Ustad: The Tiger. What a Maneater means to India

Ustad means Boss.

In Ranthambore tiger reserve, a big male tiger has just been shifted. Formally called T-24 (Tiger 24), but known much better as Ustad, he is accused of killing four people.

The Forest Department says they gave Ustad many chances, and he has repeatedly killed people, and eaten them. Another section of activists says that Ustad has been wronged. For instance, this plea to bring Ustad back stresses he should be reunited with his family.

While I welcome the fact that people care enough for a tiger to write these things, not all of them are based on logic.

I quote:

“There were days when I walked in my territory carefree
My life was beautiful as we were the happy family of one plus three
Often living at the edge, we basked in the glory of life;
While my babies made most of their play, my meals had love from my lovely wife;
Indeed! It was a beautiful life!!”

It’s a bit obvious though: tigers don’t have wives, and their wives don’t make them meals. This picture of domestic bliss is cute but misplaced.

Photo source: internet
Photo source: internet

A legal petition in the Rajasthan High Court and the Supreme Court has been dismissed. Ustad has been moved to a zoo, and he will stay there, now.

Ustad’s defenders are not convinced. Anoorag Saxena, who has been campaigning on social media for Ustad’s release, asks for boycotting Ranthambore National Park. He claims Ustad has been wrongly blamed for four deaths, and that forest guards are making testimonials against the tiger out of other pressures.

From sources that I trust I believe that Ustad really did kill and eat people. Another film, made by conservation supporters, is below:

And there are calls like this too:

Source: Internet
Source: Internet

Here is what Ustad means to me, and to the Indian conservation movement:

1. Whether right or wrong, the energy around Ustad is amazing. It would be even more amazing if the energy is taken to defend tiger habitats. Right now, several tiger reserves are facing a crisis. The Kanha-Pench corridor and the Sariska tiger reserve are both under threat from highway widening. More public outcry over these projects, which are being pushed through by the government aggressively, would mean that India cares. For many Ustads.

2. Ustad’s case throws light on the dangerous conditions forest guards work on. Given that forest guards have to be close to tigers, others– tourists or otherwise– should not get too close.

3. Tourism needs to be disciplined, and should put the tiger first.

Perhaps in his departure, Ustad has taught us many lessons we need to learn.

Finally, I want to add that maneaters are not murderers. Tigers don’t know that killing people is wrong. If found eating people, tigers should be removed. But that is no reason to hate the species and have mobs baying for the collective blood of tigers or leopards. My column on this issue is here.

What are your thoughts on Ustad, and dangerous tigers?

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Is the tiger a citizen?

Are wild animals citizens of India? What responsibilities do people have towards animals? And what should we do now that a killer Highway is being expanded, widened and becoming more impossible for an animal to cross?

This magnificent black leopard is one amongst many animals you may never see in the forest, but tragically end up as roadkill. Photo: Roads to Nowhere
This magnificent black leopard is one amongst many animals you may never see in the forest, but tragically end up as roadkill. Photo: Roads to Nowhere

National Highway 7 passes through Kanha-Pench tiger corridors and Kanha-Nagzira tiger corridors. Here the tiger, is forced to cross the road. And now, the road will be doubled. The government plans to double the two-lane highway to four-lanes. Should animals, who often become roadkill, be forced to bow down to our alterations? Tigers and other animals get caught in headlights. They freeze. They get knocked over. They die. My earlier op-ed on the issue is here.

As per the reports of a group, NH7 Crusaders, 1035 animals have died in a 9 km stretch on NH7. They have made a petition against the widening of this road. Please sign here. This stretch of NH7 has killed many animals, not just tigers. No matter how strong, mighty or agile wild animals are, it is proved again and again that they cannot cross roads.

No way to die! Image: internet
No way for an elephant to die! Image from an Indian Highway. Source : internet

We can either consider it a shortcoming of the animal, or we can consider it a reality which we need to plan around. In this case, NH 67, which passes through Nagpur, is a viable alternative to NH7.

