In the aftermath of the killing of man-eating tigress Avni in Maharashtra on November 2, there are three primary questions doing the rounds of social media:

  1. Why did the forest department not tranquilise and relocate the tigress instead of killing her?
  2. Why did they engage a controversial person like Shafat Ali Khan to shoot the tigress? (The licence to kill was issued in the name of the Hyderabad hunter though it was his son Asghar Ali who shot Avni).
  3. What will they do with Avni’s two cubs?

There are several secondary questions for each of these primary questions, and the authorities should reply to each of them with complete transparency, because the matter concerns the pride of our nation and the survival of an endangered species.

However, in my opinion, there is one important primary question that has not yet been asked: Why did the authorities wait for the tigress to kill 13 people before finally choosing to act?

Online actors on social media have deliberately avoided this question. Why are they skirting this key issue? Is the Save Avni campaign somehow responsible for these deaths?

Derailed by intervention groups

The case of Avni is a prime example of a case derailed by online intervention groups. They created unnecessary pressure for forest officials through social media and litigation, so much so that the authorities hesitated and failed to act when they should have. Being trolled on social media not only scared the authorities but also some otherwise vocal conservationists, who silently allowed apathy to take hold when they should have opposed it.

Even under ideal circumstances, removing a tigress with cubs from her domain is a tall order, more so when an entire tiger cult-like intervention group is monitoring the pulse of the situation. The state authorities nevertheless took the harsh decision to kill Avni. There must be genuine reasons behind this decision, especially considering that forest officials, wildlife non-governmental organisations, biologists and conservationists unanimously let this happen. If we try to understand the issue in its totality, the decision taken was possibly the only option.

This saga started two years ago when the tigress started killing humans. At that time, forest officials appropriately decided to capture her. The area falls in Yavatmal district, a dense thorny scrub forest with a mosaic of pastoral and farm land where the habitat is already degraded with a very low density of prey animals. This was the right time to act, but a politician intervened and halted the process, just to establish goodwill as a policy-maker who was a “saviour of tigers”. This erroneous intervention received a resounding pat of approval on social media.

By then, the tigress had delivered cubs, which made matters worse. As she started getting more emotional support online, she continued to kill people. Usually, when a tiger kills two to four human beings, forest officials capture the animal and place it in captivity or, in the worst-case scenario, eliminate it. Avni killed 13 people from 10-11 villages before there was any recognition of the fact that there was a serious problem.

Social media activists took the matter to various courts, which complicated decision-making for the forest authorities. Though the courts ultimately showed faith in the decisions of the forest department, they wasted much time in the process. Finally, in September, the state’s forest minister deputed several senior officials along with 150-200 forest personnel to ground zero to ensure the tigress did not kill another person. Such desperate measures at this scale halted all other conservation and protection work throughout the state.

Activists protest the Maharashtra government's shoot at sight order for Avni in New Delhi on October 14. (Credit: Arvind Yadav / HT)

A difficult operation

The operation disrupted routine life in villages in the area – schools were closed, crops were not harvested and the grazing of livestock suffered. The local economy and the peace of the people became uncertain. In India, communities that live with predators like Avni tolerate the many problems such proximity to dangerous animals brings – depredation of livestock and even a certain risk of attacks on themselves. Crop raiding by ungulates and other animals adds to their difficulties. Many a time, they retaliate, especially when the situation crosses an unwritten threshold.

There were many efforts to tranquilise Avni and her cubs. An experienced team from the Madhya Pradesh forest department was brought in, but they did not succeed. It is possible that the two state teams did not coordinate well with one another. Some unfortunate incidents compounded existing tensions, like when an elephant of the Maharashtra forest department killed two villagers. As a result, when the team from Madhya Pradesh reached the area with their elephant, angry villagers threatened to burn them alive. The rescue team left without completing their mission.

The habitat was also difficult to navigate because of the growth of lantana shrubs. And the tigress’ extreme interactions with humans had made her more nocturnal and, hence, more difficult to track. It is not easy to hit a tiger with a tranquiliser dart at night. Even if the dart finds its target, the animal can disappear into the forest before it falls unconscious. A bullet and a chemical dart are different. Chemical immobilisation of an animal takes several minutes. It is also difficult and dangerous to search for an animal on foot after tranquilisation.

I remember an incident when a tiger disappeared post-darting and managed to wake up even before we found him. But he was a “normal” tiger, so we searched for him on foot. However, to track a known man-eater on foot is very dangerous. Still, the forest department claims they did try, but that they had to shoot and kill her when she charged them. The truth may be far from what was reported, but we have no choice but to believe the front team.

The involvement of Shafat Ali Khan, the hunting “nawab”, and his supporters weakens our faith, however. Many experts have questioned his intentions. Community pressure forced the politicians to remove this animal, and by any means possible. Khan might be a master of killing tigers but he was the wrong man for this job. Wrong, because people felt that he routinely influences the political system to involve him in the process of eliminating problematic big cats. Even in this case, the forest department indirectly hinted that they only tolerated him because of political pressure. Khan has said that killing tigers and leopards deters them from killing humans, by establishing that humans are superior to them, which to me sounds like nothing more than a poor justification for his role in the process. Pictures of him posing with his “kill” serve as a reminder that “trophy hunting” still happens in a country where a new generation of people has started loving and caring for their natural heritage. Involving him in the operation was irresponsible on the part of the political leadership, but it was also a consequence of the delayed decision to capture the tigress.

Everyone has a say, no one’s accountable

Avni’s 10-month-old cubs now face a similar challenge to their survival. The forest department will try to capture them, an equally difficult task. In this case, they will capture them because, in all probability, they have also consumed human flesh in the presence of their mother. Knowing that a man-eating tigress has raised them, the forest department will not risk keeping them in the wild. Time will tell how they will deal with them.

In this world of mass communication, the social media-savvy safari-goers, tour operators, wildlife photographers, animal activists and all those peripherally associated with the lives of tigers have much to say to those actually working on the ground. But this is also a world where everyone is talking but no one is listening, and no one is accountable for their actions. They always blame the local communities for the loss of wildlife, they find the forest department incapable and corrupt, and they blame the conservationists for not saving individual animals.

There are many nuances to the threat the tiger faces today, one of which is that our lifestyle is not supportive of its existence, unlike the villagers who are its neighbours. The villagers may have been the immediate cause of Avni’s death, but they are still far more accommodative of her species than any of us. Therefore, do not rush in to give your opinion but, rather, go there to support them.

Dharmendra Khandal is a conservation biologist with Tiger Watch.