I saw Ustaad four years ago, and he was breathtaking.
I had been travelling to Ranthambhore National Park with my family for years by then – I had visited the jungle innumerable times, and seen some of the most popular tigers, including the famous Macchli. But Ustaad, or as I first knew him, T 24, was by far the most beautiful creature I had ever set eyes on.
We sat in our gypsy as he strolled across the road, just meters away from us, seemingly oblivious to our presence, his stomach hanging low, which, as our guide told us, meant he had just eaten. He seemed to be like any other tiger I had seen, his appearance and his behaviour resembling those of his contemporaries.
But then he did something that set him apart, in my mind, forever.
While we stood in our vehicle, alongside all the others around us, the sound of camera shutters working like background music to set the scene, Ustaad suddenly stopped in his endeavour of manoeuvring his way among the bushes, turned his head, and looked, it seemed, straight at me.
Our eyes met, and I literally felt like my heart had stopped, along with the passage of time.
His glance wasn’t lingering, like that of other members of his species who I had encountered. Instead, he held my gaze for what felt like hours, but was probably a few seconds, then nonchalantly turned his head, and walked out of my life, leaving me awestruck.
Ustaad has been a central part of the news the last few days, the topic of great controversy and debate. The reason? After three attacks on people in five years, he carried out a fourth. This time his victim was a forest guard, Rampal Saini, who worked in Ranthambhore for eighteen years, and then breathed his last, before his time, because of one of the creatures he worked so hard to protect.
Following this, in the midst of passionate arguments, the tiger was relocated to Sajjangarh Park, a decision that has met with a lot of flak and protests, with several pictures circulating online in the animal’s support, including images of ‘Je Suis Ustaad’ (honestly, at least use the local language for this).
A lot of the arguments in favour of Ustaad have got my blood boiling, something that hasn’t happened for months now, and which is really not a feeling I cherish.
The prime amongst these is one that claims the tiger has a right to kill people when they encroach into his territory, and hence anyone who goes into the jungle has no right to cry foul when he is attacked. The solution? Leave the animals alone.
The reality? If even forest guards leave the animals alone, poachers will have free reign. It is necessary, if the animals are to be protected, for some amount of human encroachment into the jungle to take place, even if you exclude tourism. This does, whether we like it or not, involve some amount of movement on foot, into parts of the jungle where vehicles cannot go- a task T24’s latest victim was entrusted with for many years, and while doing which he risked his life, day in and day out.
Saini died days ago, but stories about the events surrounding his death that continue to circulate are many, each more offensive than the one before, all claiming the victim was at fault, had done something to provoke his perpetrator.
There are, inarguably, tigers who only kill because they are provoked, who attack to defend themselves, to kill people they believe are a threat to them, and these are deaths that everyone who lives around the forest of Ranthambhore- hoteliers and villagers alike- have reconciled themselves with. These are deaths that occur more regularly than we hear about them, and are seen as the fault of the victims.
But the fact is, Ustaad wasn’t provoked, not this time, not before.
The reason his attacks have attracted so much attention is because they were uncharacteristic, because they were unprovoked. He attacked from behind-he stalked and followed, then attacked. Attacked, not defended.
Of the animal’s three victims before Saini, two were villagers and one was a forest guard. The bodies of the former were partly consumed when they were found, and that of the latter only survived because it was removed, keeping the tiger at bay, before it could meet with the same fate (crucial facts that have been left out in almost all the news reports I have read).
A tiger that, when unprovoked, has killed three people, is not to be taken lightly- this is something I, at the age of twenty-two, being only a regular visitor to the jungle, know. To believe that a man who has worked in the jungle for eighteen years will suddenly decide to let his guard down, or do something foolhardy, in the very area where such a tiger dominates, is ridiculous to say the least.
Then there are reports and debates around the relocation of the tiger, with some of the people against the move blaming it on hoteliers who they believe supported the relocation only because they were afraid a man-eating tiger would scare tourists away and ruin business. That makes little sense. If anything, a man eating tiger would be much more likely to attract more tourists, adding to the thrill of the forest.
It is also important to understand, when talking of relocation, that removing Ustaad from Ranthambhore was essential because his actions, while there, posed a threat directly to humans, but indirectly to other members of his species as well.
The villagers around the forest have been living more or less in harmony with its occupants for years now. If, however, they feel the creatures have started to pose a threat to them, could attack them when they have done nothing to deserve such behaviour, their protective instincts will most likely take over, and in the battle between humans and animals that will follow, the latter will undoubtedly lose.
I see nothing wrong in voicing an opinion regarding Ustaad’s relocation, in favour or against it. I don’t agree with those who argue for the latter, but that doesn’t mean they are at fault. What annoys me is that most of the arguments emerging in support of the animal seem uninformed, ignorant, and, worst of all, disrespectful to the memory of his latest victim- a man who died while working to protect the creatures of the forest, including the one who killed him.
I have loved tigers for as long as I remember. The first time I saw the pug marks of a tiger in Corbett National Park, I promptly claimed I wanted to do the big job, because I didn’t want to admit I was terrified, and I knew it was a strategy that would get us out of the jungle and back home quicker than any other I could adopt (It had been tried and tested in Goa- I was terrified of the water). But from being terrified of pug marks, I soon lost all fear of the owners of those marks.
I warmed up to tigers. I began to admire them, and eventually fell in love with them.
But I don’t think I ever admired any animal as much as Ustaad, who made a lasting impression on me with just one look. I don’t know what his fate will finally be, but I don’t see his return to Ranthambhore leading to good things for anyone, especially him.
However, despite everything he’s done, regardless of what the consequences of his actions will be, he continues, in my mind, to be the king of his species- majestic, regal, magnificent.