Home / Politics / Policy /  Avni’s aftermath: The wildcats among us

Nagpur: Kalabai Shendre, 65, hasn’t found the courage to venture out to her farm for ten months—since 27 January, 2018, to be precise. That day, she stood witness to a tigress mauling her 70-year-old husband on their two-acre farm.

Ramaji, her husband, had just lit a campfire to protect the standing wheat crop from wild-boars and nilgai. Kalabai says she was picking cotton on the other side of the farm when she heard a growl and a muffled voice.

She turned around, she says recounting the horror at her modest home, to see a tigress holding her husband by his neck, and within minutes, the beast began to drag him towards the shrubs adjoining the farm in village Loni in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district. “I get nightmares," she says. “My health has not been good."

Ramaji’s tormentor was Avni, or T1, a tigress that perhaps migrated from a wildlife sanctuary 50-60km west of Loni village. For much of this year, Loni was at the epicentre of one of the longest and fiercest operations to capture or kill a maneater. And, on the night of 2 November, after having remained elusive for two years, Avni was finally killed in Borati village, in the heart of Ralegaon tehsil. Her two 11-month-old cubs still remain in the wilderness without their mother and a search effort is on to locate them.

Thirteen people, including Ramaji, died in tiger attacks in Ralegaon tehsil, in and around Loni village, between May 2016 and August 2018. Avni is suspected to have killed at least seven of those, according to forest officials, though the tigress is believed to have attacked almost all the victims in the area.

The hunt for Avni

Earlier this year, Avni was declared a problem animal by the wildlife chief in Maharashtra. In August 2018, when three people died in as many villages after being attacked by Avni, local protests forced the forest department to intensify the operation to capture or kill her.

For two months, round the clock, about 200 guards would patrol the undulating terrain on foot—a landscape of deciduous and shrub forests interspersed with cotton fields. The patrols yielded nothing.

Loni was the base camp into which teams of para-gliders, drone-operators, and trackers descended. Nothing worked. The drones made a lot of noise. The para-gliders could not be of any use in the area given the topography and thick vegetation on the ground. Other ideas just fell flat: nets, baits, vehicles. T1 had effectively plunged a dozen-odd villages in a 50 sq. km area into the realm of fear and anxiety.

Its first kill was in Borati, in 2016, of a woman named Sonabai Ghosale. The conflict escalated in August 2018, when in a single month, three victims got added to the fallen. By then, an order was issued to kill the tigress, which was immediately challenged in the High Court and later in the Supreme Court. The apex court upheld the High Court order which allowed the tigress to be killed, but only if she could not be captured alive. In between, forest officials invited a specialized team of sharp-shooters from Hyderabad, led by Nawab Shafath Ali Khan, the 60-year-old scion of an aristocratic family, and his son, Asaghar. But he was sent back in the face of protests from conservationists and an intervention by union minister Maneka Gandhi. An expert team from Madhya Pradesh was summoned in September. The team came with four elephants and a fifth tusker was called in from the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR), Chandrapur. The operation suffered a setback when the tusker from Chandrapur went astray one night and killed two persons in villages 30km away from the campsite after having freed itself from the chains in the middle of the night.

Maharashtra forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar stepped in. He called back Shafath Ali Khan and asked his senior forest officials to station themselves in Pandharkawda until the tigress was captured or killed, prompting another round of protests by conservationists in Nagpur.

Finally, on 3 November, a statement by the Maharashtra forest department said T1 was shot dead the previous night around 11pm, pulling the curtains on a dramatic saga. The official account is that an attempt was made to tranquilize the tigress, but it failed. Once T1 charged aggressively at the patrolling team, Asaghar Ali who was in an open jeep with other guards pulled the trigger in self-defence. That version is widely challenged and an investigation into the events of that day is ongoing.

T1’s carcass was sent to Gorewada zoo in Nagpur for a post-mortem, even as protests gathered steam regarding the circumstances in which the animal was killed. The central question being, could the tigress have been captured instead of being shot dead?

Meanwhile, T1’s cubs are still in the wild —they were sighted last week, and looked healthy. Officials on the ground are tracking their movement and planning to capture them.

The problem, however, did not start with T1, nor will it end with her demise, say wildlife activists. “This is the right time to sit down and redraft our conservation strategy," says Nitin Desai, the central India director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). “We have to deal with a tiger population that has not seen or won’t see a contiguous forest belt. We are essentially looking at wild cats hovering around us."

For years, India’s conservation approach has singularly focused on protected areas, which constitute a mere 5% of India’s landmass.

Desai’s words ring true: about 150km away from T1’s hunting ground, in Dhamangaon railway tehsil of Amravati district, an adolescent male tiger that just got separated from its mother killed a man in Mangrul Dastgir village on his farm on 19 October, and a woman three days later, further north.

Forest officials believe the tiger travelled over 450km from Chandrapur district to cross over to Madhya Pradesh, traversing the non-forest areas of Wardha and Amravati districts.

T1 perhaps came into Ralegaon area from Tipeshwar Wildlife Sanctuary, about 50-60km westward, in the same district. She was one of the two cubs of her mother, says the district wildlife warden and tiger lover Ramzan Veerani in Pandharkawda. There is a male tiger, T2, father of her two cubs, sharing her territory.

