There has been much anguish about the shooting on November 3 of Avni, or T1, a tigress in Maharashtra who was allegedly responsible for the death of 13 people. The six-year-old tigress left behind one-year-old cubs that must now be captured. A plea to spare her life had reached the Supreme Court, which ruled that an attempt should be made to tranquillise the animal before she was shot. The campaign to save Avni, by all accounts, pitted conservationists and wildlife lovers against people living in the affected villages. It also led to sparring between Union Minister Maneka Gandhi, who claimed the killing was illegal, and the Maharashtra government, which has now gone on the defensive, saying it would welcome an investigation into the matter. The whole tragic episode reflects a fundamental flaw in the way conservation has been imagined in India, as a zero sum game between wildlife and the communities that live in and depend on reserve forests.

To begin with, serious lapses have been pointed out in the standard operating procedure followed in the tigress’s killing. She was shot at night. The licence to kill was issued in the name of Shafat Ali Khan, a hunter with the reputation of being trigger-happy, but the operation also included Asghar Ali Khan, his son, who may not have had the requisite clearance. It is believed that there was no government-trained medical representative with the team. Post-mortem findings also challenge the claim that the tigress was shot in self-defence, as she charged at the men who were trying to tranquillise her. Contrary to the Mahrashtra government’s claim that the killing was done with due sobriety, pictures of the hunters and government officials posing with the dead tigress have emerged. These are grimly reminiscent of colonial-era pictures which featured hunters gloating over the kill. An inquiry into the circumstances of the shooting is certainly in order. It is also worth investigating charges that the Maharashtra environment and forests minister has been indiscriminate with orders to shoot wild animals.

For too long, a literate, English-speaking public has inherited its imagination of the wild from the colonial imagination, replete with the exploits of celebrity hunters and the opulence of shikar parties formed by princes. When the focus shifted to conservation, the “game” reserves that were the hunting grounds of the elite turned into protected areas and national parks devoted to “wildlife”. The communities which had lived in these forests, coexisting with animals for centuries, were erased in this imagination. If they existed, it was only as a threat to fragile ecologies. This was reflected in official policies. Reserves such as Ranthambore, Sariska and Gir, for instance, were built on the rationale of relocation and displacement of local communities, who are very often among the poorest and most marginalised. Research in the Sunderbans has reflected how the government’s project of conservation changed the relationship between local communities and the tiger, leading to an increase in man-animal conflicts. Study after study urges the wisdom of local participation in conservation if it is to be sustainable in the long run. As the government protects the habitats of threatened species, it must also secure the lives and livelihoods of people living around them. It is important to ask how the death of the tigress could have been prevented this week. It is equally important to ask how 13 human lives could have been saved.