The Supreme Court today issued a contempt notice to nine persons, mostly state government officials, in connection with the killing of Avni, an adult tigress, in Maharashtra in 2018. While the court sought evidence to confirm whether or not the big cat was a man-eater, its notification demanded answers on the reward given out for the act in violation of a judicial order.
"...they flouted orders that they shall not reward anyone who kills (the tigress)," Chief Justice Sharad A Bobde said today hearing a petition on the incident. Those who have been issued the contempt notice include Maharashtra Principal Secretary for forests Vikas Kharge and state Chief Wildlife Warden AK Mishra.
Believed to have killed 13-15 persons in the region till then, Avni, also known officially as T1, was shot dead on November 2, 2018, following a massive hunt involving 200 paragliders, infrared cameras, and Calvin Klein fragrances. This was three months after the Supreme Court gave authorities the permission to shoot it "at sight" if tranquilisers didn't work.
In the September 2018 order, the Supreme Court had said, "T1 must be tranquillised and shifted to a rescue centre, and if unsuccessful, it shall be eliminated by shooting to avoid any further loss...The Chief Conservator of Forests, Yavatmal, is authorised to carry out the above order. He shall not declare any prize or any similar incentive for the responsible person."
Petitioner Sangeeta Dogra, an animal rights activist, later moved the top court seeking action against those involved in the killing. Citing post mortem and DNA reports, she had argued that T1 was not a man-eater. The court agreed to examine this matter.
"How does a post mortem show if an animal is a man-eater or not?" asked Chief Justice Bobde. She replied that a man-eater would have nails and hair in the intestine for six months but this tigress's stomach was empty.
"We want to see clear findings that human nails, hair, teeth or whatever, does not disappear for a period of six months and that no such thing was found in (T1's) intestine. Show us…she was not a man-eater," he said. "We will issue notice also. Because the reward part is clearly violated."
The killing was carried out in Maharashtra's Yavatmal district by a team of forest officials and a civilian hunter named Asgar Ali. Ms Dogra alleged that state authorities had arranged a function following the hunt, during which a silver idol of a tigress was handed to Mr Ali. "This certainly is an act of trophy hunting which was gifted through the hands of villagers..." the petition alleged.
Earlier, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), too, had raised several questions over the killing. The matter soon assumed a political angle as the opposition accused the government of trying to help the mining industry in the region by killing the tigress.
"Avni was killed illegally satisfying a hunter's lust for blood," People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) had said. India's Wildlife Protection Act and NTCA rules had been flouted, it said, calling for the matter to be "investigated and treated as a wildlife crime".
Despite the disputed circumstances, villages around the town of Pandharkawda in Yavatmal had celebrated Avni's death with relief.
Her two cubs, who were 10 months old when she was shot dead, were rescued later.