Whatever one may think of Mrs. Maneka Gandhi’s politics one cannot but admire and commend her commitment to the welfare of animals, both wild and domesticated. Her passion for their protection overrides her political compulsions, as is being evinced these days by her taking up cudgels against both the Maharashtra and Odisha governments (the former her own BJP entity) over the killing of the tigress Avni by the Forest Department, and seven elephants by electrocution in these states respectively. I have experienced her fierce loyalty for these mute creatures at first hand, in an encounter I am not likely to forget in a hurry.
It was sometime in 2001 or 2002: she was a Minister in Mr. Vajpayee’s cabinet and I was heading the Forest Department in Himachal. A crisis of sorts erupted when a Himalayan brown bear in Gopalpur Zoo caught some infection and in spite of all the attentions of our wild life veterinarians, its condition worsened, and it seemed to be slipping away. One day I received a direct call from Mrs. Maneka Gandhi; she herself was on the line, no protective shield of PS or PA. And boy! was she hopping mad! For the first few minutes she let me know exactly what she thought of me, the HP Forest department, and its vets.- and her opinions do not bear recounting. She wanted an immediate update on the bear’s condition, and on being told of the discouraging prognosis, informed me that she was sending down two vets from the Zoo Authority of India to treat the bear; she also offered the advice that the HP vets could be assigned to treat bureaucrats! She slammed down the phone, and by next day her vets were at Gopalpur. The brown bear recovered, and we all slunk back to our respective offices, our tails demurely between our shaking legs.
And so it is no surprise for me that, in this respect at least, she has not mellowed down in the least. And she is absolutely right, for the killing of Avni, a three year old tigress (also known as T-I ) by the Maharashtra govt. is nothing but a cold blooded murder by the same department which was supposed to protect her. Avni’s territory lay in the Yavatamal region, a scrub forest woefully lacking in a proper natural prey base. She was held responsible for the death of 13 villagers over the last two years, even though no autopsies were conducted on the dead to positively establish this charge. The Maharashtra Forest Department’s [MFD] conclusion was based on “circumstantial” evidence, which in India is usually enough even to send a man to the gallows, so what chance does a poor tiger have against our bureaucracy?
It is now clear that the MFD has been been grossly incompetent in managing this tigress and in taking the easy way out by simply killing her. And not just her – the MFD is probably guilty of the murder of three, not one, tiger: Avni’s two nine month old cubs have not been seen since the 3rd of November; there is little hope for them for they are too young to survive without their mother. Here are some indisputable facts that have now emerged about the culpability of MFD and their favourite shikaris:
- Even though MFD was aware that the scrub forests of Yavatmal had an inadequate prey base for the big cat, and that conflict with humans was inevitable because there were many villages there, it took no steps to relocate the tigress.
- The department, according to the Forest Minister’s own admission, had been “trying” to tranquilise and capture Avni for the last eighteen months, without any success! No further evidence is needed of its incompetence. To add to this, an expert team from the Madhya Pradesh forest department (which has plenty of experience with capture and relocation of the big cats) had offered to help but was turned down.
- According to NTCA ( National Tiger Conservation Authority) protocol, even where a man eater is involved, its elimination is the last resort, when attempts to capture it have failed. As we have seen, no genuine attempt was made to capture Avni. It is not even certain that she was a man eater. A man eating predator is one which prefers a human over its natural prey (usually because it is too old or injured to hunt other animals), actively stalks humans, and consumes the kill. None of these preconditions were met in the case of Avni.
- The Maharashtra FD was criminally complicit in engaging private shooters to kill the tigress without any genuine attempt to capture her. The person who finally shot her (Asghar Ali Khan) was not even authorised to do so; it was his father, Shafath Ali Khan, who was engaged by MFD to kill the tigress. (Incidentally, this father-son duo have terminated hundreds of wild animals – wild boar, blue bull, leopards – in similar operations). Asghar Ali is now claiming self defence, that the tigress had charged his team at night while they were out looking for her and he had no option but to shoot her dead. Which raises the question: what was he doing there anyway? Why was he hunting her when it was his father, not he, who had been licensed by the MFD to eliminate Avni?
- Even the claim of self defence has been disproved by the autopsy report of the tigress. According to the report reproduced in the Hindustan Times of November 10, 2018: ” The bullet had pierced the lateral end of the carcass. (If), as mentioned by the hunter that T-I was charging at them, the bullet would have pierced the upper shoulder, head, face or back if that was the case. The animal was not attacking the forest team but standing 10 meters away.”
- Equally damning is another finding of the autopsy. Photographs of the dead body of the tigress show a dart sticking out of her left flank, which was used by the FD and the hunter to claim that they had first tried to tranquilise her, but the dart was ineffective. This too has been trashed by the autopsy report: ” The dart only pierced the surface of the tigress’s carcass, which meant that it was merely placed by the forest team to show that the tigress had been tranquillised or else the quantity would have been more.”
It is pretty clear now that Avni was killed in cold blood, no bona- fide attempt was made to capture her, she was shot by someone who was not authorised to do so, and that the Maharashtra forest department is engaged in a massive cover up. The state Forest Minister, who has been justifying the killing from day one and shielding the guilty, has amply demonstrated that he too is complicit in the matter in some way. Both the Minister and the PCCF (Wild Life) should be immediately sacked. The two inquiries ordered will get nowhere and shall only legitimise the cover up. What is needed is an independent inquiry, not by forest officers who will protect each other, but by a team of wild life experts. Mrs. Gandhi, who is waging a lonely battle, should demand such an investigation and / or conservationists should approach the courts. With just 2226 tigers left in the wild (2015 census) India certainly cannot allow bungling foresters and crassly ignorant Ministers to preside over the deliberate killing of more of these magnificent creatures. The alarm bells are already ringing: we lost 132 tigers in 2016; Maharashtra alone accounted for 23 deaths in 2017 (NTCA figures). With this level of attrition surely we should not be eliminating more of them under the garb of man-animal conflict ?