The death of a tigress in her prime is always a tragedy, no matter the circumstances that surround it. T1, popularly known as Avni, was shot dead at 11.35 pm on Friday night. In the bigger picture, as I wrote earlier, T1 shot or captured alive was dead to conservation goals the day she was marked for removal from the wild. Her live capture, however, would have made all of us feel better- especially if she was not placed in a zoo but maintained in a secluded area far from human habitation like the facility available in Pench Tiger reserve. It would not, however, have made Avni feel any better as captivity would have created its own level of suffering and stress in her. A wild five-year-old tigress will not really adapt to captivity no matter how nice the cage. I have visited animals in rescue facilities years after they have been trapped, and the ferocity and anger and stress has always remained. It is a disturbing sight
I believe quite firmly that Avni, who is believed to have killed at least 13 villagers in Maharashtra in the last 2 years had to be removed, whether that meant tranquilisation or shooting. However, I also believe that if the Forest Department had been proactive with a proper management plan in place from the beginning, when the first person was killed, the entire outcome could have been very different and never gotten to this stage where the tigress had to be removed.
The tragedy does not end with Avni's death. The next step is the capture of her cubs, who are a little over a year old. They will be caught and placed in a rescue centre in Nagpur. While the Forest Department said to me that they will be kept isolated in the hope of future release, it is really unlikely it will ever happen. For one, wild cats are not the easiest animals to relocate. In the case of these cubs, however they are young enough that they don't have established territories, so if they are moved far enough, they will not make a move back to where they were originally caught like a lot of adult wild tigers will with their homing instinct. This would normally mean they could be released but these Cubs are also young enough to not have had the entire training by their mother to be fully self sufficient. Even if they are and can survive on their own in the wild, there is another challenge.
They have lived their entire lives with a mother who had trust issues with people and they have observed her killing people. This by no means make them potential man eaters but it might make them always aggressive towards people. The cubs in the last few months have also been in hiding with their mother while a team of 150 forest guards armed with sticks, guns and cameras hunted for them. Their exposure to people has been extreme and negative. They have probably also witnessed their mother"s death at the hands of the hunter. Now, they will be hiding again trying to avoid capture. They will however be captured and that too will be traumatic for them. They are not young enough to forget the trauma yet they are young enough that they will have to be held in captivity for a few more months before they become old enough for release in the wild. In those months their familiarity with people will only increase as will their mistrust. It will always be a potential gamble to release them into any forest as there is no way to guarantee human free places even if the only humans are forest guard. So the reality might be that both of Avni's cubs live in captivity for the rest of their lives. In effect, that is three tigers in their prime that have been removed from the wild.
The big questions are numerous. Why was Avni shot at night? It is a well understood fact that all tranquilising is meant to stop after dark as chances of losing an animal once tranquilised in the dark are quite high. The Forest Department has said that a patrolling jeep was in the area where the tigress had been spotted that evening by several people and one villager on his machhan had panicked as she wandered through his field. This might be entirely true as it is where she was shot, but then the question is what was a hunter doing with the patrolling team? It only makes sense for him to have been there if the decision had been taken to shoot her if tranquilisation failed - and since this was in the dark and late at night , it is almost certain there was no real plan to tranquilise, but only to shoot. The hunter in question is Asghar, the son of the famed sharpshooter Shafath Ali Khan, incited from Hyderabad. Did his son have a formal invite too?
The Forest Department has said that the tigress was first shot with a tranquilising dart and then shot only when she charged the open jeep. Again the questions are: why, if patrolling the area for a known aggressive tiger, was the team in an open Gypsy and why shoot her when she charged as the tranquiliser would have taken effect in minutes? However a source speaking off the record said to me that there was absolutely no attempt made at tranquilising. That the dart was placed after the fact and that she was not charging when shot. If proved This was then a direct violation of the order that stated all attempts would be made to tranquilise before shooting.
The very fact that a private hunter and his family are allowed in on such operations is a mystifying phenomenon. Does this mean the Forest Department is incapable of training or having its own sharpshooters? Even if Maharashtra does not, surely they could have invited forest personnel from Madhya Pradesh? There are very experienced vets who are expert marksmen; they also have many trained people who are well-versed in tranquilising big cats. After all, in various parks around the country cats are tranquilised regularly for reasons of research purposes, or for radio collars to be fitted or even for removal from an area.
It is true that Forest Departments for the most part are doing a good job when it comes to tiger protection and care within national parks. Tiger numbers are increasing. However, the success comes with a price tag. The protected habitats are not able to contain the growing numbers as habitat is limited and natural dispersion is norm. This is when young tigers move away fro their mothers to become independent. They go looking to establish their own territories and cannot do so in areas already colonized by dominant male and female tigers. This often means they move outside of the protected area looking for homes.
All connectivity corridors between parks that used to exist and allowed for this movement have either disappeared entirely or have become heavily degraded due to human activity and development . With no clear mandate or management policy on how to deal with tigers outside of protected areas, especially in human use landscapes , it is a disaster waiting to happen. More permissions are being given every day diverting forests land for development.
It cannot be stressed enough how crucial it is to have local support. It is our indigenous and local peoples in India who have shown the greatest tolerance and love for wildlife and a reason why India, despite all of the challenges, is still one of only 17 mega-diverse countries in the world. This goodwill cannot be squandered.
In the sadness of Avni's death, let's not forget the 13 dead people and their families. People who live marginalized difficult lives barely eking out a livelihood. It's a miracle people waiting for almost two years for a resolution did not either set the forest on fire or use poison on cattle as bait.
Avni has taught us some tough lessons. Her cubs are now at stake as well.
(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.
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