Justice to Avni

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Justice to Avni

Saturday, 10 November 2018 | Hiranmay Karlekar

Justice to Avni

Humans are not the natural prey of tigers. Her transformation has, therefore, to be seen in the wider context of human-animal conflict and the factors leading to it

One hopes that the inquiry ordered by the Maharashtra Chief Minister, Devendra Fadnavis, which, as he said, “will probe all questions being raised by Union minister Maneka Gandhi”, will unravel the facts relating to the killing of the six-year-old tigress Avni, also known as T1, in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district.  One also hopes that the findings will be fully convincing and not spark a new controversy.

Gandhi’s initial statement describing the killing as “nothing but a straight case of crime”, and that she had been “deeply saddened by the way tigress Avni has been brutally murdered”, was followed by a letter requesting Fadnavis to “fix responsibility for the illegal killing of the tigress and consider removing” S. Mungantiwar, the State’s environments and forests minister from his position.

Mungatiwar had initially responded to Gandhi saying that the Supreme Court had allowed the tigress to be shot and that it was done only after it had tried to attack forest officials who had attempted to tranquilise it. He had also said that her statements were based on incomplete information, adding “She is our respected leader. We will send her all information.” He had subsequently stated that he would have given her all the details if she had just called him on the telephone, and asked why she had not raised any question when Shafat Ali Khan (who and whose team were licensed to kill Avni and whose son, Asghar Ali Khan, had shot her) had killed a tiger in her own parliamentary constituency of Pilibhit in 2009. and was silent about villagers killing a tiger and assaulting a forest officer in Uttar Pradesh.

Mungantiwar’s questions about Gandhi’s silence on the Pilibhit killing and the murder of the tiger in Uttar Pradesh are irrelevant to any discussion on the circumstances attending the killing of Avni. They bear the imprimatur of being polemical salvoes aimed at putting her on the backfoot and, hence, will be ignored. One needs here to focus on the circumstances in which Avni or T1 was killed by Asghar Ali Khan and the developments relating to the growing human-animal conflict underlined by her killing.

It has been claimed that Asghar Ali Khan had killed Avni in self-defence from a distance of 7 to 8 metres. A report by Kyle Swenson in The Washington Post, quotes Khan as telling Britain’s The Daily Telegraph, “Our priority was always to capture the tigress, but my team was in extreme danger when she charged us, so I had to shoot. I just picked up my .458 Winchester Magnum rifle and fired. I didn’t even have time to aim.”

A report by Vivek Deshpande in the Indian Express, however, quotes a senior veterinarian and forensic expert Prayag Hodigere Siddalingappa, as saying that a “tiger runs away after being darted, doesn’t charge back at you.” According to the same report, the post-mortem procedure on Avni was performed at Nagpur’s Gorewada Rescue Centre. Subsequently, a press note issued by the Centre’s Regional Manager, Nandkishor Kale, had stated, “T1’s death occurred due to excessive internal bleeding and heart attack. A tranquilising dart was found on her left hind leg. A gun bullet injury was found on the left side of the chest.” Normally, Avni should have been shot in the head, face or the front — and not left or right side — of her chest if she had charged straight Asghar Ali Khan’s team.

All this warrant serious note being taken of Vijay Pinjarkar’s report in The Times of India stating that sources, part of a team filing the spot panchnama over T1’s killing, had said that it looked as if the tranquiliser dart had been manually inserted in her body “ostensibly to show that it was tranquilised before being shot.” According to a PTI report published in The Indian Express Chief Minister Fadnavis has also said, “There are some doubts regarding whether the tigress was first shot and then the dart (tranquiliser) inserted — this aspect will be probed.”

Meanwhile, Mungwantiwar was right in stating that the Supreme Court had permitted Avni’s killing as the Apex court, on September 11, 2018, had refused to interfere in the September 6 order by the Nagpur Bench of the Mumbai High Court sanctioning her killing. Its order, however, could certainly not mean that she could be killed in violation of all rules and protocols in force. This is precisely what has reportedly happened. Avni was killed at night. If she had at all been hit with a tranquilising dart, then it was in gross violation of the National Tiger Conservation Authority’s protocol stating that darting could be done only during sunrise and sunset.

If those responsible for this escape scot free, there would be no awareness of accountability among forest department personnel who have, nationwide, often been accused of corruption and inefficiency. In fact, the investigation ordered by Fadnavis should be broadened to go beyond Maneka Gandhi’s question and issues like the fate of Avni’s cubs and whether the tranquiliser in the dart was of the required strength and who administered it. It should re-examine whether Avni had actually become a man-eater and, if she had, why?

Humans are not the natural prey of tigers. Generally, only old and injury-impaired ones among the latter become man-eaters. Avni was young and, by all accounts, healthy.  Her transformation has, therefore, to be seen in the wider context of human-animal conflict and the factors leading to it. The main reason for this is habitat loss due to factors like the extension of human settlements, farming, industrial, commercial and mining activities, roads and railway lines into forests.

Maharashtra, which had, earlier this year, sanctioned the diversion of 467.5 hectares of forest land in Yavatmal district, where Avni was killed, for a cement plant, has a very poor record here. Its recommendation has led to the clearance, in principle, of 87.98 hectares of land in Kondhali and Kalmeshwar ranges — barely 160 km from Yavatmal — to an explosives company in Chakdoh for manufacturing defence products. Worse, the land earmarked being reportedly in the tiger corridor between Bor and Melghat tiger reserves, the factory would prevent the movement of tigers between the two. Also, the proposal to widen, from meter to broad gauge, the 176-km Akola-Khandawa railway, a 39 kilometre stretch of which passes through the Melghat, reserve threatens to cause more accidents, wildlife mortality and fragmentation of habitat.

After such trespasses, what forgiveness?

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)

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