Why Ranthambore's man-eater Ustad isn't a murderer
We cannot expect a wild animal to have morality, of feeling guilty of terms which describe criminals - murder, manslaughter or assault.
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These two words summarise the polarities of a remarkable debate raging around the fate of Ustad, a burly, golden-eyed male tiger from Ranthambhore. Charged with killing four people, and eating at least three of them, Ustad has recently been caught from his native Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve and moved into captivity. This has led to a social media storm, with petitions both online and in the Supreme Court claiming that Ustad, also known as T24, has been wronged.
On one side of the debate is evidence that establishes that Ustad is a man-eater, and for the larger sake of tiger conservation, should be removed. On the other side of the debate are those who believe that literally bloodthirsty calls for the tiger's blood have led to an unfair and unchaste evacuation, and have violated the tiger's rights.The more important question is: How T24 aka Ustad crossed the line?
Ustad is sheer poetry in his photographs. And there are many of those. Broad shouldered, tawny-eyed, in turns lazy, in turns snarling, insouciant, always regal. Ustad hung around a tourist zone in Ranthambhore, and that combined with his intrepid, Alpha nature gave him a special place in many, many cameras.
And then, what happened? Why did a normally reticent animal become a killer? In the forest, or outside it, if you meet a tiger, it will glance at you, and cover you completely in its gaze. But usually, it will lumber off. It will not attack, because unlike our familiarity with this celebrity animal, tigers are really not that interested in people. And isn't that what interests people in tigers? Tigers appear very human in a certain sense. The mother is strongly attached to her cubs, and will defend them to her death. Tigers have expressive eyes and eyebrows, a strong face outlined in bold, deeply-black markings. And yet, they are never completely familiar. They tolerate people in their barely tolerating way; and their roars, their fights and their territoriality is satisfyingly, chillingly and overarchingly wild.
Why did Ustad cross the line? And how did Ustad cross the line? The second question is actually the one to ask. Ranthambhore, one of the most celebrated tiger reserves in the world, has too many tourists. Or at least, as insiders point out, too many tourists too close to tigers. In the tourism zones, cubs have grown up in the eyes of tourists, dynasties have been mapped, diseases have been documented (and sometimes treated by the forest department). In this over-familiarised space, Ustad crossed the line, not once but four times.
Those who defend Ustad defend his wildness, and point to his separation from his family. After being captured, a furious Ustad refused to eat, smashing his head on the bars of his cage in liquid, livid feline rage. Undoubtedly, this is a crushing end for a magnificently wild animal.
But for those who defend Ustad, I want to say this: Moving Ustad will ensure the future of the rest of Ranthambhore's wild tigers. Ustad killed two forest guards, from a force which has dedicated their lifetimes to protecting large obligate hunters. Forest guards don't lead glamorous lives. They have long working hours, and like sailors on long trips on creaky vessels, are prone - and vulnerable - to a range of diseases. Without access to clean water, constantly exposed to vector-borne diseases, forest guards, unlike tourists, do not have the option to zip off when wild spaces are getting too rainy, too squelchy, too impenetrable, too hot. And most of all, forest guards have to risk their lives to heavily armed, determined and diabolical poachers.
If we are to ask why did Ustad kill, we must also ask why is such a dedicated force asking for keeping the tiger out of Ranthambhore. It is simply because these men and women are convinced that Ustad selects people for prey, and the normal hesitation which accompanies a wild tiger's tolerance for people is not true for Ustad. It sounds like a cliché, but this time the greater good cliché is true: Ustad cannot be repatriated, for the greater good of tiger conservation.
Finally, to address a particular question - Why does a man-eater kill people - from a purely judgmental perspective - is the wrong one to ask. This is a human-centric question. We teach our children, morality, ethics and principles. Taking something wilfully away from another is terrible, particularly someone's life. This is seen as unpardonable especially if your nurture has taught you against this behaviour. But we cannot expect a wild animal to have such morality, of feeling guilty of terms which describe criminals - murder, manslaughter or assault. In that sense, calling a man-eater a "murderer" is value-laden and misleading.
In the same vein, once the tiger collapses the boundaries between hunting animals and hunting people, we need to remove it, with a minimum of spectacle.
The storm around Ustad and the familiarity people feel for him, is a sign that people want to care for tigers. But tigers cannot be cared for by being extensions of a human's egos. Just like Ustad should not be labelled a murderer, he shouldn't endanger more human lives just for the sake of wild freedom. Because eventually, the question we must address is circumstantial, and far more circumspect than the blinding "why did he do it". That question is the conditions under which a wild tiger was raised - conditions far too cramped with humans, with both people and cattle, and people in jeeps. For Ustad's sake, we must interrogate the far too busy tourism in Ranthambhore, and the constant human pressure from villages. And for Ustad's sake, we must resolve not to get too close to wild tigers.