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Sunday, June 7, 2015

T24 Tiger ~ who owns Ranthambore ..... villagers, hoteliers, Tigers or ?

Recently I had posted on ‘T 24’ – the Tiger in Court – the ‘man-eating’ tiger of Ranthambore, escaped a caged life in a zoo by a whisker on 21.5.2015, when the Supreme Court decided that he would continue to stay in the Sajjangarh Biological Park at Udaipur in Rajasthan for now !!!  . ‘Ustad’ was branded a ‘man-eater’ after he mauled to death a forest guard on May 8. Within days of the incident, he was drugged and translocated 530 km from Ranthambore to the Udaipur park, considered a rescue centre. There was a petition filed by  Chandra Bhal Singh, a Pune resident and tiger lover before the Court  contending  that  there was no forensic evidence that the particular tiger had killed the forest guard and three other people.  The petitioner contended that the Tiger had merely acted in self-defence !   Can there be another point of view ? Here is an interesting analysis as reported in ‘the First Post’ titled - Who owns the forests of Ranthambore-villagers, hoteliers, tigers or Lord Ganesha?

An engrossing conflict between man and animal, business and faith in the Ranthambore National Park has thrown up so many intriguing questions that India's highest courts have been drawn into the debate for answers.  At the centre of the debate is a ferocious male tiger (T-24), whose recent behaviour has given rise to suspicion that it has turned into a man-killer and perhaps also a man-eater.

On 8 May, the tiger caught a forest guard by the neck and killed him near the Park's entrance. Forest staff managed to scare away the tiger for a few minutes and retrieve the guard's body. But the tiger soon returned, began sniffing around for the victim and licking the blood that had formed a crimson pool on the spot. Tigers generally do not grab humans by the neck or eat their flesh or drink their blood. When they attack humans, mainly in self defence, tigers strike them with their paws and then run away.

But T-24, forest officials believe, may have started believing that human beings could be killed and devoured. Concerned about the change in its behavior, last week the forest department lured T-24 with bait, tranquilized it and within minutes transferred the tiger who ruled over a territory exceeding 30km to an open cage in a biological park in Udaipur, nearly 400 km from Ranthambore. "The forest department declared T-24 a killer and put him behind bars without a fair trial. It is unfair," says local activist, lawyer and biologist Akshay Sharma. The matter has now reached the Rajasthan High Court, which is hearing a petition challenging the tiger's incarceration without proper trial or scientific evidence. T-24 isn't an ordinary tiger. Before being relocated, unlike other tigers who prefer the interiors of a forest, T-24 lived on the periphery of the forest and Ranthambore town.

For almost nine years, tourists held him in awe and villagers in fear. It would often be seen loafing on the road that connects the Park with Ranthambhore, or seen lazing in the lawns of its busy hotels. A few days ago, it killed a sambhar (a large deer) near the entrance of Jhoomar Baori-Ranthambore's oldest hotel-and sat there in full public view for hours, leading to a long queue of curious tourists and local villagers outside the hotel. A tiger that can be spotted easily is a boon for the tourism industry. Guaranteed a darshan, tourists flock to a sanctuary. But the pre-requisite of this tourist-tiger relation is that the animal stay docile and allows itself to be peered at and photographed without gnashing it teeth.

But T-24 isn't a model tiger. A few years ago, it attacked a chowkidar just a few metres from the town's main road and sat with the body for almost 30 minutes. Earlier, two men were killed and eaten by a wild animal. The finger of suspicion again pointed at T-24 because the incidents happened in its territory. T-24 also interfered with matters of faith. Its territory overruns the only road that leads to a centuries old temple of Lord Ganesha near the Ranthambhore fort. Thousands of people go to the temple every year. But two weeks ago, the road was closed for a few hours and devotees were allowed only after forest officials managed to steer T-24 away from the temple.

Daya Shankar alias Rupa, a forest department employee, has patrolled the Ranthambhore park for almost 25 years. "I have never seen a tiger that grabs a man by the neck. Forest guards go deep inside the jungle, often all alone, with just a lathi. When one of their colleagues is killed, there is bound to be a lot of fear," he says, echoing wildlife expert Valmik Thapar's view that T-24 has become extremely dangerous. But activists claim there isn't clinching evidence of the tiger's culpability. "We don't know why it attacked the guard. Perhaps it felt danger, maybe the guard went too close to the animal," says Sharma. The activists are convinced that the state-government panicked under pressure from the hotel lobby, which has encroached the buffer-zone of the sanctuary, leading to popular opinion that 'tigers have come out of and hotels have entered the park.'

T-24 was relocated on the recommendation of a team comprising four forest officials, an hotelier whose property falls in the tiger's territory and an activist who runs an NGO in Ranthambhore. The National Tiger Conservation Authority should have been consulted before locking up the tiger, but the state government buckled under pressure from the hotel lobby and influential experts like Thapar, activists opposed to the relocation allege. "Hoteliers forced the decision on the Rajasthan government because they feared tourists will avoid Ranthambhore if T-24 continues to remain close to human habitats. They were scared of losing business," says Sharma. Forest department officers claim T-24 is best locked up in a cage. If a tiger becomes dangerous, the chief wildlife warden of the state has the power to get it killed. So, keeping it alive in an open cage is the better option.

Activists opposed to its relocation are demanding a scientific study to prove T-24 is a danger to human lives. And, if it is proven that it has turned into a man-eater, they want him to be sent to some other jungle, instead of a cage, where there is no risk of interaction with humans. The problem is, where in India can you guarantee that a tiger will never come face to face with a human being?

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

25th May 2015.

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