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Why some activists suspect two of three cubs killed by train in Maharashtra may be Avni’s

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Activists have questioned the distance between the carcasses, and said the photos from the accident site looked staged.

New Delhi: Two days after three six-month old cubs were reportedly killed after being hit by a train in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district, animal rights activists as well as central government sources have said they suspected that two of the young tigers may have been the orphans of tigress Avni.

Avni, an alleged man-eater, was killed as part of a controversial operation in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district two weeks ago. The Maharashtra forest department has since been on the lookout for her two cubs, which face starvation if not rescued soon.

On Thursday, a train driver reported that he had run over tiger cubs in the Junona forest range of Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district. While the carcasses of two of the cubs was discovered in the morning, the third was found half-a-kilometre away on the tracks in the evening.

“The forest department is changing the story every minute,” a source in the central government familiar with the developments said.

“Who are these two cubs, who is their mother and why would they stray away from their mother if they’re just six-months old?” the source added. “More importantly, Chandrapur is (Sudhir) Mungantiwar’s constituency.”

Mungantiwar, the Maharashtra environment and forests minister who has been in the eye of a storm since Avni’s death, did not respond to calls or messages from ThePrint.

Union minister Maneka Gandhi, a known animal rights activist, had demanded his removal following the killing of the six-year-old tigress by the son of a private hunter engaged for an operation originally aimed at capturing her.

Also read: Autopsy of tigress Avni suggests foul play, discredits self-defence theory

‘Why the distance?’

The union government source ThePrint spoke to questioned the distance between the three carcasses. “How is this possible? Why did one cub get crushed by the same train but half a kilometre away?” the source added.

“Besides, how does the forest department know they are six months old without conducting a post-mortem [exam]? It appears that their bodies were arranged… on the railway tracks.”

On the same day that the cubs were found, officials in the state forest department said they had spotted two cubs, believed to be Avni’s, walking together in a Yavatmal forest. This was their first sighting since Avni’s death.

Much of the uproar over Avni’s death has been rooted in concerns about the welfare of her two cubs.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, tiger cubs remain with their mothers for at least two-three years, before which they cannot fend for themselves. The cubs cannot hunt until they are 18 months old, and it is only after two to three years that they begin to move away to find their own territory. In short, cubs as young as Avni’s face dim prospects of survival if they lose their mother.

The government source suggested Avni’s cubs may have died of starvation and then placed on the tracks.

“It appears that the cubs died of starvation because they couldn’t survive without their mother…” the source added. “Even Avni’s post-mortem report has revealed that she hadn’t eaten for days, so obviously her cubs were hungry, and now 14 days have passed since her killing.”

Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Preeti Menon, who has also been at the forefront of protests against Avni’s killing, tweeted Thursday, “Can anyone believe this looks like an accident picture? Not a shred of blood or injury? Or are these #Avni’s cubs?”

“We wont know the truth unless @Dev_Fadnavis sacks Mungantiwar and orders an independent probe,” she added.

“The PCCF [principal chief conservator of forests] has previously made false claims regarding the manner of Avni’s death, as confirmed by her post-mortem report, and thus has lost moral authority on the issue,” she said in a press release.

Jerryl Banait, who had moved court against the sanction to shoot Avni [conditioned on the failure to capture her], said it was indeed “strange” for three cubs to die simultaneously. However, he added, any conclusion can only be made after their autopsy reports are released.

Animal rights activist Gauri Maulekhi said it was completely plausible that two of the cubs might have been Avni’s.

“It’s possible that they are Avni’s cubs, but it doesn’t quite matter if they were or were not,” she added, “The point is three tiger cubs have died. What does it say about our tiger conservation policy?”

“Everyday there’s news of tigers and elephants dying in this country, and the government is refusing to take notice,” she added.

Also read: Tigress Avni death probe an ‘eyewash’ — man in charge reports to Maharashtra forest minister

‘There are indeed three cubs’

Talking to ThePrint, Maharashtra principal chief conservator of forests A.K. Mishra dismissed the suspicions.

“There are indeed three cubs, there is no doubt about that. As per the Wildlife Act, their post-mortem has been done,” he said.

“It is not unusual for six-month old cubs to stray away from their mother,” he added, saying their mother had not been identified since the department “does not identify every tiger in every region”. According to some media reports, the pug marks of an adult tiger were found in the vicinity of the tracks where the cubs died.

Asked why the photos of only two cubs had come out in public, Mishra said, “Different media houses have been showing different photos, so we can’t say why photos of only two cubs have come out.”

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