In November 2012, a tigress and her two cubs began a journey from their home in the Pilibhit Tiger Reserve, Uttar Pradesh. She had somewhat uncharacteristically left the forest. Over the next two years, this tigress is recorded to have travelled 260 km – from the Amariya region in Pilibhit, along the Devha river, crisscrossing through the densely populated village areas of Gularia Bithra, Khali Nawada, Bishanpur, Surajpur, Bhadsara, Dhaki, all the way up to Kanpur, where she was finally sighted in February 2014. A close-knit team comprising officials of the Uttar Pradesh forest department and tiger conservators of WWF-India were on the trail of this feline family.

The sketchy story from their sightings, pugmark tracking and camera-trap images unraveled that she was accompanied by her cubs for part of the journey, negotiating past villages, through sugarcane fields and grassy landscapes. On several occasions, she would enter the forest for short durations, only to return to her new habitat. The team speculated whether she had moved out of the forest to protect her cubs from aggressive males. Months later, in September 2014, they also spotted her cubs, now sub-adults, back in Amariya, apparently living and operating independently. Not a single incident of attack on humans or livestock was recorded through this epic journey of this majestic feline and her cubs.

Recently, another nursing tigress’s tryst with humans in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal region did not end so peacefully. Thirteen humans had been found dead in Yavatmal’s Ralegaon forest since June 2016, and Avni or T1, a six-year-old tigress with two 10-month-old cubs, was alleged to have been involved in several of these deaths.

Avni and her cubs. Photo Credit: Special arrangement

According to a Maharashtra forest department official, an investigation had proved that she was responsible beyond doubt for at least two of those deaths. On November 2, this “man-eater”, as she was referred to, was shot dead – by a sharp-shooter appointed by the forest department – in the Borati jungles that are under the jurisdiction of Ralegaon police, according to news reports that quoted police sources.

Defending the circumstances of Avni’s death, Sunil Limaye, Maharashtra’s additional principal chief conservator of forest (wildlife), explained that the Pandharkawada forests house approximately seven to eight tigers. Avni and her two cubs occupied 160 square km of this forest. Over two years, based on various circumstantial evidence, the department suspected Avni and a male, T2, of having caused several human deaths.

At that point, though, the evidence was not forensic. “In August, we investigated and managed to find clear evidence of Avni being responsible for at least two of the recent killings. Based on these findings the courts ordered us to capture or kill the tigress. The death of the forest dwellers was a grave loss to their families. These people, whose livelihoods depend on the forests, feared for their lives. We followed the courts’ orders and were saddened by the tigress’s death. But we had no other choice,” he said.

Controversies and political banter surround Avni’s death today. Environment activists and animal lovers question whether the mother tigress could have been saved, or at least captured. Meanwhile, a bitter battle of words has erupted between a union minister and a state minister, both belonging to the same political party. On November 9, media reported sources in the Maharashtra government as stating that the yet-to-be-released autopsy report “yielded clear evidence of foul play”. It quoted a state government official: “The forensics clearly show that the tigress was not charging at the team, but instead going somewhere else... If she was charging at the team, she would have been shot in her face or chest, not her shoulder.”

Searching for solutions

Juxtaposing this story of loss of life, both human and animal, against the epic journey of the Pilibhit tigress raises several questions. Could Avni have been monitored like the Pilibhit tigress to avoid such a tragedy? Could locals have been better informed to control panic about a “man-eater”?

Considering India’s huge population and dependence on forest resources, which is forcing wildlife into diminishing pockets of fragmented jungles, is it possible to build a conservation road-map that reduces stress on humans and wildlife who live in conflict-prone regions? Finally, could the sanctioned killing of a national animal have been averted?

India leads the world in tiger conservation efforts, with a record 2,226 animals declared in the 2014 National Tiger Conservation Authority census. On the other hand, the country is also projected to exceed a human population of 1.5 billion by 2030. To ensure that these two populations thrive with minimal stress, improved understanding and effective management of human-tiger conflict is necessary.

An aerial view of the forests in which Avni was shot. Photo Credit: Sunil Limaye

Knowing the human-tiger interface

According to Dr Pranav Chanchani, coordinator, Tiger Conservation Programme, WWF-India, conflicts are unpredictable. “It will be impossible to avert conflicts altogether, just as it is impossible to avert all road accidents, even if we understand all the factors that cause them,” he said. “But understanding its drivers and building and implementing cohesive and preemptive response mechanisms, can help save human and tiger lives.” Such efforts will also help immediate response, in which livestock depredation, or loss of life, is addressed within a short span of time, he added.