This takes me back the first question: do tigers have rights, just like humans? Should we uphold their rights and prevent deathtraps for them? On any given day, this is what I see on a highway, even in broad daylight: a jackal, dead, jaw smashed into the ground. A jungle cat, face open in a startled, grotesque grin, immortalised with a ‘what just hit me?’ look. And sometimes, animals one never gets to see– leopard cats, a black leopard, a mouse deer, are found pasted to a sleek, sharp tarmac. The photo of the black leopard killed by an incoming vehicle is from Satara, Maharashtra, in March 2015.

Are animals citizens? Then, should we protect their Right to Life as well? I would love to hear your thoughts, and how this is tackled in your country.

Image: The Hindu
Tiger in the headlights. Image: The Hindu

Little Sparrow

What are your fondest memories of sparrows? I’d love to hear your memories, do leave them in the comments below.

I had just reached home from school, and he was sitting there, eyes glittering, cheeping at me with all the painful anguish of a little one with a little voice.

The sparrow looked suited and booted, like he was wearing a very black tie over a ruddy brown coat. In all my school-child importance, I had imperiously flung my bag aside and was ready to peel off my sweaty nylon socks so I could put my feet up on the sofa. I owned the drawing room: it was my grandparent’s drawing room, but unlike the school, I could do what I wanted here, and for a few hours each day, this was my kingdom. The old ceiling fan, cavernous coir sofas, oil paintings on the wall, a stack of curios on the old bookshelves – this was my empire. But the sparrow kept cheeping. He had an important message for me. The window was not open enough for his mate to come in, especially when she was carrying twigs. They had important business to do: a house to build behind my grandfather’s handmade oil painting. The sparrow wife, her mouth full, stared at me balefully from the branch of a scarlet bougainvillea.

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Each summer, the sparrows made their nesting preferences clear, asking for space. Sometimes, they would nest between the tube-light and wall. Many years, behind paintings. And most annoyingly, on the cup the ceiling fan hung from. Coming back home on hot summer days, I could arrogantly peel my hot socks off, throw away my bag with practised carelessness, but I couldn’t put the fan on, for more than speed “2”. The sparrow couple were always around, feeding their chicks in the ceiling fan. I had my heart in my mouth each time the female sparrow would dodge the whirring fan; I admired her grudgingly even as sweat ran down my face.

Sometimes the sparrows would quarrel. Sometimes they would fly away for longish periods and I could hear the chicks yelling their protest. They seemed to be such noisy children, like me. The drawing room was no longer just mine. The hot summers were a bit hotter. But I had company. And I had surprise, with the sparrows pulling a variety of unpredictable capers all afternoon long.

Today is World Sparrow Day. The most natural reaction would be to assume that the sparrows are still around. But they’re almost not. March 20 is remembered as World Sparrow Day as sparrows – especially house sparrows – are declining everywhere. What happened? When did it happen? How did the charm of cheep-chirp leave our lives?

sparrow-1_032015020314.jpg

There are so many reasons: with insecticides being used everywhere, soft-bodied insects, the young sparrow’s food, have disappeared. In our extreme manicuring tendencies for perfect, manufactured order, grass – which supports nesting material as well as insects – is being mowed too short in lawns.

In residential facades, ledges, of no use to anyone but a little bird, have gone out of fashion and are being replaced by sleek modern buildings. Inside our houses, windows have been shut and ACs have been switched on. The oil paintings still hang, but there are no sparrows to flit behind the paintings.

All over the world, there are assorted movements to bring house sparrows back. In some places, architects are leaving bricks missing, so sparrows can have a nesting place. In others, parts of gardens are being left wild, for grass, insects, and sparrows. In India, a massive movement to give sparrows a space in gardens, homes, and hearts, is ongoing.

Today, sadness washes over me for the sparrows. I hope they will come back. Once, they took over my kingdom – and our collective afternoons, so many vestiges of domestic existences. Today, we ask them, beg them, cajole them, to return. So many sparrows have been lost in the humdrum and banality of urban life. But what we have lost, in the companionship of a little, stubborn, brave bird, the “nanhi gorayya”, is incalculable and perhaps much worse.

