Avni is dead, long live Avni!

The death of Avni, the tigress reveals a tragic story of rapid urbanisation, shrinking forest land and human apathy towards animals whose contribution to ecological balance mustn’t be underestimated

Photo courtesy: Twitter
Photo courtesy: Twitter
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Biswadeep Ghosh

The sight of the carcass with a dart's tip inside its striped body has to be one of the most moving images in recent times. Officially known as T1, six-year-old 'man-eating' tigress Avni was felled by a sharpshooter's bullet on Friday night. Branded a man-eater, Avni was said to have been responsible for killing 13 human beings in the last two years in the Pandharkawda jungle of Yavatmal district in Western Maharashtra. So, she had to be put down before she killed any further. The act, in short, was divine justice on earth.

The sketchy data available for assessing the merit of this action tells a different story. Five out of the 13 deaths that took place were reportedly attributed to her, two of which were backed by conclusive evidence based on DNA and saliva samples. The website oxforddictionaries.com defines a man-eater as ‘an animal that has a propensity for killing and eating humans.’ Given the dearth of data, how authentic is the possibility that Avni had been repeatedly straying into villages to kill and eat human beings, which is the only way she could have been classified as a man-eater?

The relief of local residents, who had been living under a shadow of fear for a long time, is understandable. Had the forest department been proactive when these killings had started taking place, however, Avni could have been tranquilised, captured and relocated much earlier. A wild animal in her prime, she would have led an unhappy life in captivity. However, her confinement in a secure place would have come as a relief to the dread-stricken villagers.

Avni was the mother of two cubs, who have been left to fend for themselves after their mother's death. Had the forest department authorities acted right after the first human being had been killed two years ago, worrying about the young ones who were born ten months earlier wouldn't have been a concern for them.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, cubs remain with their mothers for the first two-three years of their lives. They starting hunting by the time they are 18 months old, and become independent sometime later. Motherless today, how can these youngsters grapple with the unknown until they are captured and taken to a rescue facility?

The main news at the moment is the manner in which the mother was killed. Acting under pressure from locals, the forest department had issued an order that she must be tranquilised, and if that fails, killed. The department’s order was upheld by the Bombay High Court followed by the Supreme Court. Petitioners from all walks of life came together to register their protest against the order. Their pleas fell on deaf ears.

Efforts to capture Avni reminded of royal hunts minus drums and drummers with a conceited king leading the way. Money was spent freely as sniffer dogs, drones, trap cameras, sharpshooters and even a hang-glider were employed to corner the big cat. But, the mother of two cubs eluded everybody.

It took a long time before human intelligence overpowered animal instinct. On Friday night, Avni was enticed by the olfactory baits of the urine of another tigress and an American perfume. A statement issued by the forest department informs that a team member of the patrolling team had ‘attempted a dart that hit it…but [the] tigress moved back and charged at the team, which was in an open gypsy….So, as a reflex action of self-defence, Mr Asghar fired from a distance of about 8-10 metres.” Asghar is the son of Nawab Shafat Ali Khan, allegedly a trigger-happy trophy hunter hired by the forest department to assist in the operation.

The tigress was killed near a road adjoining Borati village, which is where she is believed to have attacked her first victim a couple of years ago. The Supreme Court had specified that the tigress was to be killed only if efforts to capture her failed. How sincere were these efforts?

Trying to capture Avni appears to have been a non-priority on that fateful night. It has been reported that the tranquilliser dart had been pierced into her corpse ‘after’ she had been killed. She was shot in the absence of a veterinarian, which is illegal. The forest department had only recruited Nawab Shafat Ali Khan for the operation. Why his son took part in it is another question that remains unanswered.

The killing of Avni drew a strong response from Meet Ashar, Lead Emergency Response Coordinator, PETA India, who said, “Avni was killed illegally satisfying a hunter’s lust for blood, plain and simple, in possible contempt of court. She may not have died instantly but slowly, through pain and blood loss, and likely in front of her now orphaned and vulnerable cubs in apparent violation of the Wildlife Protection Act and the guidelines of National Tiger Conservation Authority. This matter must be investigated and treated as a wildlife crime. Whether sanctioned by the state or not, nobody can be above the law. This is a dark day for our nation and we must hang our heads in shame now, and again if this killing goes unpunished.”

Avni's killing is a tragedy that must make us reflect on the man-animal conflict that can lead to such horrifying outcomes. Rapid and disorganised urbanisation is encroaching upon forest land. Wild animals whose contribution to ecological balance must not be underestimated are losing their freedom to roam freely and be themselves.

Humankind’s interference in animal’s territory is a major reason why Avni was unconvincingly branded as a man-eater first and killed thereafter. Pray as we must for the well-being of the two cubs, their mother’s killing is a reminder that we must protect the animals who make the world such a beautiful place to live in.

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