Hero or villain? – the battle for tiger T24 of Ranthambhore

On May 8th 2015, news emerged from India that a 56 year old forest guard employed in one of the country’s premier tiger reserves had been mauled and killed by one of its resident tigers. It later transpired that the alleged attacker was tiger T24 (or Ustad as he is also known) and that, far from being an isolated incident, the guard was in fact the fourth victim attributed to this particular big cat over a five year period. The reserve in question was Ranthambhore, located in the northern state of Rajasthan and the tiger was one of its most most famous and photographed residents. Establishing its territory in zone 1 of the reserve, T24 was one of the most frequently encountered tigers in Ranthambhore and consequently he had become a major draw for tourists. The previous deaths attributed to T24 included two local villagers and a second forest guard, all taken on separate occasions. In two of the reported incidents, parts of the bodies had been consumed whilst in the other events, including the latest, it was speculated that rescuers arrived promptly to retrieve the carcasses before they could be eaten. This, in the opinion of the local authorities in the reserve, was sufficient to label T24 as a man eater. But is he?

Tiger T24 -emerging from the undergrowth
Tiger T24 – One of the most photographed tigers in India

This is a difficult question to tackle. Just because a tiger may kill and consume all, or part, of a human does not automatically make him a man eater. To achieve this dubious distinction requires the recognition of a number of other factors at play. Firstly, it must be established that a tiger has lost its fear of humans and has actively taken to stalking them as a prey species. Secondly, this behaviour should be a regular occurrence as opposed to an isolated, or series of isolated, incidents. In both cases, the evidence against T24 would appear to be inconclusive. Let us consider the testimony provided by two of the ‘rescuers’ that arrived on the scene within half an hour of the attack taking place. T24, they claimed, had to be chased away from the corpse to prevent it from being eaten. Both witnesses retracted an initial assertion that the tiger continued to hold the victim’s body by the neck as the rescue car arrived, following a subsequent admission that they were not present at the time of retrieval. Both men, however, remain convinced of the dangers inherent in the tiger’s continued presence in the reserve. Valmik Thapar, doyen of Ranthambhore and its tigers, falls short of classifying T24 as a man eater but nevertheless supports this assessment, claiming that in all his years of experience this particular tiger is the most dangerous that he has encountered. This view, however, is by no means universal.

Bina Kak, a former minister in the state government, dismisses the so-called evidence as subjective and, at best, speculative, producing a photograph of a recent encounter between the alleged man eater and a party of three women carrying fuel wood through its territory.

Tiger watching villagers traverse his territory.
Bina Kak’s photo of a close encounter.

Following a cursory glance at the humans, T24 turned and retreated from any potential encounter. Furthermore, the fact that religious pilgrims regularly traverse the tiger’s territory in order to effect access to a temple, provides further ammunition as to T24’s continuing tolerance of humans, as does the constant stream of tourist traffic seeking photographic opportunities. If we subscribe to this particular argument, the evidence would suggest that in each episode it was most likely a chance encounter that created a situation in which T24 killed essentially as a self defence mechanism. The subsequent consumption of human flesh is not sufficient to label him a man eater and, as a consequence, management should seek to prevent the incidence of such encounters moving forward. Reports of the most recent attack may in fact support this scenario, with the forest guard allegedly searching for T24 in dense vegetation, behind a hedgerow.

This argument becomes even more persuasive when we consider the location in which the attacks took place. In each instance, the events occurred within the confines of the tiger reserve, an area set aside for the protection of tigers against the insidious influences of human intrusion. Within these inviolate spaces, tigers are provided the security to act like tigers and, however regrettable the human cost may be, such encounters need to be managed carefully. If the attacks were to take place outside this zone of protection then the resulting decision may point towards more radical action but, in light of the remit granted to India’s protected areas, the burden of evidence must rest with the authorities to categorically prove the tiger in question to be a confirmed man eater before any decision as to its removal can be justified. And here, an established set of procedures exist to formalise such arrangements.

Such arguments provide us with an interesting academic debate but, in the immediate locale, reserve staff and local communities understandably fear the potential for future attacks. Responding to concerns for their personal safety in the aftermath of the latest incident, forest guards threatened to engage in strike activity should the authorities decide that T24 could remain in the reserve. If acted upon, such strike action may have increased the ever present threat from poachers operating in the area. Moreover, reserve managers feared a backlash from local communities residing in proximity to Ranthambhore and viewed this to be a clear and present danger to all the tigers contained in the park, not just T24. Concerns like these are supported by evidence from previous conflict situations of this nature, where a rapidly deteriorating relationship with, and erosion of trust in, forest authorities have culminated in direct action by local communities, involving the indiscriminate killing of wildlife. Here, the conservation ethic favours protection of tigers in the plural, meaning that there may be a justification for the sacrifice of an individual animal in order to ensure greater security for the whole population.

a dead tiger with a crowd of onlookers
Retaliatory killings are common following incidents of man eating

As it transpired, local pressures were building as the forest department was criticised for inactivity and, in a quest to defuse such a potentially incendiary situation, officials decided that it was time to act. There were four main options available. T24 would be allowed to remain in his territory, subject to enhanced vigilance and observation; he would be translocated to another reserve with less pressure from human intrusion; he would be removed and relocated to a captive facility; or his life would be terminated. In the event, within a week of the fatal attack, a decision was taken to track and tranquillise the tiger and transport him over 400km to a zoological facility in Udaipur. This may appear on the surface to have been a sensible course of action, but few people at the time could have anticipated the level of controversy such a decision would cause.

