Statement and Commentary regarding T-24, Ustad
My name is Paul Runze. I have traveled extensively in over seventy-five countries on all seven continents, have visited over seventy different safari camps in Southern Africa and have done over 350 game drives there over the past five years. I have also done many big game photo shoots in the Western United States, Alaska, Antarctica and the Arctic and consider myself well versed in safari etiquette and generally acceptable rules of behavior when in the presence of wild animals.
In May of 2015 I made my first trip to India and on the evening of the 7th was on a game drive in Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve in central India ….. just twenty-four hours prior to an incident in which Ranger Rampal Saini was fatally mauled, supposedly by T-24, also known as Ustad. This particular game drive was our sixth drive in this Park, not having made a tiger sighting up to that point. What we witnessed that evening was extremely disturbing and has prompted me to issue the following statement.
The following is my account of the events of May 7th and 8th:
• We (eight American travelers) left our lodge about 4pm and entered the reserve about 4:30. We drove more or less directly to an area where our guide felt we would have a good chance of sighting a tiger based on reports from the previous day. After a considerable drive, we did find T-24 asleep in a shallow cave not far from the road. We were the first, or possible the second, vehicle at the site. We parked on the road ten to fifteen yards from the cave entrance. We were separated from the cave entrance by a large bush but we could see T-24’s head as he lay sleeping on his back. The second vehicle from our lodge was also there and parked a bit further from the cave. In short, we had a good viewing angle but were maintaining a respectful distance and were still on the roadway. We waited for probably a half hour or more to see if T-24 would wake up and go for an evening drink. As we waited, several more small vehicles and a couple of larger ones (approximately 20-passengers) also arrived at the site.
• As we were waiting, another small (Gypsy) vehicle arrived containing a driver, ranger and one passenger. That vehicle immediately drove right past the rear of our vehicle and directly to the mouth of the cave, blocking our view. T-24 awoke with a start and jumped so high we could see him over the top of the other vehicle. As T-24 was on the other side of the offending vehicle we could not see exactly how close they were but it appeared they missed hitting him by not more that three or four feet. They then stopped and parked in that location with the front end of their vehicle literally in the mouth of the cave, right next to the tiger.
• In our two vehicles were eight seasoned safari travelers with a combined experience of probably over two thousand game drives and we were appalled at what we were seeing. I do not know what the “norm” is in India, but elsewhere around the world you are taught from the beginning that, when on safari (1) you are in the animal’s home and you treat him as you would wish to be treated (2) you do nothing to stress the animal, whether an endangered species or not (3) you do nothing to “interfere with nature (4) you do not make noises or movements to attract the animal’s attention (5) in many venues, only a certain small number of vehicles are permitted to approach and then must leave after a reasonable time with the subject to make room for other viewers …. other vehicles must wait a respectful distance from the siting in order not to cause stress or anxiety on the part of the animal.
• We repeatedly asked our driver and ranger how it could be that this behavior was being allowed …. flagrantly violating just about every conventional norm of safari behavior and animal treatment. We were given a few “lame” answers such as “they won’t be there very long” and “we can’t make them do the right thing”. When we pushed the point and again asked how this could possibly happening we were advised that some guides and rangers had special privileges if they knew somebody in authority at the reserve or were related to them. Again, a lame, evasive answer.
• At our hotel, The Oberoi Vanyavilas, we had been provided a one-sheet guide to the rules of the reserve ….. “Ranthambhore National Park Do’s and Don’ts for Tourists. This guide was left in the room by the hotel staff but not mentioned by any of the guide/drivers.
• The offending vehicle stayed in that position, parked nearly on top of the tiger for probably five to ten minutes. When they did finally back up, another vehicle pulled into the spot …. not nearly as close to the tiger but also clearly off the roadway and too close to the tiger.
• While all this was taking place, many of those people in the two larger vehicles were standing, shouting and making all types of movements to attract the tiger including repeatedly opening and slamming the large metal doors of the vehicle.
• All of the improper behavior was committed by Indian drivers, guides and tourists (not to say that all of the Indian tourists were unruly). All of the “western” tourists present exhibited remarkable restraint despite the out-of-control situation and behaved admirably.
• During all of this bedlam, there were probably between six and twelve Park Rangers present …. at least one per vehicle. Not once did we hear or see any of the rangers or drivers try to change or correct the disruptive behavior. They basically shrugged and indicated there was nothing they could or would do. Remarks were made to the effect that “we’re not in Africa and here this is considered acceptable”. It was not clear what the purpose of the presence of the rangers was intended to serve but it did not appear to have anything to do with education or assuring proper treatment of the animals.
• Eventually T-24 decided to leave the cave and wandered off through the bushes to the watering spot and the crowd dispersed.
• On the evening of the 8th we again did a game drive to the same area as the previous night but were not successful with regard to tigers. About 6:30 we were preparing to leave the park and were heading toward the ranger station. Less than a mile from the station we were stopped on the road by a ranger who told us we had to wait as and “incident” had happened near the ranger checkpoint. When we were finally cleared to leave the park we passed the spot on the road where the attack had occurred. Although I didn’t see it, some in our group said they saw a considerable amount of blood on and near the road as we passed.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have read many accounts, commentaries, blogs and other postings relating to the recent T-24 incident. A lot of it appears to be conjecture and a matter of opinion. The reports also contain many contradictions and inconsistencies. The bottom line is that a 27-year veteran ranger is dead, his family is grieving the loss, and well-known, iconic tiger has been removed from its home and family ….. for being a tiger.
This statement is made in an attempt to help understand not what happened but, in part, maybe why it happened. I don’t have all the answers but I feel what I witnessed on the evening of May 7th could very well have had an impact on the events of the following evening.
I understand the historical and religious significance of the Ganesha Temple atop Ranthambhore Fort and the fact that the balance between man and animal is a very complex issue, but the entire park layout and procedures followed appear to me to be nothing more than a recipe for disaster. Couple this with the total disregard for published park rules we witnessed and the utter disrespect of the animals by visitors and officials alike ….. and what do you expect? If I were a tiger, and subjected to such harassment, I think I would very possibly have been in a killing mood too!
I would like to think that what I witnessed on May 7th was an isolated event and had little to do with the normal goings-on in the wonderful park that is Ranthambhore. However, the behavior I saw was so “across-the-board” that I cannot help but feel it is the rule rather than the exception.
The death of Ranger Saini was not an accident as has been put forth by many news and reporting sources. It was an unfortunate, predictable event that might very well have been prevented and that, to my way of thinking, many persons in many positions are complicit. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about this tragic event and mull over and over in my mind what I might have done that fateful evening to change the ultimate course of events. I don’t have the answer.
I just hope the death of Ranger Saini was not in vain and that something good will come of all the attention the incident has generated. Let’s hope that it is not “brushed under the rug” by those in charge. T-24 has rights too ….. and he is too valuable an asset to the reserve and Indian tourism to file away in a detention camp because we don’t have a better answer as how to rectify the “big picture”.
I hope Indian officials will have the “balls” to look at this objectively and make some changes before another tiger is harassed into “acting like a tiger” and then, too, labeled a man-eater.
This statement is the sole property of Paul C. Runze and may not be reprinted or reposted in all or part with the written consent of the writer. The facts and opinions contained herein are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of the other members of our safari party.