I've always loved photographing animals as individuals, following them through their lives and seeing how they change. I've done it with leopards, cheetahs, gorillas and yes tigers too. One special tiger for me is a young male we call T104 Pretty Boy, he's the 4 1/2 year old son of T-24 Laila and we first encountered him as a very very shy male cub in zones 4 and 5 of Ranthambhore. One summer in particular he gave us a load of wonderful experiences as we watched this shyness evaporate and Pretty Boy start to come of age. Then, in the following winter season, we watched as he started independant life on his own, a tough one for a young male tiger. Check out some of these images before I tell you unfortunately how the story has changed...
Beautiful isn't he? A very special tiger loved by us all, but we knew once he was forced out of Ranthambhore by his father we would be unlikely to see him again. He would live out his life either on the boundary zones of the park or would move on to other areas where he could establish himself and find a territory. Well it started off exactly like this...but along the way something went very wrong.
As expected he moved to the boundary of the park to an area called Bhadlav, where there were many villages. Soon he killed a woman near a village called Padli, which adjoins Bhadlav. He ate a part of the carcass and was chased off by the villagers. He was tranquilized the next day by the Forest Department, fitted with a radio collar and then released back inside the park in Zone 5.
The next day he was back at Bhadlav with the collar missing. He then stayed in the area for a few weeks, killing a Sambar and a few feral cows. At this point there was of course much sadness that he had taken someone's life, but there was hope that he had been surprised in tall crops and had not actively predated the villager.
At some point after that he left the area for a couple of days and came back with a leg injury - not a major one. The news spread locally about "the injured tiger" (which historically can make them more dangerous as they are unable to hunt their usual prey) so the Forest Department tranquilized him for the second time to treat him. They also fitted him with a second radio collar. He stayed for a few more days and then disappeared, moving towards north to Keladevi sanctuary.
On 31st July he killed a man near Karauli town, about 15 km from the tiger reserve.
A couple of days later he was tranquilized for the third time, kept in a cage overnight to transport him back to Ranthambhore, where he was released the next day on zone 8 (well away from his original zone). This time his collar was changed to a satellite collar. He stayed here for a few days and then crossed the park to reach River Banas, which he swam across. He killed his third victim, a young man in a village near River Banas.
That's three interventions in a short space of time. Three stressful and dangerous interventions for all concerned. Somewhere along the line Pretty Boy turned man-eater. Was it as a result of all these interventions? Well we will never know for sure.
So what's the situation now? Well Pretty Boy was tranquilised within a few days and now is housed in a cage. A wild male tiger, used to roaming free, sentenced to live the next 10 years of his life, and possibly more, in a prison. It's not the first time this has happened either, the dominant male Ustad T-24 killed 4 forest workers and was transferred to a zoo in Rajhasthan. Ustad, whilst a fearsome male, had never before exhibited any preponderance to kill humans despite coming into regular contact with them as his territory bordered the main pilgrims tracks underneath Ranthambhore's imposing fort. Once a month, thousands upon thousands of pilgrims would walk bear foot around the fort, right through his territory without any protection. Not once did he try to kill anyone, so what turned him into a man-eater?
There are so many anecdotes about tigers in Ranthambhore living with humans. Khumba, dominant male in zone 6, was observed last year sleeping in a culvert whilst pilgrims walked across a bridge just above him. The famous tigress Arrowhead, who now occupies the territory surrounding the fort temple, encounters humans every single day and once a month she witnesses the same round the fort pilgrimage as T-24 did. Not once has either of them made an aggressive move towards anyone, a fact I have personally sat and witnessed.
Like every visitor to Ranthambhore, and to every other Indian Tiger reserve, we are in open vehicles and sometimes close to the tigers. They could easily pull each one of us from the vehicles and there would be nothing anyone could do. But they don't and never have showed any inkling to do this. So there are two questions to ask here:
1. What turns them into man-eaters?
2. What should be done with man-eaters like Pretty Boy and Ustad?
I don't have any firm answers as I'm not a scientist, but what I do have is experience myself and experienced friends who lives with tigers everyday.
So here's a few of my thoughts after talking to them...
1. What turns them into man-eaters?
Firstly they don't set out to kill humans as we aren't on their normal prey radar. But when certain factors come together it can result in tragedy for all concerned. In the case of the tiger, which hunts by stealth followed by a powerful charge, it needs all it's hunting prowess not to starve. Therefore if it gets sick, or in the case of Pretty Boy above, gets an injury that might affect it's ability to hunt it's usual prey, then it will obviously target easier prey. Other factors are the expansion of the numbers of a species and also the decline of any prey species too. In the case of Pretty Boy he was forced to leave his protected home inside Ranthambhore, as all young males must, and there he came into more direct contact with humans.
