A man-eating tiger is like a wraith, a vengeful ghost that haunts the nightmares of children and grown-ups alike as it chalks up its kills and disappears like a wisp of smoke.

The morning of 10 April 2015 began like any other day in Borati village in Yavatmal district, Maharashtra. Borati, like most villages in the region, is surrounded by patches of forest. Cultivated fields abound, along with border scrubland, which leads towards forests of sal.

That Friday morning, villagers found four of their cattle mysteriously dead about 2 km away, on a dry riverbed. The villagers were confused, for none of the cattle had been consumed.

There had been occasional tigers, bears and leopards in the forests around them, and they had at times lost some animals to the predators, but no one knew of four head of cattle being killed at a single time.

The villagers marched to the forest range officer to report the matter. A high-level forest team arrived to investigate the mysterious killings and discovered that a young tigress had entered the area and killed the cattle. But tigers are not wanton killers. They kill once a week on average, and it is highly unusual for a tiger to kill four head of cattle one after the other and not consume them. This was the first indication of the tigress’s abnormal behaviour and its eventual turn towards man-eating.

In my opinion, a man-eating tiger or leopard may not be a normal animal from a psychological perspective. They have a streak of abnormality that grows with time.

Killing four cows and not consuming any of them was the initial stage of the tigress’s aberrant behaviour. While tigresses are known to kill more than one prey at a time when training their cubs, this reasoning did not apply to T1 as it had no cubs at the time. Further, the forest officers were concerned that the tigress had killed the cattle, but not consumed them. This was in complete departure from established tiger behaviour.

Tigers have a short gestation period of just 111 days. On average, they are known to give birth to two to four cubs at a time. In Maharashtra, a tigress has given birth to five cubs recently. With such a short pregnancy period and each litter consisting of two to three cubs, there is no way tiger numbers can dwindle unless there is something terribly wrong in the system. The newborn cubs are raised with utmost care and caution. They wean from the mother’s milk at around 6 months of age.

At around 20 to 24 months, tigers habitually disperse to form new territories. Male cubs move further away from their father’s territories, while females usually share territory closer to their mothers. However, the rapid increase in tiger numbers in certain pockets of India, clubbed with rising human population pressures, has resulted in tigers being forced to travel further into human-dominated land to carve out their own territory. For example, in 2020, a tiger travelled over 500 km in 9 months between Maharashtra and Telangana, while the Brahmapuri tigress, which I write about in subsequent chapters, had travelled 520 km in 3 months.

The tigress that killed the four cattle in Borati had struck out to claim its own space. It was named T1 by the forest department. In India, the forest department regularly identifies animals by using such numbering. However, later on, the T1 came to be known as ‘Avni’.

A month later, on 23 May, a pony was reported to have been killed by a tiger near the first nala (a dry riverbed) of Borati village, about 9 km away. The traditional inhabitants of the area are nomadic tribals, who move from one pasture to another with their herds of sheep, goats and ponies. The unfortunate pony had been tied to a stump for the night. Around 3 a.m., the herders were woken up by a loud commotion and the barking of their dogs. The herders immediately got out of their makeshift tents and were met with a rude shock in the thin light of the approaching dawn. The rope that had been tied to the pony’s neck was broken, and the stump was ripped out of the ground. The pony itself was missing.

The herders saw tiger prints and bloodstains around the stump. The half-eaten carcass was discovered half a kilometre away, in a small rivulet that flowed down from where the nomads had pitched their tents, a dry hillock with boulders of all shapes and sizes strewn around. The pony’s neck was broken and twisted, indicating beyond doubt it had been killed by a tiger. Immediately, the authorities set up camera traps around the kill to identify the predator.

Much to their surprise, a massive tigress was caught in their frames. It was an adult in its prime, about 8.5 ft long. It seemed to be about 5 years old, with striking colouration. The overlay of black stripes across a dusky orange body, a bright white under-belly and a head almost 2.5 ft in circumference established its unmistakable identity.

There were no visible deformities or any illness that could have caused the tigress to turn into a cattle lifter. The forest officials continued to be puzzled.

The cattle killings, however, were just the calm before the storm. Because a year later, T1 would turn its sights on humans.

Early on the morning of Wednesday, 1 June 2016, 60-year-old Sonabai Waman Bhosale went out into her cotton fields that had been harvested the previous day. Sonabai wanted to pick the last remaining cotton, which now hung like white powder puffs on the dry cotton shrubs. The morning sun peeked out from behind the white clouds, announcing a bright, new dawn.

The monsoon rains were expected within a fortnight, and a welcome hint of rain was already in the air – a sign of latent joy and hope to people bound to their land and to the earth. These rains would bring much-needed relief to barren lands, reviving and clothing them in lush and verdant foliage for a brief spell. But there was little joy for the people of Borati that year.

Sonabai walked to the fields as she had done for the many years since she had first come to Borati as a young bride. Only this time, she never returned.

Her daughter, Alka Pawar, told me the family first missed the matriarch at lunch, when the entire family came together to eat, as most families in the region do. Wondering at the delay, she went to summon Sonabai from the cotton fields, only to discover massive pug marks in the soil, with blood splattered around them.

The brave girl – for she was alone – followed the pug marks and the blood for about 200 m before she came upon her mother’s body, bitten through the neck and clawed all over, though not eaten. Alka let out a scream. The dreaded man-eating tigress of Yavatmal had just killed her first human prey.

No one could have imagined then that this was just the beginning of a 2.5-year reign of terror across an area of 160 sq. km. Villagers would squirm inside their huts at night, all farming and commercial activities would halt and the great beast would haunt the lives of more than 21,000 people who lived lived in these 26 villages.

Excerpted with permission from Avni: Inside the Hunt for India’s Deadliest Maneater, Nawab Shafath Ali Khan, Bloomsbury.