By Prarthana Mitra
Three hunters authorised by the forest department gunned down Maharashtra’s “man-eating” tigress Avni (T-1) last week, causing a huge stir among animal lovers, politicians, farmers, and activists across the nation. As authorities scrambled to justify the arguably unlawful execution, two separate panels have been constituted to investigate the matter amidst demands for justice.
Reaction from the state, centre and opposition
After several opposition parties and NGOs wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking a CBI probe into the killing, the central and state governments both formed panels on Monday to investigate the matter. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) set up a committee comprising Hemant Kandi of NTCA, Nagpur, senior retired wildlife expert O.P. Kaler, and deputy director of Wildlife Trust of India Jose Louies, who will arrive to perform an autopsy on November 13.
Maharashtra Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar ordered an independent fact-finding team to verify if guidelines and procedures were followed. He has appointed the principal chief conservator of forests S.H. Patil as chairman, and Bilal Habib of the Wildlife Institute of India, and Anish Andheria, president of Wildlife Conservation Trust to lead the inquiry.
Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thackeray severely reprimanded Mungantiwar for ratifying the “shoot-to-kill” order which violates state norms, further criticising the manner in which the BJP-led state government addressed the issue. Many critics have also spoken out against the hiring of private shooters and the autonomy given to them over state-owned forestlands and wildlife.
What necessitated killing the animal
While Avni has been blamed for 13 deaths in Pandharkawada forests of the Yavatmal district since 2016, many have claimed that the massive hunt for the tigress was undertaken to save Anil Ambani’s project which is to come up in the same region where Avni was killed.
Justice for Avni, who is survived by two 10-month-old cubs now at large, was the battle cry for hundreds of people who held a protest march at Shivaji Park on Sunday against the heinous attempt on a vulnerable species. Demands ranged from the sacking of Mungantiwar, who continues to defend the killing as “sad but necessary” to launching a rescue operation for the missing cubs. According to reports, the cubs have survived a week in the wild without their mother.
Mumbai Congress chief Sanjay Nirupam called the killing unconscionable, saying, “State Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar is expected to protect wildlife. However, wildlife seems to be most unsafe under his rule. His decision of killing tigress Avni cannot be defended or accepted under any circumstance. He should be sacked immediately.”
What authorities said about the incident
On November 3, a day after the picture of Avni’s carcass flooded social media, Maharashtra principal chief conservator of forests (Wildlife) A.K. Misra made an official statement that a team with a tranquillising gun along with sharpshooter Asghar Ali Khan had been patrolling the forests in search of the tigress. “Forester Mukhbir Sheikh managed to shoot a tranquiliser dart at her. But she got furious and charged at the team, forcing Asghar to shoot in self-defence from a distance of about 8-10 metres,” Misra had said.
Preliminary autopsy and witness reports, however, revealed that the forest department’s account was most likely fabricated. Four veterinarians who conducted the post-mortem examination confirmed that the tigress’s death by bullets came first, after which the dart was inserted post facto, that is, it was not shot from a tranquillising gun. The witness report submitted by Nagpur-based wildlife biologist Milind Pariwakam, who said that Avni was facing away from the shooters at the time of her death, also contradicted the officials’ claim that they shot the tigress in self-defence.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer for Qrius
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