A version of this appeared in my column for India Today’s DailyO.

Photos: Neha Sinha

On World Wildlife Day, One Wish.

It’s World Wildlife Day today.

Many of my readers ask me, what is my favourite animal, or species?

There’s never an easy answer to that question, but this World Wildlife Day, I have a wish.

Not only for the most endangered and imperiled species. But for the most common ones.

Let’s keep our common species common.

When I was growing up, the little House Sparrow was a constant companion. It loved nesting just above our ceiling fans, or behind paintings. It didn’t mind the people in the family, at all. Slowly, the House Sparrow started disappearing.

And there are other birds, once ubiquitious, which are slowly fading. The Munia is one of them.

IMG_4089
A little Munia, on a little branch. Unbearable brightness of being! Photo by Amitabha Bhattacharya.

The Munia is poached and traded for the wild bird trade (more on that here). Living off grassy areas with low bushes, various sorts of Munias are also under threat from habitat loss. Their hard-grassy habitat does not look impressively ‘green’ and does not even get noticed when it’s gone.

Other birds that you will find all over the semi-urban/ country landscape are Black-necked Storks, Painted Storks and Openbill Storks. Painted Storks particularly have a habit of transforming a wetland with their bright colours and joyous numbers.

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Painted storks and cormorants in foggy, smokey Delhi. Photo by Neha Sinha

Common birds don’t steer conservation budgets. We like them, but like a favourite piece of furniture, we also take them for granted. My simple wish for World Widlife Day is: keeping the common birds and animals, common!

How much poorer would we be without them?!

A path through a wild woodland, and through our hearts.
A path through a wild woodland, and through our hearts. Photo by Amitabha Bhattacharya

One Tree

NEHA SINHA

Sometimes, you pause just to look at one single tree.

Because one single tree is sometimes like Mother Nature herself: giving, sheltering, a world on to itself.

In the Yamuna Biodiversity Park Extension, Wazirabad, North Delhi, this single tree is incubus to dozens of weaver nests.

Photographed on a cold January morning, this tree is home for dozens of tiny weaver birds.
Photographed on a cold January morning, this tree is home for dozens of tiny weaver bird nests.

The single tree is like a colony, or should I say an apartment complex?

The tiny weaver birds build delicate, immaculate nests which would match the most discerning eye for design. Finding twigs and other nesting material, they weave these urn or ‘surahi‘ shaped nests.

The whole structure doesn’t seem predator-proof, though. Then, it’s the arms of the tree, high above the ground, that keep the chicks safe.

If we can keep the tree safe, that’s a fighting chance for the little weaver birds.

Photos: Neha Sinha

DSC04335

Vulture deaths: why poisoning should be considered poaching

NEHA SINHA

Earlier this month, I posted about the death of 55 vultures because of one poisoned carcass in Sivsagar, Assam in North-eastern India.

January 2015: 55 vultures died after feeding on a poisoned carcass, Assam
January 2015: 55 vultures died after feeding on a poisoned carcass, Assam

Following the incident, a team from BNHS visited the site, holding awareness camps for the people in the area. The bottomline: poisoning carcasses leads to accidental deaths of species, often not even the intended species. (For instance, in this case, BNHS was told a carcass was poisoned to kill stray dogs, but vultures became the victims). But there is a second bottomline: a range of poisoning methods are killing species all over India, and frankly, no one cares. Poisoning is done for getting rids of ‘nuisance animals’ (like stray dogs), for illegally hunting birds, and sometimes just for kicks. The problem is growing. Now, these are three main points on my wishlist for conservation:

3. Poisoning is poaching. 

India is a country of contradictions, and we have serious poaching issues in India. Tigers and rhinos are poached with regularity, and the battles are bloody, messy, with hardened criminal networks involved. Poaching of rhinos for illegal trade is so severe that the Assam government was considering de-horning rhinos at one point (see my earlier op-ed here). This sort of poaching is fueled by international trade, and contraband is smuggled out of the country.

