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Will This be the Fate of Other Tigers in Maharashtra? Avni's Death Raises a Larger Question

With forests shrinking, tiger population increasing and a forest department repeatedly having to bow to political pressure, officials said the 'conditions for conflict are being put in place'.

Aniruddha Ghosal | News18.com@aniruddhg1

Updated:November 6, 2018, 3:00 PM IST
Will This be the Fate of Other Tigers in Maharashtra? Avni's Death Raises a Larger Question
(Representative image)

Her fate was, perhaps, sealed the minute Avni – the tigress killed in Maharashtra last week – was declared a man-eater. But the question looms: with conflict spiking and a forest department with their hands tied – will this be the fate of other tigers in the state?

Of the 13 human kills that Avni or T1 was held responsible for, it was only in the last three in August that there was evidence of feeding. This, officials point out, is key. The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) makes a distinction between an animal that accidentally kills a human and one that feeds on them habitually.

An NTCA official explained, “A tiger doesn’t actively hunt humans, barring very rare exceptions. In this case, the evidence clearly showed that this tigress was repeatedly surprised by humans and would attack them, to possibly protect her cubs. It was only after evidence that she ate from her last three kills emerged was she declared a man-eater.”

Such cases of conflict aren’t isolated to Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region which Avni had called home. But they have been spiraling in the area. Since 2010, over 330 people have died in the state due to conflict, primarily from tiger and leopard attacks, officials said. But until last year, this was a problem limited to the areas around the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) in Chandrapur district.

‘Conditions for conflict are being put in place’

Avni was one of the estimated 74 tigers that live outside protected areas in the state, expertly criss-crossing the dense bushes with her two 10-month-old cubs, periodically preying on nilgai and cattle.

Tigers have lived outside protected areas for centuries, point out experts and rarely, if at all, is there a case of an active man-eater. But with forests shrinking, tiger population increasing and a forest department repeatedly having to bow to political pressure, officials said that the “conditions for conflict are being put in place”.

Initial assessments for the ongoing census by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) indicates that the state’s tiger population could be as much as 230, of which at least 70 live outside protected areas.

The state has only one large forest patch over 1,000 square kilometre, while the rest are scattered across the state in the form of 2.35 lakh patches smaller than a square kilometre, as per the Forest Survey of India (FSI) in February 2018.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean that conflict will increase. But it of course doesn’t help. Then add to the fact that instead of trying to educate villagers about how to co-exist with tigers, as is done in other states, the orders from Mumbai are to kill or capture,” said a forest department official, who didn’t wish to be named.

Vidya Athreya of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) added, “Right now the state is not looking at the issue of conflict at all. You can’t have a road and not prepare for road accidents. This is exactly the same scenario. You can’t just let it be. The state government needs to be plan beforehand as to how it wants to deal with these cases.”

Another key issue leading to a spike in cattle was the massive stray population – abandoned by farmers after they stopped giving milk. AK Misra, the principal chief conservator of forests (wildlife) of Maharashtra, had earlier told News18, “There are about 1 lakh stray cattle in the state, with 30,000 in the Vidarbha region alone. What this means for a tiger is that easy meals are available close to human habitation. This increases the chances of a tiger chancing upon a human being accidentally. Small steps like walking in groups when venturing out in the forest can go a long way in mitigating conflict.”

Forest department’s hands tied

It wasn’t surprising for the local forest department when the two vets from Madhya Pradesh returned with their two elephants. Elephants had been key during the operation allowing vets to get closer to the tiger and potentially allowing for scope to corner the big cat.

Aware of this, the local forest department had asked senior officials for elephants in the summer of 2017, almost 18 months before Avni was eventually killed. “But we never heard back from the forest department top brass. It was only after the last two deaths, when the villagers got very angry that the forest department reacted,” said an official.

During the hunt, the local forest department repeatedly clashed with Nawab Shafath Ali Khan, the hunter hired by the forest department. They claimed he had repeatedly interfered with their operations. “The situation was a circus,” one official said. Conversely, Khan had initially claimed that the forest department wasn’t giving him freedom to operate and providing him information about where the tiger had last been spotted.

Union minister Maneka Gandhi has since criticised the Nawab had also pulled up the state government after the deputy conservator of forest (DCF) KM Abharna was allegedly pressured by the department top brass to ‘apologise’ to the hunter.

An official said, “The problem is that the forest department knows that tigers and men need to learn to co-exist. For this, we can only work with people to try and change their habits. Tigers will do what they have been evolved to do.”

“But tigers don’t have votes. People do, whose side do you think politicians will take,” added the official.

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