Knowing the “human-tiger interface” is important. “One way of describing the human-tiger interface would be to assess where and to what extent humans and tigers overlap in their space use,” Chanchani explained. He said that understanding this interface would help identify areas where conflicts are recurrent, so that mitigating measures and community engagements can be developed.

Talking about devising a robust conflict-management model, he said: “A two-fold approach, involving proactive or direct mitigation as well as indirect measures, is needed. Direct mitigation measures include operations to capture and rehabilitate ‘problem animals’, installing devices to repel animals and managing farmland habitats beyond forests to make such areas less attractive for tigers. Indirect measures can be used to help strengthen attitudes of tolerance among the public, and information campaigns.” The organisation has been working with several communities and state departments across India to promote such measures.

A street protest against the killing of Avni. Photo Credit: Facebook/Avni the Tigress

Community awareness

Considering the case of the Pilibhit tigress, who safely navigated through heavily human-inhabited villages for two years without any casualties, the WWF-India expert pointed out that awareness-generation programmes carried out in communities in the vicinity played a major role. While monitoring the tigress between 2012 and 2014, the team had held a series of meeting with villagers to help them better understand how to deal with a tiger in their midst. Such was the awareness, that the community had not just learnt of safety measures to keep away from the tigress but had also grown supportive of the conflict-management efforts, and would often help monitor the animal. Many even expressed gratitude at having a tiger family in their field, since it discouraged herbivores like wild boars from damaging their crops.

Usually, in areas where tigers and humans extensively share space, conflict is common. Unfortunately, the potential for rumors to spread is also high. Chanchani said that misinformation and misperception have the potential to exacerbate conflict. “Rumors about the purported presence of an animal sometimes spread, creating panic and public ire. Misinformation fuels public anger, which disrupts law and order and can lead to the lynching of animals blamed for conflict. Awareness building can play a big role in reducing the risks people face from large carnivores and in managing conflict more effectively.”

The solution is information campaigns on safety precautions, instructions on appropriate ways to respond and reliable information on the animal’s presence and movements.

Limaye said that conflict management and awareness building have been initiated in the Yavatmal region. “However it is a long process and it will take some time to educate the local communities,” he said.

Why Avni?

Did Avni truly turn rogue and kill people since 2016? Even as news reports on her post-mortem reveal that she had not eaten anything for at least a week, Dr. Jimmy Borah, tiger biologist and consultant at Panthera, an international organisation working on the conservation of wild cats, said, “A nursing tigress would probably only attack human beings for self-defense, if she feels her cubs are threatened. It is highly unlikely that she would choose humans as food for her cubs.”

Highlighting the apathy in the investigation process, Borah said, “Tigers are very intelligent animals. They might target easy prey, like livestock and humans, if they are injured or old and weak. A healthy animal would never target humans. If the concerned tigress was suspected of killing 13 people since 2016, it should have been investigated much earlier, given the advancement in forensic tests and methods today.”

He said that to safeguard the human population and in the larger interest of saving a wildlife species, it becomes imperative to “remove problem animals” sometimes. “Doing so will help in generating larger public support, especially from communities living in the fringes of protected areas and depending on the forests for their livelihood. However, identifying a problem animal is a herculean task that involves strong evidence, including forensics.” He stated that if an animal is identified as a problem, the best forest departments and states can do is to ensure that standard protocols and guidelines are followed closely.

On Avni’s orphaned cubs, Borah said: “The best option is to leave them alone. If they have learnt to hunt (other animals), they might probably do well. ‘Rescuing’ them would be pointless.”

In the meanwhile, Limaye said that the forest department’s ongoing efforts to rescue the cubs and release them in another forest. “These 10- to 11-month-old cubs may or may not be ready to hunt yet and we are concerned they might have learnt to attack humans by watching their mother,” he said. “We might endanger their, and human, lives if we don’t remove them from this location. We are considering releasing them in Pench in Madhya Pradesh, but this will be decided by a committee once the cubs are captured.”

Echoes on Avni’s death were heard from different parts of the country. Photo Credit: Facebook/Avni the Tigress

This article first appeared on Mongabay.