As the column inches dedicated to the T24 situation mounted up, the tiger quickly became a cause célèbre on social media. Facebook campaigns emerged to demand ‘Ustad’s’ return to the wild and to urge tourists to ‘boycott’ Ranthambhore until the situation had been satisfactorily resolved. A concerted campaign on twitter clamoured for T24’s immediate release and, amidst a profusion of associated hashtag demands, the #bringbackustaad campaign was quickly translated into a physical movement.

Poster with caption - A tigers real home is the jungle. Free Ustad"
The Save Ustad campaign drew considerable support on social media

Candlelit vigils and sit-down demonstrations appeared across India, soon spreading to other major cities across the world. What would happen to T24’s cubs? the protestors asked. In all likelihood the cubs would be killed by the rival male that moved in to claim T24’s vacant territory in order to bring their mother quickly back into oestrus so that mating could take place. Time was therefore deemed to be of the essence and a campaigner from Pune wasted little time in filing a petition at the Rajasthan High Court to demand the tiger’s reinstatement to Ranthambhore. But as so often in India, the wheels of justice turn at an unerringly slow pace and, in an attempt to accelerate the process, the petitioner approached the Supreme Court in an attempt to fast track the hearing. The ultimate outcome of this action was the court’s support for the status quo, although the Ranthambhore authorities were required to submit a full report to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) setting out the reasons for T24’s removal from the reserve. The NTCA provides a clear protocol to states for dealing with the issue of man eating tigers and, in this case, the decision was taken without their advice being sought or their approval given.

In a subsequent report, the NTCA concluded that T24 should not have been classified as a man eater and that the decision to remove him to a captive facility was therefore unwarranted. The judgement was predicated on the grounds that evidence pointed to the fact that humans had ventured too close to the tiger within its territory and, recognising the time lapse between the various attacks, attributed T24’s behaviour as resulting from chance encounters as opposed to any premeditated action on the part of the tiger. Moreover, the NTCA censured the Rajasthan state government for failing to comply with the requirements of section 11 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act and gaining the requisite permissions before unilaterally deciding upon removing the animal from the reserve. Although at the time of writing, T24 remains in captivity in Udaipur and the flow of social media pressure has slowed to a trickle, the NTCA has called for T24’s release back into the wild. Only time will tell where and when this repatriation will take place but it is clear that this unfortunate episode has raised some important issues affecting the future of tiger conservation in India. As with so many stories of this kind, the facts are relatively unimportant as it is the themes that matter and the impact of these moving forward.

In relation to the T24 debate, a number of key issues demand our attention. In the broader scheme of things, the actual decision to relocate the tiger is less important than the process followed in determining its fate. You must have consistency and transparency, hence the existence of clear standard operating procedures that need to be complied with. Perhaps the lack of compliance in this example is indicative of a growing tension and power struggle between the centre (in this case the NTCA) and the state apparatus. Moreover, at the reserve level, management considered it essential to reach a speedy decision to counter increasing dissatisfaction evident within its surrounding communities. The resolution they arrived at entailed trading off the rights of the individual (in this case T24) for the good of the collective (the entire tiger population), an approach consistent with the conservation ethic yet antithetical to the views of animal rights advocates. What emerged was a noticeable difference in the way the situation was understood by urban interests and the rural communities that suffer the predations of such conflict. Those living and working in the immediate vicinity of tiger reserves have to deal with the fear and danger every day, meaning that support can soon be eroded if such incidents are not dealt with swiftly and effectively. On the other hand, social campaigns of the type that emerged in the aftermath of the latest attack appear to be more emotive and indeed ephemeral. As soon as the next controversy appears, like the well publicised slaughter of Cecil the lion in Zimbabwe at the hand of an American trophy hunter, so concern is transferred to that particular cause. The task of the decision makers can therefore be seen as as a difficult one, needing to seek an appropriate balance in arriving at a pragmatic decision to defuse such conflict before they become irretrievable. Resisting calls for lethal control in the case of T24, in favour of his removal into captivity was viewed by the authorities as the best way to achieve this.

Tiger T24 in captivity
Tiger T24 captive in Udaipur.

The emotional outpouring witnessed on social media and beyond reflects the growing interest in, and concern for, endangered wildlife. It also signals the emergence of a new form of engagement that constitutes a potentially powerful political lobby in the fight for tigers. Wildlife authorities need to learn a lesson here and seek ways in which to broaden the focus of such concerns and increase the longevity of resulting campaigns. Critics of the current social media campaign decry its limited cynosure and its apparent unwillingness to challenge more potent threats to the tiger’s continuing persistence in the wild. Ideally, this concern needs to be translated into, and sustained through, concerted action against rampant, unregulated development in and around reserves and to demand the levels of political will required to tackle the menace of poaching. If this can be achieved, then whatever the final outcome of the T24 controversy may be, it will mean that Ustad’s fifteen minutes of fame will not have been in vain.

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