Back in late 2018 a furious controversy erupted when the tigress ‘Avni’ (woodenly called T1 by the authorities), mother of two cubs, was shot and killed in a highly dramatic late night encounter in Yavatmal, Maharashtra. The tigress stood accused of the killing (and eating) of 13 people — poor, marginal farmers, eking out a living at the edge of forests, over the past two years and spreading terror in the region. NGOs and sections of the press called this ‘cold-blooded murder’ by a ‘bloodthirsty hunter’ and, of course, the courts were called in and even a presidential pardon was pleaded for.
The ‘bloodthirsty hunter’ in the case was the well-known or notorious — depending on your point of view — big game hunter Nawab Shafath Ali Khan (though it was his son, Asghar, who actually shot the tigress) and this is the story of how she finally met her end as recounted by him.
There are actually three main protagonists in this story: There was Khan himself, bitterly pitted against a plethora of ‘elitist’ (as they are always called) NGOs and a sensationalist press, and also the authorities and political elements whose apparent muddleheaded thinking and mismanagement — that also included according to Khan a good dose of devilish chicanery — caused the situation to boil over.
Khan admits he is no writer, but that the story had to be told. It is, in great detail, but the narrative often wanders before finding its way back to the main theme. One of Khan’s chief contentions is that tiger populations in protected areas have surpassed their carrying capacity, and tigers are now moving out of these into surrounding areas where they come into contact with people often with tragic results — for both. Once a tiger develops a taste for human flesh and loses its fear of humans — there is no looking back. It must be either tranquillised and moved to a safer location (maybe an enclosure) or killed. Tranquillising tigers in the kind of habitat they are found is not easy — the terrain is often difficult and darts fly relatively slowly and have to be aimed with pinpoint accuracy. But as Khan keeps reiterating shooting to kill is always the last option — as he maintains was the case with Avni.
While protected areas may be bursting at the seams with tigers, Khan does not mention that there are still just around 3,000 tigers in the country, facing up against a 1.3 billion human population and that they have faced a decline of over 90 per cent in their numbers. (And may not even be safe in protected areas: Sariska for example). He keeps mentioning that the cause ought to be to save the tiger, not a tiger. But he does admit that people these days are far less tolerant — and may lynch the animal they think is responsible. Often innocent animals get killed as a result.
To press his case, Khan mentions every victim of the tigress by name, though the ‘elitist’ NGOs and ‘sections of the press’ out to sensationalise the issue — remain nameless. (You can find out who they are on Google.) To his credit he does name some of the officials whose bungling — and worse — led to the debacle. Perhaps another point in his favour is the fact that after Avni was killed, the incidents of man-eating in that area stopped.
Personally, I was irked by the way he refers to the tigress as ‘it’ instead of ‘she’ (perhaps the editors are responsible), as if the animal were an object. Also, I doubt the photographs of him and his team, dressed like commandos (which, was necessary though) and posing like the bada-sahib hunters of yore, could have won him any brownie points. His reputation as a big-game hunter taking down rogue elephants, rampaging wild boar and nilgai, probably did his case no good.
It is wonderful that tigers are doing so well in protected areas. But it is up to us to ensure that the overflow have an adequate prey base (that does not include livestock and humans). Providing lucrative alternatives to people living in these habitats should be a priority — after all no destitute farmer would want his children to herd livestock in a tiger’s domain — if they can get a steady job in a (preferably sarkari) ‘daftar’. That alas our administrators seem to be unable to provide and the Avni tragedy is bound to repeat itself.
By Nawab Shafath Ali Khan
pp. 239, Rs.599