Local villagers had never seen or heard of a tiger in Ralegaon. Now, stories of T1 and her two cubs abound.

Shrinking habitats

Two processes are at play, explains AK Misra, the principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF), wildlife: “The tigers are growing and forests are fragmenting." Conflict is a natural corollary.

The tiger habitats, Misra says, have shrunk and their corridors of movement have been broken. There are more tigers outside of protected areas today than there were a few years ago, he points out. His contention is based on a study his office commissioned recently to understand the impact of forest fragmentation in the tiger landscape of the region.

The report finds that there are only six patches of forests in the entire region that could be said to be ideal habitats for tigers: with a green cover of more than 500 sq. km.

A significant majority of the forest patches are very small—less than 5 sq. km and aren’t conducive tiger habitats. A 2011 tiger estimation report showed a 10-12 % rise in tiger population as compared to the 2006 census. But it warned of heightened man-tiger conflict, due to the fact that most of India’s reproducing tigers were now concentrated in 10% of the available tiger habitats. The central Indian tiger population, although functionally connected, suffers from the presence of highly fragmented corridors and a loss of habitat to agriculture, the report stresses.

While all other threats to tigers remain, linear infrastructure development—the expansion of the rail and road network— has emerged as the single largest threat to the demographic viability of tigers, according to another comprehensive study (bit.ly/2AcRgP1) published in February 2018 by the not-for-profit Wildlife Conservation Trust (WCT).

The study warns that not a single tiger sub-population in the central Indian landscape is genetically viable in the long run by itself; their survival will be dependent on the connectivity of their populations through a network of intervening forest corridors—corridors that are being severed by expanding or widening roads, irrigation canals, and new railway tracks.

Linear infrastructure, especially a wider road, often requires less forest land as compared to alternate activities such as dams or mining. But, the negative impacts of such projects are disproportionately high, the WCT report warns.

Eastern Vidarbha is dissected by 45,790km of roads (as of March 2016). The fragmentation caused by the roads has created 517 small forest patches which are less than one square km wide. These forest patches are practically uninhabitable without frequent movement and lay at the heart of the increasing human-animal conflict.

“Protected areas are extremely important for the long-term viability of biodiversity. However, protected areas cover only 5% of the land area in India and in the case of large carnivores that range widely, human-use landscapes will function as important habitats required for gene flow to occur between protected areas," say wildlife scientists Vidya Athreya, Morten Odden, Jagdish Krishnaswamy, and Ullas Karanth, who authored a study published on the Public Library of Science in 2013.

Maharashtra’s large carnivores inevitably share space with dense human populations in many pockets, highlighting the need to shift from a protected-area centric approach to a landscape-level conservation approach. The emergent issues would of course be far more complex, and the potential for conflict very high. But if the Avni saga teaches anything, it is that India’s conservation policy must acknowledge this painful new reality.

Why it’s time to act

The operation to kill Avni drew wildlife lovers to the streets and sparked political tensions, but three tiger cubs which were mowed down by a train near Chandrapur in mid-November didn’t evoke similar passion.

Another set of tiger cubs, aged less than six months, were crushed under a train in Maharashtra last week. The cubs were hit by the Balharshah-Gondia train between Chandrapur and Nagbhid stations, forest officials said. Last year, a robust male tiger was knocked dead by a truck on the four-lane National Highway 6 between Nagpur and Amravati, but the incident did not evoke a flurry of political activity as “Op-Avni" did.

The sudden flare-up of protests, thus, offers an opportunity to work towards long-term solutions. Because, far away from the glare of the state and national capitals, the human-tiger conflict is turning bloodier every passing year, with increasing victim counts on both sides of that divide.

Since 2010, about 330 people have died in Maharashtra alone due to wildlife attacks, mostly by tigers and leopards. As many as 1,234 were seriously injured, according to the data compiled by the Maharashtra forest department. A majority of these incidents were reported from the territorial forests around the protected areas in Vidarbha.

This summer—March through early June 2018—there was a spurt in tiger attacks, a sure sign of intensifying human-tiger conflict in the villages across Vidarbha. Almost all the incidents took place outside the protected forests. They were all sudden, stunning ambushes, either on farms or in the forests adjoining villages. At least 20 people have died this year so far. Some of the victims manage to survive and carry their scars.

Like Damu Atram, a 60-year-old farmer belonging to the Kolam tribe, who counts himself lucky to be still alive. In mid-May of this year, when he was preparing his farm in village Hiwara Barasa, in the southern part of Yavatmal district, a full-grown tiger attacked him from behind out of the blue.

His village is in the middle of small patches of forests interspersed with sprawling cotton farms close to the Tipeshwar sanctuary. Damu escaped with deep injuries on his head and neck. Thanks to a couple of labourers who he says began to shout and throw stones, the beast quickly vanished into a patch of dense trees beyond his farm. Damu was rushed to the government hospital in Pandharkawda in time to get medical aid.

“I had blood all over my body," Damu recounts, “I could have died that day," he says. “I nearly did."

Jaideep Hardikar is a Nagpur-based freelance reporter.

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