In a time when the country is striving to perpetuate the pugmark count, Shafat Ali Khan, father of tigress Avni's shooter Asghar Ali Khan, has put the burden of blame on the ‘problematic tigress’ Avni (T-1).
“This Tigress (T-1) was a problem. Maharashtra has an overpopulation of Tigers today. The state cannot afford to have any more Tigers because they have nothing to eat outside the forest. Where this tigress had come there was no base-prey at all and she had come into human-dominated areas where thirteen lives were taken,” Shafat Ali said.
The invitation to the operation was extended by the government, according to the shooter who claimed to have helped in solving the issue. He said, “For two years the department was trying to tranquillize this problematic Tigress. In September itself three kills had occurred. So afterwards the Government invited us and we tried to help them in solving the issues.”
Drawing details of the Operation that killed Avni, the alleged ‘man-eating’ tigress, the hunter said that the operation was being carried out for over a year and a half to curb the human killings. He also emphasized that the Supreme Court ordered the Tiger must be ‘tranquilized and if not then shot.’
“The operation was carried out by the Government, by the Principal Chief Conservator of the Forest, 200 men from the forest department, 100 camera traps, cages, veterinary. The best veterinary teams from the country had come, five elephants were brought into service and the best tranquillising teams from Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand. All these people were trying for one and a half years, but when killings continued we were called to somehow see that no more kills took place. We were not called there for tranquillising or elimination. The Supreme Court had held categorically that first T-1 should have been tranquillised and if not then shot, to prevent any human killing. SC was clear that 14 is enough, they did not want more lives to be lost.”
He added, “We were there for 35 days, day-time we were trying to track the Tiger, monsoon was just over the bushes were extremely thick. The Tigress had been earlier darted 4-5 times but she was extremely clever, she would not come back to the kills, or under the machan. All the traditional methods of capturing a Tiger had failed and we changed the strategy. I got 5 traps from Tadoba - we put up traps, cages and baits and tried various methods to capture her alive. She would not come into the cage, she would not take the bait. Wherever she killed the cow or something she would drag it into thick bushes that it was not possible for us or the vets to build a machan and sit.”
Although the idea of conservation cannot be romanticized, the death of the Tiger and the human lives lost shed an alarming light on the profusely thriving man-animal conflict. Wildlife Conservation Trust claims the surge of humanity, forests are shrinking. Fuelwood collection, man-made fires, grazing and encroachment are drivers of degradation, thus escalating the conflict.
While, Shafat Ali had an opinion differing from the wildlife experts and activists as he suggested, “There has been no encroachment of forests, but the Tiger census has gone up from 110 to 250 in Maharashtra. Tadoba National Park now has 90 Tigers from 42. With conservation practices and the efforts of the Forest Department, the animal census is rising, but jungles are the same. Tigers are spilling over, rising and entering in human habitation killing them.”
The procedural failures, the presence of a private hunter and absence of a vet found the operation at the receiving end of criticism, but yet again Shafat had a different version.
“The team had a tranquillising expert, a veterinary doctor mixed the dose and gave it to a Forester Mukhbir Sheikh who was authorized to tranquillise, two guards and Asghar my son had gone with them for protection. While on operation a dart was fired, a normal Tiger would have gone away but the moment the dart pricked she chose to turn around and come to the vehicle. If she would have jumped inside there would have been more casualties. To prevent those casualties there was no other option but to shoot in self-defence.”
Shafat Ali also criticized the experts who failed to help on the field and accused people of not understanding the Tiger's psychology.
He said, "The person sitting in an air-conditioned room in Mumbai does not know the psychology of a Tiger. If these people roamed around with us and saw the Tigress carrying and eating human heads, that we got in bags for post-mortem or empathised with the families, worked on the field they would know. The experts criticizing should have come on the field and worked for the operation on-going for two years, even we would've learnt a few things from them and helped them. But no one showed up then, so now their words have no foundation."
Gaps in the narrative (particularly to do with the dart vs bullet sequence), differing conservational views, procedural failures, the sheer number of animals the shooter has killed -- hundreds, as per Maneka Gandhi, there is an imperative need for clarity as to the true nature of Avni's killing.