Sunday, May 22, 2016

Why releasing Ustad does conservation no favours

An edited version of this article was published in the Wire as The Case for Ustad’s Relocation Out of Ranthambore on 22 May 2016

 Photograph: Dharmendra Khandal

Ustad draws more tears, articles, and petitions than any other tiger, living or dead. More than a month after the Supreme Court refused to free the famous cat, also known as T24, the clamour for his liberation refuses to die down.

An article published on 18 May 2015, alleges, “hoteliers, NGOs, forest officers, tourism officials, mafia groups and politicians” conspired to throw the poor tiger from Ranthambore into life in captivity. It claims Ustad's only crime was to sniff the spot where forest guard Rampal Saini had been killed moments earlier. And it asserts, “However, there was not a single eyewitness.”

Rarely does anyone witness a wild animal attack a human. Especially, not by a stealthy predator like a cat. Nor can evidence of the kind used to try humans in a court of law be produced to indict animals. Proof is by necessity circumstantial, and forest officials are forced to act based on faint clues in the dirt. You'd have to face a mob of irate and distraught villagers to know that no one can reason, 'There were no eyewitnesses. We can't do anything.'

A car full of people witnessed the attack on Saini. They arrived on the scene first, and its occupants, including the brother of a local sarpanch, tried hard to free him from the tiger's jaws. The driver honked and revved his engine to scare the animal away. Three forest guards and an employee of a local NGO Tiger Watch arrived next, but by then the tiger had left. They rushed the grievously injured guard to hospital that declared him dead on arrival. No one paused to get a photograph of the tiger.

Within half an hour, forest officials and others congregated at the site and the search for the culprit began. An hour after the incident, Assistant Conservator of Forests Daulat Singh, Dharmendra Khandal, who heads Tiger Watch, and accompanying guards saw Ustad sniffing the spot where Saini had been killed. As they followed the animal by jeep, Khandal fell off the vehicle when the driver braked hard. The tiger turned around and headed for the fallen man. A fit Khandal scrambled into the vehicle before the cat got close. This description is taken from a report Khandal filed with the Forest Department soon after the incident and a subsequent email exchange.

The forest guard wasn't the only victim. At least three other humans were killed, and Ustad is the suspected culprit in all those cases.

Khandal’s report to the Forest Department encapsulates these incidents, and Aditya Singh, who owns a resort in the area, provided additional details. T24 wore a radio-collar that put him at the site of the first human killing in 2010. Researchers removed the radio-collar subsequently.  On the night of Holi 2012, people found the remains of the second victim.  A lot of the corpse had already been eaten. More than a hundred people helped foresters scare off the tiger before recovering parts of the body that night. The next day, foresters followed pugmarks from the site to a tiger resting under a bush. It was Ustad.

In October 2012, a Forest Department driver found T24 sitting on the corpse of a third victim, a guard like Saini, within moments of the attack. The tiger was licking blood oozing from the dead man's wounds. Like the previous two human kills, the body had been dragged some distance, not a sign of an accidental mauling. Foresters burst fire crackers to get the animal to budge. But the cat was so bold that neither the onlookers nor the noise fazed him. And then there was Saini, the fourth person to be killed.

As Khandal points out, a startled tiger lashes out with its paws. A tiger intends to kill when it tiptoes behind a human and snaps his neck, like it would a deer. All four victims bore deep canine puncture wounds on the neck; they were the tiger's prey.

Gheesu Singh killed by a tiger's bite to the neck
Photograph: Dharmendra Khandal

This track record, more than any conspiracy, is the reason no conservationist or tiger biologist of repute agrees with the 'Free Ustad' brigade. They are of the unanimous view that Ustad had to be removed.

No normal tiger approaches a fallen man, drags and defiantly guards a corpse, and kills victims with a bite to the neck. These are enough grounds for action against the one tiger that was present at four locations where humans had been killed.

According to the standard operating procedure of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) [pdf], “[C]onfirmed habituated tiger/leopard which 'stalk' human beings and feed on the dead body are likely to be ‘man-eaters.’”

Noted conservationist Valmik Thapar, who has worked in Ranthambore for decades, says he asked the state Forest Department to remove Ustad after the second death in 2012.  Tiger biologist Ullas Karanth wrote to Sanctuary Asia, “Any tiger that loses its inherent fear of human beings on foot, and displays aberrant behaviour of stalking or attacking human beings should be immediately removed. In my opinion, T24 should have been removed after the very first human attack years ago.” However, the department mistakenly gave the tiger more than one chance because the victims were inside the park illegally, and two of its poor employees paid the price.

Even if all the evidence is thrown out, Ustad had to be removed simply because he was too familiar with people. No doubt baiting and repeated captures to treat an infection and constipation made him a bold animal. These blunders can’t be compounded by the graver and unconscionable one of allowing the tiger to run loose.

This situation echoes another that played out in Karnataka a couple of years ago. A tiger in Coorg lost its fear of humans, chasing cars and following motorcyclists. It was suspected of killing a woman but there was no hard proof. Karanth advised the department not to release it elsewhere, saying, “In the longer term we want more tiger habitat protected, and, without public and political support, that goal will be undermined if human predation events continue…” But the state Forest Department relocated the tiger to Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary. More than a month later, it was shot dead after it killed a young pregnant woman.

The Rajasthan Forest Department ought to have followed the NTCA’s guidelines in capturing Ustad, but it didn't. A court can free a human prisoner if procedural lapses mar his trial. Such nuances have no place in dealing with a suspected man-eater. More importantly, the department followed the law. The Wildlife Protection Act is clear – any animal that is a threat to human life can be captured with the permission of the Chief Wildlife Warden. This is the reason that neither the Rajasthan High Court nor the Supreme Court thought it fit to release Ustad.