But other forms of poaching are gaining ground.

In simple terms, poaching refers to the killing of a protected animal. Poisoning cases are not part of an organised industry. They are still sporadic, and sometimes unintended. But they are happening with alarming regularity. Read about mass poisoning of vultures and peacocks in India.

Helpless: peacocks poisoned in Telengana
Helpless: peacocks poisoned in Telengana

It is now time for the law– in this case the Wildlife Protection Act– to recognise poisoning as poaching. Poisoning cases have been looked at with laxity by law enforcers. They need much more seriousness, and conviction. Poison such as pesticide is being misused for killing endangered species, non-target species, and for killing wantonly. How long can this be allowed?

2. Poisoning is a public health hazard.

The idea of poison being used in carcasses or other ways to kill animals– whether domestic, feral or wild– is a disturbing one, and a health hazard. As this earlier incident of poisoning shows, any form of poison is a threat to not just animals but also people. In this incident in Delhi’s posh Nizamuddin colony, poisoned bait was laid to kill stray dogs (which were considered a ‘menace’), which ended up killing dogs, crows AND kites.

Increasingly, migratory birds are being killed by using poison. These are then sold for human consumption in local markets. What would toxicology reports of consumption of poisoned meat show?

1. Poisoning is killing critically endangered species.

Gyps vultures are critically endangered. If poison enters the food chain, raptors drop first. Apart from critically endangered Gyps vultures, once-widespread Egyptian vultures and Steppe Eagles too are disappearing rapidly. (Perhaps they too are susceptible to illegal drug diclofenac, but more on that in another post). With the use of poison–especially unchecked, and unpunished use of poison– we are pushing over species which are already teetering on the brink, that grey area between survival and doom.

Please leave your thoughts below.

One poisoned carcass, Fifty Five dead vultures

NEHA SINHA

Gyps vultures are a critically endangered species, having faced a 99.9 per cent population decline in the last decade.

Of the few Gyps vultures left in India, some are in Assam.

In Assam, the only known breeding colony is in Sivsagar.

And in Sivsagar, a single poisoned carcass has led to the death of 55 vultures. 

Vulture death Sivsagar Assam2

Photo: at the site, about 110 kms of Jorhat. By Mayur Bawri

The BNHS vulture team was informed about the death of more than 55 vultures. Villagers discovered the bodies on 24 January, lying all over the grass, most of them dead, and some of them just about to die.

Also found was a carcass of a cow, which had been laced with poison, presumably to kill stray dogs. The vultures fed on this single carcass and died. Tragically, killing the vultures may not have been the intended outcome. With the world’s last few Gyps vultures struggling for survival, breeding colonies– areas where vultures are known to roost and raise hatchlings–are precious. Disturbance, poisoning, or presence of diclofenac, the drug fatal to vultures, deals a staggering blow to the populations.

Of the 55 counted vultures,  22 were critically endangered White-backed Vultures. Four were critically endangered Slender-billed Vulture, and rest were the vulnerable Himalayan Griffon Vulture.

Vultures are dangerously close to extinction. Breeding sites are the last bastions for them, and here, battles are mounted to avoid poison entering their food chain. Vultures die immediately after consuming diclofenac, a banned veterinary drug; despite being banned, diclofenac is still being used, at the cost of the Gyps vultures. And like any other animal, vultures will also die if fed other poisonous chemicals.

This episode also shows us how a single carcass, poisonous for vultures, can kill so many of them. As vultures are community feeders, they eat together. And this is not the first time that vultures have died en-masse, after innocuously feeding on poisoned carcasses. Carcasses are poisoned because people want to illegally poison a tiger or leopard, because they want to eliminate dogs, or because they treat their cattle with banned diclofenac. Diclofenac is a pain-killer, not even a life-saver for the cattle. In so many ways, vultures are dying.

Is this their Last Supper?

