was the major draw to Ranthambore Reserve and was loved by wildlife freaks and photographers.

What brought Ustad in limelight?
Majestic and intrepid, Ustad came into limelight of entire nation when he killed a veteran forest guard, Rampal Saini on the doomed day of May 8, 2015. A very brave forest guard, Rampal lived fearlessly amidst tigers but, seeing the menacing ways and changing behaviour of T24 over past few years, even he felt nervous and scared sometimes, claims his family.

On May 8, sighting Ustad at a waterbody near the 4 km. Ranthambore fort road that is frequented by many devotees visiting the Ganesha Temple inside the reserve premises, when Rampal went to look for him, he was mauled to death by the ferocious tiger. This was not the first reported attack of Ustad; he had earlier also been charged of killing two villagers in July 2010 and March 2012 respectively and another forest guard in October 2012. Tigers are usually shy of humans and avoid confrontation with them unless harmed but, the case of T24 was a bit different. As per the villagers residing in the vicinity of the Tiger Reserve, Ustad had grown violent and aggressive over few years; his human fear had faded; chasing vehicles and catching humans as his prey had become like a routine for him.

What made Ustad a Man-Eater?
According to the well-known conservationists, Dharmendra Khandal and Raza Tehsin, the ever changing behaviour of Ustad has a lot to do with him being tranquilized and confined to cage for many continuous days, quite frequently all these years. Be it for his treatment of injured paw, curing constipation or for putting up a radio collar on him, frequent episodes of tranquilizations and injections took a toll on his natural behaviour. The transfer of eight tigers from his clan to other wildlife reserves, disturbing his family structure in early years of his life, also contributed to his wild behaviour towards humans. Tourism is another great factor that cannot be overlooked for being one of the main contributors to the man-eating behaviour of tigers; private leasing of core areas of forest reserves and invading the reserved territories of these wild animals to arrange for sight-seeing and night tours - a tiger will definitely go wild in such circumstances and repeated instances of human invasion will for sure, turn him into a man-eater.

What provoked relocation of Ustad from Ranthambore?
After the incident of March 2012, an advisory was raised to NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority), suggesting an immediate relocation of Ustad to a secluded location before he could make another human his prey. But, suddenly branding a tiger as a man-eater was against the regulations of NTCA and forest authorities. Therefore, Ustad was allowed to move about unrestricted in the forest reserve. May 2015 was the highpoint for villagers suffering from the rising terror of Ustad; witnessing another loss of human life by this aggressive beast, an outrage amongst villagers and forest guards was quite obvious this time. Bearing the protests from villagers and other forest guards patrolling the territory of T24, Ustad was moved to Sajjangarh Biological Park in Udaipur on May 16, 2015. Located at a distance of 400 km. from the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve and away from human settlements, at the biological park, Ustad was confined to a natural enclosure spread over an area of less than a hectare in contrast to the 5000 hectare of Ranthambore where he spent his life as the 'King of Jungle'.

Protests against relocation of Ustad
The movement of Ustad to a different zone raised a lot of discontent and outrage amongst wildlife experts and photographers. One of the most beautiful male tigers of the Ranthambore Reserve, T24 was an eye-candy and a delight for wildlife enthusiasts who swamped to the reserve just to have a glimpse of him. With his unmatched appeal and swagger, Ustad had undoubtedly, raised a huge fan following for himself. The tag of 'MANEATER' for Ustad to his fans seemed to be indigestible. According to Ustad's supporters, the killings attributed to Ustad, were mere accidents. They also supported their statements with the fact that tiger never himself ventured out of his territory seeking people to kill, neither had he ever attempted to kill any of the thousands of people frequenting the road to the temple and fort that falls in his zone. Even the former Environment Minister of Rajasthan, Bina Kak, stood firmly supporting the tiger with pictures of him walking calmly past a group of village women carrying water.

Promoting the return of Ustad to his original grounds, there were many protests and huge demonstrations, especially on social media channels. Candle marches and rallies in support of T24, also spread his story in international media. International broadcast networks like BBC and Al Jazeera covered the entire story and brought a global fame to Ustad.

Supporting the protests, a Pune resident and a tiger lover, Chandra Bhal Singh, even filed a petition against the state forest department and Ranthambore forest officials in Supreme Court for relocating Ustad discretely and abruptly to Udaipur Biological Park without even waiting for an approval from NTCA. Later, an RTI plea was also filed to the Ministry of Environment and Forests seeking answers from the state government for hastily translocating Ustad without formally informing the concerned authorities. While the case still ponders upon, a committee has been filed to look into rehabilitation of T24. Whether he remains in the captivity of Sajjangarh zoo or is released in Ranthambore with a close watch on him, the decision lies in the hands of state forest department and NTCA.

What tiger experts and wildlife conservationists say in support of Ustad's relocation?
Contradicting the facts of Ustad's supporters, neighbouring villagers claimed to have been chased by Ustad many times while returning from work in the evenings. The observation of Ustad licking the blood of Rampal Saini by Dharmendar Khandal, the expert wildlife biologist studying tigers and ecology of Ranthambore Reserve for past many years, had its own credibility. Even the renowned tiger expert, Valmik Thapar, could not held back claiming that he had always seen danger in the eyes of Ustad.

What's the latest on Ustad?
Adjusting to his new confinement amidst sandalwood trees, a team of veterinarians is looking after the health and well-being of Ustad. His thunderous roar every morning and evening, even today, raises the pulse of forest officials. He still craves for a new love in his life - going and sitting at the corner of his cage listening to the roars of Damini, the tigress residing in the adjacent enclosure, makes it quite evident. On the other end, Noor and his cubs, a 4 years old Sultan and two 14 months old cubs, await their fate of either being killed or hurt by the new ruler of the territory. Praying for Ustad's good health, we just hope he again gets a chance to move back in wild and enjoy his unprecedented authority.

Some thought provoking questions
While the state forest department and NTCA are still fighting over legal procedures and regulations that should have been followed in translocating T24 to a new zone, we are posed with many unanswered questions; whether the state government was right on its part of taking the decision to relocate a tiger that had become a threat to human life? Whether the decision of forest department influenced by the pressure of hoteliers for whom Ustad posed to be a threat to their business? Whether Ustad had really turned into a man eater? If yes, should we not, as tourists, be held responsible for invading the territories of these wild animals and turning them hostile? There are many more questions that remain unanswered. But, for us as humans, it's high time now to realize the importance of maintaining a perfect balance in the eco-system. Whether Ustad was a man-eater or not, if we do not mend our ways of poaching and interrupting the territories of these wild creatures, it may not be long before another news of one more tiger killing a man hits the headlines.

Suggestions for wildlife authorities
The Indian wildlife reserve authorities should come forward with stringent plans of minimising human interference in the core forest areas. Providing shuttle bus services in areas like fort road of Ranthambore that is frequented by many humans, should be a responsibility of forest authorities. Physical support with proper defence equipment against attack of tigers to forest guards patrolling the areas on foot, should also be well taken care off. Wildlife regulatory authorities like NTCA should also work towards bringing in effective wildlife tourism policies for all wildlife reserves so that illegal activities can be effectively controlled.

Today, the tigers have lost over 93% of their territory to human developments and concrete jungles. Conserving tigers today, is far more important than promoting wildlife tourism. It is only with the joint effort of people and wildlife authorities can we bring about an ecological balance and see the population of tigers grow in India.