Union minister Maneka Gandhi severely criticised Avni’s killing but Maharashtra forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar defended this as an act of self-defence.
Mumbai: Facing sharp criticism over the killing of the ‘man-eating’ tigress Avni, officials from Maharashtra’s forest department said they had made up their minds to capture the big cat alive and that there was gloom all over the department when they heard about her death Saturday morning.
Sunil Limaye, additional principal chief conservator of forests, said though the orders were to tranquilise and capture the tigress or eliminate her with the latter being the last resort, there was ample criticism for nearly two months that the forest department wants to kill T1, as Avni was referred to.
“With so much criticism, we had internally resolved that come what may, we will capture T1 alive. On Saturday, when I got a call that T1 was dead, I felt cold,” Limaye said.
“Everyone in the forest department felt really bad. It’s not that we were happy or even satisfied that the task at hand was done…It was a sad day for us,” he added.
Tigress Avni was shot dead Saturday by the son of a controversial Hyderabad-based hunter, Nawab Shafat Ali Khan, who was hired by the Maharashtra forest department for the operation to capture the tigress.
Khan’s involvement in the operation had sparked massive protests from animal rights activists.
Union minister Maneka Gandhi severely criticised Avni’s killing and specifically targeted Maharashtra Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar, who refuted all allegations and defended the tigress’ killing as an act of self-defence.
Issues with ‘trigger-happy’ hunter
A section in the forest department too had a problem with Khan. The deputy conservator of forests wrote a letter to the Maharashtra chief conservator complaining about how Khan lost at least two opportunities to capture Avni.
According to another letter written by the chief conservator to principal conservator A.K. Mishra, who had hired Khan, the hunter chose not to cooperate with forest department officials right from the beginning, and instead went on speaking to the media — despite orders that prohibited him from doing so.
“There are issues when people work together. This is the precise reason why we shifted to Pandharkawada (in Yavatmal district) to coordinate and better supervise the entire operation,” Limaye said.
The forest department in September had directed chief wildlife warden A.K. Misra and Limaye to shift to the Pandharkawada until Avni was tranquilised and captured.
On the day of Avni’s killing, Khan was in Bihar on another assignment, while his son was part of the forest team that shot the tigress.
Limaye said, for the past two months, nearly 200 people, including teams of the forest department, villagers, police shooters and so on were tracking Avni not to kill her, but capture her.
‘Human lives have been lost, the action was necessary’
According to information provided by the forest department, Avni allegedly killed 13 people, eight of them tribals, in the Pandharkawada-Ralegaon forest of Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district since 2016. Of these, seven kills happened inside the jungles of the Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra. (FDCM).
Two more were killed inside the territorial jungle area, while four were killed on the fringe or field areas.
Pandharkawada is one of the oldest forest divisions in the Yavatmal circle. The total forest area under Pandharkawada territorial division is 659.470 sq km. In addition, the wildlife wing holds 146.304 sq km and FDCM has 143.413 sq km under its jurisdiction.
“The forest patches are fragmented. A number of the local tribals have titles under the Forest Rights Act here and so they enter the jungles for grazing, collecting firewood and so on,” a senior forest department official who did not wish to be named said.
“Technically the tigress did not enter areas of human habitat so it is not T1’s fault. But ultimately it is a man’s world,” he added.
“There are laws made by humans, as per which forest rights have been granted inside the jungle. The National Tiger Conservation Authority, the guidelines of which were followed in declaring T1 a man-eater, too is a creation of humans,” he said.
Human lives have been lost, and though it is not technically the tigress’ fault some action had to be taken,” he argued.
Forest officials also said that there was a genuine attempt to dart and tranquilise Avni the day she was killed, but the forest team present at the spot had to make a split-second’s decision on whether to flee or shoot the tigress after she allegedly turned on them.
“After darting, a tiger takes some time before it is actually tranquilised. If the forest team had fled without ensuring that T1 was fully tranquilised, there was also a chance that Avni could have killed another human,” the forest official said.
“They had to make a decision in a split second,” he said.