Ustad, The Tiger Goes to Zoo: An Indian Travesty

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On May 8th 2015, Tiger T-24 christened Ustad allegedly killed a forest guard in the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. This was apparently his fourth attack on a human being. Ustad, a male dominant tiger stayed in the part of the forest close to the Ranthambore Fort which houses a Ganesh temple frequented by pilgrims. After this attack on May 8th, Ustad was claimed to be a man eater by the Forest Authorities of the sanctuary and his fate was quickly sealed without paying the smallest heed to his welfare, the safety of his tigress and cubs or bearing in mind the consequences of the legal frameworks in place.

Without carrying out a scientific probe and other forms of due diligence required by law into the circumstances of the killing, the authorities promptly decided to translocate Ustad to a zoo in Rajasthan. He was shipped off to a Biological Park in Sajjangarh in Rajasthan, to acclimatise him to a life of wrongful imprisonment.

The facts surrounding the killing are still unclear. Different facts have emerged from different sources. Some newspaper reports claim that the victim, a forest guard was relieving himself under a tree in the tiger’s territory, while other reports state that Ustad had been seen loitering around the area where the attack had been perpetrated and to corroborate, he had blood on his paws. Yet another version of the fact says that the Forest Guard’s comrades saw T-72, Sultan drag him off but it was too late to help him. Despite these uncertainties, the Forest Authorities in their flawed judgment and without any legal backing sent him to the biological park without even informing the National Tiger Conservation Authority, which is a statutory body formed under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 for tiger preservation in the country.

A legal notice was issued to the Ranthambore forest authorities along with the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Chief Wildlife Warden of Rajasthan, and the NTCA amongst others by Wildlife enthusiast Chandra Bhal Singh through Enviro Legal Defence Firm, located in Delhi. Despite the service of notice, the forest authorities went ahead with their proposed plan. The notice asked them to show compliance with the relevant provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 before taking such an action.

This action of theirs was met with a case being filed in Delhi High Court for non compliance with the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. However, the Delhi High Court chose to adopt a hyper-technical mode and dismissed the matter stating that the cause of action lay in Rajasthan where the tiger was, ignoring the fact that the apex body for Tiger Conservation, the NTCA was located in Delhi.

The very next day, the Rajasthan High Court was approached, which reacted in a rather lax manner to the tiger’s plight and placed it for hearing on 28th May. This led to the case reaching the Supreme Court in the form of a Special Leave Petition in front of a vacation bench led by Justice A.K. Sikri.

Even though, the Supreme Court dismissed the case, it ordered that status quo would be maintained till the Rajasthan High Court heard the matter on 28th May, meaning that the Tiger would not be moved to a zoo from the Sajjangarh Biological Park till further orders of the Rajasthan High Court.

On 28th May, the Rajasthan High Court pronounced its order based on the written submissions of the parties. It said that, in its opinion, the tiger had become a man-eater and had been associated with three deaths in the past and therefore was a danger to the park and it was in everyone’s best interests for him to be translocated. It went on to say that it disagreed that the move was made as a result of the powerful tourism lobby and that the Chief Wildlife Warden had the power to do so under the Wildlife Protection Act without the NTCA’s permission.

Due to this judgment of the High Court, the Supreme Court was approached yet again by a Special Leave Petition and the Hon’ble Court agreed with the decision of the Rajasthan High Court.

Studies on man animal conflicts show that tigers attack humans only when they are threatened, or when due to some incapacity, they are unable to hunt their regular prey and hence to which the humans serve as alternative. Only under these circumstances, tigers become man-eaters and become brazen enough to attack humans in broad daylight, the best example being the Champawat Tigress who killed more than 400 human beings before being shot to death by Jim Corbett. A man-eater tiger loses all fear of humans. The area inhabited by Ustad was close to the path that led to the Ranthambore Fort, frequented by pilgrims. Never had an attack been reported from there. It was only in the territory of the tiger, and not on the path that there was any trouble. If Ustad was indeed a man-eater, this would not have been the case.

In previous judgments of the Supreme Court, such as Centre for Environment Law, WWF-I.v. Union of India (UOI) & Ors., the Hon’ble Supreme Court stated that while examining the necessity of a second home for an animal, the approach should be eco-centric and not anthropocentric and the “species best interest standard” should be applied. The focus should be to safeguard the interest of the species, as the species have equal rights to exist on this earth.

Further, there are Guidelines for declaration of tigers as man eaters; Standard Operating Procedure of translocation of tigers and declaring them to be man eaters; Guidelines for dealing with abandoned cubs, which have been prepared by the NTCA, and unfortunately, there is nothing to show that these were complied with in the instant case.

What makes this case significant is the amount of public uproar at the unlawful translocation of this animal. From protesting on social media to protesting on streets, the public took a united stand and wanted the Tiger to be set free, allowed to return home to Ranthambore and stay with his tigress and cubs, whose lives had been endangered by his absence. Another important facet is the fact that perhaps for the first time in the Indian legal history, three different Courts including the Supreme Court were approached consecutively in less than a week to protect the rights of tiger and his family.

The plight of Ustad makes one come to the painful realization that no amount of acts or statutes will be able to protect India’s diverse wildlife until Government agencies follow and implement them.

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