In Himachal Pradesh, many leopards are declared man-eaters on even flimsier grounds and shot dead by sharpshooters. Often, innocent animals are killed. This is not to justify Ustad's incarceration but to highlight that India doesn't have the forensic wherewithal to deal with animal attacks to the degree the Western world does. When tigers target humans, the department has to act fast before the situation becomes worse. Not only does it become a law and order problem, there is every possibility of losing another human life.

We don't know enough about the behaviour of man-eaters for obvious reasons. Do they always progress from cattle-lifting to man-eating? Why were the kills spread over a five-year period? No one knows. But forest officials cannot fail to act while waiting for answers.

If Ustad is released, forest guards' lives are in danger as they patrol the jungle on foot. They are paid and equipped poorly. In their efforts to drive Ustad away from corpses, they had no more than lathis to defend themselves. Understandably, they felt their jobs had become risky and petitioned the authorities to capture Ustad. If the community feels unsafe, it will deal with the problem using crude cruel means. Under the circumstances, no forest official can take responsibility for releasing him.

Campaigning to free a suspected man-eater displays a breathtaking disdain for people's lives. Conservationists spend considerable effort defusing conflict and reducing the price local people pay for conservation, such as protecting livestock from predators. Releasing Ustad would be a declaration of war. It doesn’t aid conservation as it jeopardises human lives, the future of the park and other resident tigers.

There's no dearth of worrisome developments for anyone concerned about the tiger's future in India. For instance, 30 tigers in Panna will lose their homes if the Ken-Betwa river linking project goes through. The widening of NH7 will snap corridors between the forests of central India, and tiger will be stuck in their tiny forested islands, their future genetic viability under threat. Rather than Ustad, these tigers consume the energy and efforts of any right-thinking conservationist.


A video by Sandesh Kadur

Rukmini Shekhar rebuts the rebuttal [You can see it in full at the Wire site.] I'm just going to answer a few of her questions.

Rukmini: The writer writes with 100% certainty that Ustad was a man eater given all the circumstantial evidence.

JL: It is circumstantial evidence. I haven't argued otherwise. Ustad just happened to be at the site of four human kills which is a remarkable coincidence.

Rukmini: Why did a jeep-full of people rush to the spot? What was their interest in it?

JL: Because the ACF was in it and it's his duty to go and check a case of human mortality. Unless she means the car full of people. Remember the incident took place near the main entrance. The car was returning from a temple when the occupants heard alarm calls and went to investigate.

Rukmini: If indeed Ustad did attack Mr. Khandal, how come he (Ustad) sobered up between May 9th and May 16th?

JL: You could well ask why did Ustad not kill anyone between 2010 and 2012. Who knows what triggers a hunt? A tiger can amiably watch chital grazing one day and go into hunt mode the next. Can you look at a tiger peacefully watching chital and say it's a vegetarian?

Rukmini: Why were the kills spread over a five-year period? No one knows.” – We know.

JL: Wow. The certainty of argument is astonishing.

Rukmini: The NTCA guidelines say that a proper man-eating tiger would, in the normal course, be responsible for at least three killings a week!

JL: If Ustad is constipated and ate one human a week, he wouldn't be a man-eater! Besides, this is a load of bullshit. Nothing in the NTCA's SOP says anything about three killings a week or otherwise. See for yourself -

Rukmini: Quotes CCF who says a lot and asks "why didn’t he eat parts of his [Gheesu Singh] body."

JL: Because the corpse was removed immediately. Surely as CCF he ought to know that. Ustad was licking the man's wounds, typical tiger behaviour before eating.

Rukmini: What was Saini doing at that time in the bushes?

JL: Does it matter? Does a tiger selectively pick people who are doing particular activities? Gheesu was inspecting road works and Rampal went to investigate the presence of a tiger. 

Rukmini quotes the CCF: Ustad’s so-called loss of fear of humans (which deems him a maneater) flies in the face of his aggressive behaviour in Sajjangarh Zoo, where he still charges at humans.

JL: You can't compare wild and captive behaviour. Even an amateur wildlife  enthusiast knows that.  Amazing a wildlife warden can ask this question. Many wild animals confined in an enclosed space and forced into close contact with humans in a setting not of their choosing, will be aggressive. Leopards at the Manikdoh rescue centre are just as ferocious, charging the bars, snarling, and growling. Some of them are supposedly man-eaters, some are not.

Rukmini:  Being an aggressive tiger is not a crime. Ustad is not a domestic cat.

JL: Losing fear of humans is. Refusing to back off when faced with hundreds of humans is. None of this portends well for a wild tiger.

Rukmini: I wish to say that God is in the nuances. It is the nuances that decide whether a poor animal is imprisoned for life because of vested interests or gets to roam the jungle like the proud and majestic animal that he is. 

JL: Essentially, what she's saying is tigers are no different from humans and we'd have to provide infallible evidence in every case of human-wild predator conflict. This isn't an exact science. It's a socio-political decision that forest officials have to make to keep the peace with communities. In some cases, innocent animals pay the price, but it serves the larger purpose of conservation. We just have to live with that. 

Rukmini: Ustad’s removal is not just the removal of one tiger but the utter failure of conservation that rests in the hands of commerce. 

JL: And where's the evidence for this? If you want evidence to prove an animal in a man-eater, surely you have to show evidence before making accusations against people. This is really an animal welfare issue, not a conservation one. Anything that jeopardises conservation in the long run can only be anti-conservation.


Deepika Kumaravel said...

Lenin makes so much sense that one wonders why a case for Ustad has been going on at all.

Anonymous said...

Thought provoking and extremely well articulated.

Ryan Lobo said...

Excellent blog Janaki. Beautifully written and makes eminent sense.

Unknown said...