Photo below: Always a fighter: acclaimed artist Raja Ravi Varma’s depiction of Jatayu vulture defending Sita

Jataya Vadh Raja Ravi Varma

Turtles and Oil Spills: Just One Shell

One shell is not enough: turtle researcher Chetan Rao on the disastrous effects of an oil spill on turtles.

Beaches and rivers belong to turtles too
Beaches and rivers belong to turtles too

Just One Shell

By Chetan Rao

Terrible things happened last month. More or less December has been a month of barbarism; terrorism attacks and ecological disasters.

On 9th December 2014, a tanker, Southern Star7 carrying 92 gallons of bunker oil capsized after a collision with another vessel inside the Sunderbans in Bangladesh. The result is a large tract of the estuary cloaked in a black viscous layer. This could well be warranted as South Asia’s black plague. . Almost 90% of the oil has been spilled on the mangrove estuaries meandering its way into the fragile intertidal ecosystem.  This is the worst news. And I will tell you why.

Mangroves are formed at the delicate boundary where the fresh water from the deltas empty into the sea. The result is a nutrient rich soil that acts as a nursery grounds for inter tidal species such as crustaceans, planktons and fish which act as prey base for larger threatened species such as the saltwater crocodiles, tigers, river dolphins and reef sharks. Not to forget that the Sunderbans is one of the few places where Bengal tigers occur in large numbers. This rich ecological treasure trove is now going to be covered in a thick dark slime of oil and oil is bad.

The Sunderbans also host breeding grounds for a whole range of freshwater turtle species and also provide breeding beaches for sea turtles such as the Hawksbill, Green and the widespread Olive Ridley Sea turtles. These last remaining beaches harbor the interesting Bay of Bengal population of Ridleys. The genetic studies of these Ridley populations suggest that these have been ancestral populations of Olive Ridleys worldwide.

Ridleys nest extensively all along the Indian subcontinent and two sites in the state of Odisha in Eastern India are well known mass nesting sites! Olive Ridleys are known to exhibit synchronizing nesting where they arrive on the nesting beaches in large numbers. This phenomenon is known as “arribada” meaning arrival in Spanish. Prior to nesting, large scale congregations take place along the coastlines. These aggregations are susceptible to any sort of disturbance either natural or manmade will have significant impact on nesting numbers. Oil spills leave turtles stranded and create massive health problems such has lacerations, starvations and internal organ failure. Oil affects hatchlings too. One in ten hatchlings survives to adulthood. These hatchlings seek the support of sargassum weeds which act as a nursery for these neonates. Due to oil spills the seaweeds wither, leaving these neonates without any cover in the open water.

Some of the most known threatened freshwater turtles are known to occur in the Sunderbans such as the Sunderbans Batagur, narrow-headed softshell turtle, Leith’s softshell turtle and the crowned river turtle (Source: TSA). These species only occur in the Gangetic and the Brahmaputra deltas. Like their marine cousins, these turtles suffer similar fatalities due to the toxic nature of the oil. Such drastic fluctuations in source populations of these turtles can cause stochastic changes in global populations of these chelonians.

Human carelessness has grown over the years, and has grown toxic. Turtles only have a shell to protect them, which is helpless against our careless crusade. Let’s not forget this.

Chetan Rao is a post graduate in wildlife science from the Wildlife Institute of India with a penchant for reptiles. His research interests are in reptile ecology and evolutionary biology.

Bush and Meat

Wild rats for sale on a highway in Nagaland.

Hunting is illegal in India, but it does take place, perhaps in no place more than the Indian North East. Here, the issue isn’t just of being dependant on wild animals. It’s also of culture, adventure, and sport. Hunting is a cultural past-time, deeply embedded in the ‘this is what we do; this is what we have done’ sentiment. The question is, shall we look at all India bans, or should we make exceptions for bushmeat hunting of taxa like rats, many of which are classified as vermin?

Is sustainable non-target hunting even possible? Is sustainable a fantasy? Or should we enforce conservation idealogies on the hunting tribes of the North East, hoping for generational change?

Rats on sale, Nagaland. Photos by Neha Sinha

Rats on sale, Nagaland. Photos by Neha Sinha

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