Avni The Tigress Was Shot Dead. Supreme Court Says Rules Were Followed

A contempt petition filed in the Supreme Court by animal rights activist Sunita Dongre was withdrawn by her after the court declared it invalid today and stated that the killing of tigress Avni was carried out as per court orders as she was a man-eater.

Avni was shot dead on November 2, 2018 in the Yavatmal reserve forest in Maharashtra. She was killed by a private hunter Asgar Ali, whose father Shafath Ali was invited by the Maharashtra Forest Department to either tranquilise or shoot her. The tigress had been accused of killing 13 villagers. While the Forest Department and locals were insistent that she was a a man-eater, several animal rights activist were equally convinced that she was being set up as the majority of her kills were made inside the forest in her territory. The activists claimed that she had not set out to deliberately hunt anyone and that she wasn't eating the bodies after killing them. They also alleged that the locals and the government wanted the tigress removed as large tracts of the forest had been denotified to become a cement plant.

There was also confusion around several details - from how much DNA evidence there was on the bodies attributable to her, to whether she was a man-eater at all. India, unlike many countries around the world, is not trigger-happy when it comes to dealing with large carnivores in human-dominated spaces; but shrinking forests and growing development projects are forcing more people and wild animals into conflict. In the last few years, several leopards and tigers have been either shot or tranquilised and removed to solve problems. It has proven to be no solution. Only the consistent monitoring of situations, study, research and stringent environment action against many instructive and linear projects in forests, combined with sensitive dealing of local people, can bring about solutions. Moreover, unless an animal is caught in the act of killing, it's quite difficult to identify the correct animal. In this case, this particular area did not have many resident tigers except for T1, making her the obvious choice.

The forests in question are degraded reserve forests without the stringent rules that govern national parks. For villagers in the area, most of whom are subsistent farmers, grazing their cattle inside the forest was something they had done for years. This reserve forest, located in the path of several well-known tiger reserves like Tipeswar, was not a regular tiger habitat, but several animals had moved through there over the years in their bid to move and find new territory. T1 was one of the few tigers who chose to settle there and, on having cubs 10 months before she was shot, had probably become more aggressive and territorial. For the local people who had to live with the fear of a large carnivore in their midst, her removal was the only option.

While T1 was her official designation, she quickly became known as Avni meaning Earth in public discourse. As the hunt for her gathered speed and publicity, she became a cause celebre. The Forest Department was under mounting pressure from the locals and politicians to remove her, and from general public and activists to leave her alone as she was a mother. Many petitions challenging the shoot-at-sight orders, which was issued by the Maharashtra government in September, 2018 were filed in the Supreme Court. On September 11, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that she could be shot if all attempts at tranquilisation failed. The order also stated that there could be no celebration after, nor could the shooter be given any reward.

The attempts to capture T1 grew into the theatre of the absurd. 150 personnel were deployed. Elephants were brought in (one of them ended up killing a local woman villager). Drones were flown above. Pedigreed and pampered pooches belonging to golfer Jyoti Randhawa were unleashed. Calvin Klein perfume, apparently used in the South American jungles to attract jaguars with great success, was liberally sprayed near camera traps, and succulent little pigs were left tied up in the undergrowth. The tigress and her cubs evaded all this for three months. In the middle of the drama stood Shafath Ali, who made absurd claims of how T1 was a terrorist, that walls needed to be built to keep tigers within national parks, that he could, with his 'vast' experience, tell a man-eater just from the animal's body language. Finally it wasn't even him but his son who pulled the trigger to end her life. What he was doing there is anyone's guess as there was no mention of his being invited to this mad hatter's party.

Why just a few experienced people with tracking skills, and trained vets and forest department members who could shoot tranquiliser guns, were not used is anybody's guess. The average dog can sense a human coming from a kilometre away and here was a wild animal with sharp wild instincts as being chased by dozens of people making a racket. The forest, which is inundated by the lantana plant ,could have hidden her easily. I have personally watched as elephants have literally vanished in front of my eyes when standing still in dense foliage, let alone tigers, an animal known for extreme stealth. With the safety of her cubs in mind, Avni would have been hyper-vigilant. The circus however had come to town and showed no signs of sanity.

T1 or Avni was shot dead without any attempts at tranquilisation and the department claimed that she was shot in self-defense as she tried to attack forest personnel in an open jeep. The facts however are this: she was shot at night which means there was no plan to tranquilise her at that point. The Forest Department say they rushed out as she had been sighted and they didn't want to lose her again. The postmortem of the tigress showed that she was turned away from the shooter when she was shot, refuting explanations of self-defense and there was no evidence that any attempts at tranquilisation were made. The postmortem also did not show the evidence of any human remains in the tigress's digestive system. But as her last alleged kill had been months prior, that was not surprising.

A new contempt petition was filed in the Supreme Court by activist Sunita Dongre stating that the autopsy had proved that the tigress was no man-eater and that the shooter had been feted and rewarded with a silver statue of a tiger in violation of the Supreme Court order. The court then proceeded to issue notices to the Maharashtra Forest Department on the contempt petition. The court also asked the activist what proof she had that the tigress was not a man-eater; she responded that if the tigress has been a man-eater, evidence of nails and hair should have been found in the autopsy as that stays in the digestive tract for over six months. It's entirely possible that the tigress did not consume her kills, and also possible that if she had eaten just the soft tissue, there would be no hair and nails. The very fact that 13 human deaths had been attributed to her was reason enough for the Forest Department to try and remove her from the area. It's in the methods employed that the problem lies.

The greater truth is that whether captured or killed, T1's wild contribution to the future of tigers in India came to an end and with her cubs in captivity, that's effectively three tigers removed from an endangered gene pool. We can only ask one more question: what, if anything, have we learnt from this messy tragedy?

(Swati Thiyagarajan is an Environment Editor with NDTV and author of 'Born Wild', a book about her experiences with conservation and wildlife both in India and Africa.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.