I've heard some ridiculous stories about how humans are deliberately going into tiger territory, this is madness. No one would unless they have criminal intentions. No the victims here are local villagers, goat herders, farmers, just people going about their daily lives who have absolutely no choice but to farm and exist where there are tigers. They have done this for generations too, it's not a new thing, and for generations they have survived. But just because they are villagers, it does not make their lives less valuable, every human should be treated the same. My great friend Ramsingh lives in the village where the first victim was killed, his kids play in those fields. He's a proud Gurjar, a traditional goat herder, who has no choice but to live in this area with his family. It is these people who are so often ignored that we need to protect.
Now I am not gonna make any excuses for Pretty Boy, he killed three people. The first could have been an accident, the second bad luck / timing but the third shows a trend. He is choosing to make humans prey. Details are sketchy on whether he has actually eaten anyone, certainly the first villager killed was partially eaten, so this could indicate starvation and lack of prey as he was moving from one area to another. The national parks are prey rich, the surrounding areas of course are less so. Did his leg injury become serious? And one more point, did the number of human interventions in his life have any bearing on his change of attitude? We went from being annoying, irritating noises to something that actually caused him harm - albeit with the best of intentions by all concerned.
I asked my great friend and conservationist Dicky Singh for his views on this. He said "In my opinion there was far too much human intervention in this tigers life. Well meaning but self defeating. He was tranquilized far too many times. After the tiger killed a second time within a relatively short span of time, he should have been put down. That would have saved a human life."
2. What should be done with man-eaters?
This is perhaps the controversial one and where the keyboard warrior brigade gets involved. With T-24 Ustad there was a tremendous outcry and he was forced into a life of captivity. If you are born in captivity it's normal, but for a tiger used to roaming wild and free with a huge territory, it's simply cruel. It's my view, and many others, that these man-eaters can never be trusted to be released back into the wild. They clearly have something inside of them that has changed towards their views of us, something that being held in captivity won't help. Forget the romantic notions of them being rehabilitated and released, they can't be trusted and it's someone's father, mother, son or daughter that gets killed as a result. It might be one of my friends too, or their children, which is why I care so much.
Do we have the right to give them a life sentence of captivity either? Just because public opinion cannot deal with the reality of what should happen. Someone said once that a man-eater is bad for conservation and they are damn right, it's a nightmare for all of us fighting to keep tigers (and the world's other endangered species) in the public eye to aid their conservation when one of them starts whacking innocent people. I'm afraid that the time has come for these animals to be treated with respect and that doesn't mean putting them in a cage for their life. It means giving them the chance of another life, a better life. Yes that's right, man-eaters have no place on this earth and it's our responsibility to the local community, to the rest of the tigers we are fighting to conserve and to the rights of the tiger itself to allow it to pass onto another life. Now I'm a tiger lover, everyone in Ranthambhore knows me and knows my unbridled and unquestioned love for tigers. I live for tigers, I've spent most of my recent life in the company of tigers, so I don't advocate this course of action easily. I hate the thought of it. Especially for one I love so much as T104 Pretty Boy. And of course the fact that we are killing an endangered species. I wish with all my heart that there was another way, but putting him in an isolated cage for the next 15 years of his life just isn't right.
For the good of all the other tigers we are fighting for, we have to act and act fast. A wild tiger has no place in a cage, forget the keyboard warriors, forget the do gooders, we gotta do what is right here. I think everyone knows what is right, but someone in power must make this decision and set the policy for the future too. This issue is not going to go away, as the tiger population expands and they move increasingly into more habituated areas, we need to have a policy to deal with these man-eaters. It's simple, we have to stop being so lilly livered, so snowflake and so pc. We have to put these tigers down.
Pretty Boy - right now
He's in a cage. Everyday. It's not right and it's not moral to put him in a cage. He hates it too, when he was in a cage before for one night he smashed up his nose as he repeatedly charged the bars, clearly he is not gonna take well to captivity. We can learn some lessons perhaps and we can spend time working out what might have triggered him to become man-eater and that's great. There is only once course of action that is morally right here, man-eaters have no place on this earth and my beloved Pretty Boy is a killer and probably will always be. For the good of conservation, for the good of all tigers in Ranthambhore and across India, we have to do the right thing. For the sake of all the wonderful forest department rangers and guards, who everyday bravely patrol the park on foot and who we need to keep doing their vital work, we need to show that man-eaters cannot be tolerated. This is how he should be and how I will remember him...do the right thing. Please.