The misfortune of being a migrating tiger in India

Avni’s murder by a sharpshooter raised several questions at the time.

Credit : Indie Journal

Over two years ago, on November 2, 2018, tigress T1 or Avni, who was deemed a man-eater after her attacks on people near Pandharkawada-Ralegaon forests of Yavatmal district, was shot dead. It was said that she had allegedly attacked around 13 villagers in the region over a period of around two years. After proving that she had definitely killed at least two of these victims, the Supreme Court had ordered the state forest department to try and tranquilise her, and if not possible, to kill her as the last resort.


Avni’s murder by a sharpshooter, (in)famous for his hunting of animals in areas of conflict, raised several questions at the time.


Avni’s murder by a sharpshooter, (in)famous for his hunting of animals in areas of conflict, raised several questions at the time. While her killing was met with flak from activists, postmortem reports had revealed that Avni was, in fact, not a man-eater. Recently released film ‘Sherni’ depicts a similar story, that of a tigress attacking people in the vicinity of a forest in Madhya Pradesh, politicians using the attacks and people’s grief for their gains and forest officers trying to protect the tigress from getting killed, while trying to help people amid all the chaos. The film has reignited the discussion around Avni’s death.

While the case of Avni, three years ago, gained attention from the entire nation, the man-tiger conflict in Vidarbha is not uncommon. As per the Maharashtra Forest Department’s data, Vidarbha has 331 tigers in its different preserved forest areas, which are dissected by roads, mines, infrastructural projects, settlements and agriculture. Apart from agriculture, the villagers in the area are largely dependent on a variety of forest products, which brings them to the forest areas. While this has been the traditional occupation of the people in tribal areas, the dwindling forest cover has brought humans and animals right onto each others’ paths like never before.


What happened in Avni’s case?

Between 2016 and 2018, around 13 people were killed in animal attacks in the Pandharkawada forest area in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district where Avni was identified to be residing. Just 11 months before her death, she had given birth to two cubs. This might actually explain the attacks as tigers are generally known not to attack humans with exception of two major instances: they either attack to defend themselves or they attack to prevent any harm to their cubs.

Around 200 forest officers were appointed to track and find Avni before she was killed. The search for her was ongoing for months, but she would smartly avoid all traps set for her by the forest department. On the dreadful night, amid heavy patrolling and a large presence of villagers, Avni was shot dead by professional hunters hired by the forest department. 


Activists have accused that it was a state-sponsored fake encounter.


While the official version claimed that the tigress was shot in self-defence after the attempt to tranquilise her failed, activists have accused that it was a state-sponsored fake encounter. The Supreme Court had also demanded answers from the Maharashtra Government over allegations that the shooter was rewarded by villagers after the killing. The film Sherni, which has been depicted as fiction, also shows the killing of the tigress as cold-blooded murder. The shooter Asghar Ali Khan, who killed Avni, has served a legal notice to makers of Sherni for portraying him in a “poor light”.

Avni’s postmortem was inconsistent with the stories of her being a man-eater. Moreover, out of the 13 attacks, the DNA samples from only six have been proved to be by Avni.



Buffer zones of forests

It is important to note that the increased human movement in the buffer zones of the forests is an important factor that leads to man-animal conflict in the Vidarbha region like in the case of Avni. However, the issue is not as simple as it looks. The communities living close to forests are often dependent on them for their livelihoods. They have done so for hundreds of years. However, with infrastructural development and rapid urbanisation claiming more and more forest area each year, forest area, on which both humans and animals are dependent, continues to shrink.

Over the last decade or so, the number of tigers has been increasing steadily due to stricter laws and conservation efforts like the tiger projects. However, as the number increases, the forest area available for them falls short, leading to them venturing into human settlements. Tiger is also known to migrate, crossing long stretches at times over long periods. However, the development has left very few corridors for animals to move from one forest to another, forcing them to walk across agricultures and settlements, leading to conflict.

In the case of Avni, reports say that the Pandharkawada forest area where the incident happened was being encroached upon by politicians, corporates and locals. There have been allegations that Avni was tagged as a man-eater because her being in the area was a hurdle to the interests of those wishing to acquire the land. Tiger habitat is not an easy piece of land to buy or sell, legally.


Lack of safe passages

A recent project by the Maharashtra Forest Department and Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in the Vidarbha region principally tracked the movement of 15 sub-adult tigers, including seven females. For the first time, such mapping of tiger movement in the Vidarbha landscape was done, which showed that these tigers largely used agricultural lands next to forests and rivers. The plan is to use the study to create more safe passages for the movement of tigers and other animals.

However, such initiatives and safe passages are missing in most of the states. In a large number of instances where a tiger passes through human-dominated landscapes, the resulting conflict leads to people’s rage against the tigers. This is alarming in a world where tigers are still endangered and their disappearance would shake the balance of the entire ecosystem.


Avni’s story needs to be retold over and over.


And that is why Avni’s story needs to be retold over and over. There is a scene in Sherni wherein villagers in the areas attacked by the tigress tell the protagonist (who is a Deputy Conservator of Forest) that they are forced to take their livestock to the forests as their traditional grazing land was used by the previous DCF for teak plantation. Another scene shows a forest corridor hurdled by a copper mine. These are two of the several common problems that are the root cause of the infinite human-animal conflict cases across the country. However, the mitigation measures are often ill-managed and inadequate.

There have been instances in the country wherein tigers, leopards and other wild animals have fallen prey to the greed and rage of man. But there have also been instances, wherein animals well within human areas have been left alone, monitored and helped to get back to their habitats. What could not be done for Avni could still be done for many more like her.