By Dushyant Shekhawat
On Friday, close to midnight, in the forests of Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district, the muzzle of a .458 Winchester hunting rifle flashed brightly, and went clean through Avni the tigress. A mighty cat, our national animal, brought down by a lead bullet. The circumstances surrounding her killing are murky, made heavy by unanswered questions. Why was the capture mission taking place in the dark of the night? Why was a private hunter called in over the state’s shooters? What could have been done to avoid this depressing outcome? Amid all this uncertainty, there is one fact that remains upsettingly obvious – like so many other unfortunate animals before her, Avni’s fate was sealed the moment she first came into conflict with humans.
Officially known as T1, Avni was a six-year-old tigress and a mother to two yearling cubs. Her territory lay in the Vidarbha region, close to but not part of two national parks. She made her home in an area marked out as reserve forest, a once pristine but now degraded patch of land that served as a place for villagers to graze cattle and collect firewood, putting her on a collision course with the local human population. She was first spotted in the area in 2012, but things took a turn for the worse after an old woman was found mauled to death in a cotton field in 2016. Since then, she has been suspected of killing 13 people, prompting the Supreme Court to sanction the government’s mission to remove Avni from her habitat, dead or alive.
Though activists are still raising questions over why Avni was shot instead of being tranquilised, at least she had the mercy of a quick death. Just yesterday, in Uttar Pradesh, villagers organised what can only be termed as a revenge killing of another tigress, going to the ghastly extent of beating her with sticks and running her over with a tractor because she mauled a man who was walking through the forest. Shockingly, this ugly lynching took place within the core area of Dudhwa National Park, showing just how brazen the disregard for animal welfare is in this country.
The tiger might technically be above us on the food chain – but as a species it has no defence against the concerted efforts of humans bent on their destruction.
The tiger is our national animal, yet we’ve just killed two females in the prime of their lives. Thanks to us, who have encroached upon their territory, or driven away their natural prey to make room for our livestock, if a tiger crosses humans the wrong way, it’s days as a wild and free beast are numbered.
“Humans and big cats cannot co-exist,” said Shafat Ali Khan, the celebrity hunter and father of Asghar Ali Khan, who shot Avni. For someone who proudly touts his 40 years of field experience as a hunter and tracker, it’s a remarkably myopic worldview, though given his profession perhaps it’s just good business sense to peddle that notion. The fact is, humans and tigers have co-existed all across the Indian subcontinent throughout recorded history. Our culture has great reverence for all animals, going as far as to worship many species, including the tiger. Apart from the tribes that specifically pray to the big cat, its role as the goddess Durga’s mount also makes it holy to most Indians.
It is only in modern India, as we make the inevitable march toward progress, that any discord has arisen at all. At the dawn of the 1900s, an estimated 40,000 tigers roamed India’s jungles. In 2006, that number had dropped to just 1,411. Today, the tiger population is numbered at around 2,500 individuals, minus the two who were killed in cold blood this week.
The sight of a lifeless big cat, stripped of all its former majesty by death, being paraded by triumphant humans who feel like they have scored another victory over nature is a deeply disturbing image. Avni was similarly displayed, with Asghar Ali Khan crouching above her carcass, trying to look regal but ending up as repugnant. There is no glory to be gained in hunting endangered animals, even if they’re supposedly man-eaters, and each life lost is a sign of the failure of our conservation efforts.
Though tiger numbers are recovering from their all-time low in 2006, the road to recovery is far from smooth. As tiger numbers grow, the solitary cats will be pushed out of protected areas by dominant individuals, forcing them to inhabit areas also frequented by humans, increasing the likelihood of incidents like Avni’s and the Dudhwa tigress’ killings. The tiger might technically be above us on the food chain – but as a species it has no defence against the concerted efforts of humans bent on their destruction. A state-sanctioned shoot and a mob lynching are just some of the methods used. Crude traps, poisoned meats, and electrified fences are all tools used to kill tigers that dare venture beyond the core areas to which we humans have so arrogantly confined them.
For Avni, there was no way to escape the 150-strong hunting party that set out to end her. But if, instead of boasting about our PM’s environmental award from the UN, our government focussed on the important task of ensuring the country’s wildlife safe habitats and corridors to travel between those safe havens, other tigers won’t have to share the same grisly fate.
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