The Jungle Book comes to our screens on 8 April, and will bring to life possibly the best-known tiger in fiction, Shere Khan.
But off screen, it is another tiger who is in the spotlight.
T-24 — or Ustad as he is popularly known — has been at the centre of a debate among Rajasthan state forest department officials, wildlife activists and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) ever since May 2015. After years of roaming free, since his birth in late 2005, Ustad was transported from the Ranthambore National Park to a zoo enclosure in the Udaipur Sajjangarh Biological Park — after he mauled a forest ranger to death that month.
The May 2015 attack was the fourth of its kind by Ustad, in five years. He had previously killed two villagers in July 2010 and March 2012, and another forest ranger in October 2012.
While the state forest department took the decision to move Ustad — whom they labelled a “man eater” — out of the wild and into captivity, it was met with stiff resistance from tiger conservationists. They moved the courts to block Ustad’s relocation, but were turned down.
Ustad, used to roaming over 5,000 hectares for the past nine years of his life, was placed in an enclosure that was a little under a hectare in area in Sajjangarh. News reports have stated that the tiger has been suffering from ill health for much of his time there and was operated on in December 2015.
In December, a fresh petition to move Ustad back to the wild was filed by tiger conservationist Ajay Dubey. In his petition, Dubey had said that Ustad had been “arbitrarily” branded a man eater, and that the deaths had been a result of humans straying into his territory (rather than the tiger hunting them down)”.
The NCTA had made a similar observation in a July 2015 report on Ustad’s relocation, stating that there had been a “considerable time gap between the attacks” on the humans, and that the killings had been the “consequences of chance encounters due to excessive human proximity to (the) tiger.” However, the forest department officials stood by their assessment; they said that relocating the tiger to another location in the wild was not an option.
And on Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that Ustad should remain in captivity at Sajjangarh. “The experts have said it is a man eater. We are not interfering with the shifting of a man-eating tiger to a zoo. It involves safety of humans,” the bench — comprising Chief Justice TS Thakur and Justices R Banumathi and UU Lalit — said.
Incidentally, during his reign at Ranthambore, Ustad was considered among the star attractions for tourists at the national park. With the Supreme Court's decision, however, it seems the tiger will never return to his former home, or to anyplace else in the wild.