14 Nov 2018

The allegedly unwarranted killing of a suspected man-eating tigress in Maharashtra has snowballed into a major political storm


Social media has been rife with indignation since early this month after the killing of Avni, an alleged man-eating tigress, in the state of Maharashtra. Despite Supreme Court orders to the contrary two months ago, despite the admission by Bombay High Court of a petition seeking a stay on plans to shoot her down, and despite many prominent citizens of the country throwing their support behind her, the five-year-old mother of two 10-month-old dependent cubs was unfortunately shot dead.


Considered responsible for the killing of over a dozen humans (although a good few deaths could not be linked to her after expert tests), the tigress was killed after nearly three months of a massive search operation – comprising drones, trap cameras, sniffer dogs, hang-glider, and motley team of forest department officials, spotters and marksmen – even though the apex court’s brief was to only tranquilise and trap her, not kill her.


Fortunately, however, this issue snowballed into a major political flashpoint, instead of ending up as yet another cry of outrage by environmentalists and animal lovers that dies out unheard and unresolved in a few days.


Three days after the bullets of sharpshooter Asghar Ali Khan brought Avni down near the Tipeshwar Tiger Sanctuary in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha forest region, Shiv Sena President Uddhav Thackeray directed his party's ministers in the alliance government to raise it in the cabinet meeting and take Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar to task.


Entering the fray, Nationalist Congress Party state president Jayant Patil also alleged that the forest ministry had acted to kill Avni to help the mining industries of top business houses in that region.


"The rules clearly state that such man-eaters must be first tranquilized and caught. In this case, the tigress was directly killed without considering sedating her. We strongly condemn this. We will question the government," Patil said, hinting at taking it up in the upcoming winter session of the Assembly starting next fortnight.


Congress' leader of Opposition in the Assembly Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil also attacked the government for Avni's killing saying it was "entirely due to the negligence of the forest officials and the minister must take responsibility for it."


Criticising the government's claims of building new toilets, Mumbai Congress President Sanjay Nirupam said if the victims had access to toilets and not compelled to defecate in the open, the opportunity to kill the national animal (Avni) would not have arisen.


However, a day after promising to order a probe into "procedural lapses" leading to the tigress' killing, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis today categorically dismissed demands for Mungantiwar's resignation.


"The minister did not take a gun and kill the tigress. It is wrong to ask for his resignation," Fadnavis said in Osmanabad, in an oblique reference to Union Minister Maneka Gandhi's fresh demand to sack Mungantiwar.




Meanwhile, in a fresh development, a local Marathi TV channel (News18-Lokmat) revealed a recorded conversation of forest officials in which they said no attempts were made to sedate Avni.


Mungantiwar immediately reacted to this by saying if this was true, "Avni's death would be probed and action would be taken against the officials concerned."


On the same day, Union Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi wrote to Fadnavis urging him to remove Mugantiwar from the position.


"I request you to fix the responsibility for the illegal killing of the tigress and consider removing Mugantiwar from the responsibility of the Ministry of Environment and Forest in the state government. I have personally known you an animal welfare person and I am sure you will consider my request," Maneka wrote in the letter.


The minister also stated that she had been in talks with Mugantiwar for the past two months and had repeatedly requested him to ensure that the tigeress was tranquilized and quarantined.




"But for some inexplicable reasons, Mugantiwar has been repeatedly calling Shafat Ali Khan to kill the animals in Maharashtra. As ministers, we need to exhibit the highest standard of sensitivity to the constituencies that we serve," she added.


Maneka earlier had hit out at the minister saying that it is a "straight case of crime" and said that Mugantiwar had earlier directed killing a dozen of leopards and 300 wild boars.


"I am shocked that such a person is continuing to hold a ministerial position. Every time he has used the Hyderabad shooter, Shafat Ali Khan, and this time his son has also appeared on the scene to kill the tigress. His son was not authorized to kill. This is patently illegal," she added.




Meanwhile, under attack from animal rights activists for killing Avni, Hyderabadi sharpshooter Nawab Shafat Ali Khan said his team had acted on the orders of the Maharashtra government.


Shafat Ali Khan, father of the man who killed the tigress, defended their action saying the bullet was fired in self-defence.


Shafat lashed out at the activists, including Union Minister Maneka Gandhi, for making personal and baseless allegations against them.


He threatened to sue those indulging in mudslinging. "We have legal recourse to take. We will not keep quiet," he told reporters here.


He said he was not scared of such allegations, and would continue to stand by those whose lives were threatened by elephants and tigers venturing out of forests.


"Whenever governments or poor Indians call me, I will go to help them. The Constitution of India has given the Right to Life to all citizens. If a tiger or an elephant comes out of a jungle and kills people, I will stand by those people," he said.


"Why those making allegations now did not have the guts to go there. Why no police officer or military general was called. Was there nobody else in the whole country?" he asked.


Shafat said he had been called by the Jharkhand government to kill an elephant that was held responsible for the death of 15 people. Last year, he was called by the Maharashtra government to kill a leopard that had mauled seven children to death.


He recalled that he was called to kill a tigress in Pilibhit, the Lok Sabha constituency of Maneka Gandhi, in 2009. "For four months, teams that had come from all over India tried but nothing happened. Finally, I was called and after an operation that lasted 35 days and nights, I killed her. Nobody opened their mouths then."


"Now after spending 40 days in the (Yavatmal) jungle and facing all difficulties, we completed this operation and they are making all sorts of allegations," he said.


On Maneka Gandhi's allegation that Asghar Ali had appeared on the scene illegally to murder the tigress, Shafat said that his son was part of a five-member team authorised by the Chief Conservator of Forest(CCF), Yavatmal.


Asghar said that their intention was not to kill the animal and that's why they patrolled for 24 hours, taking risks on several occasions.


"We tried to move closer to the tigress. It used to be in thick bushes and we were not getting a clear view, which was required for tranquilising it," he said.


The next day, Shafat Ali Khan said he was ready to face any probe into the shooting as the inquiry would only bring out the facts.




"We are 100 per cent ready for any inquiry at any level. Nothing illegal has happened. In fact, we want an inquiry so that the truth comes out," Khan said.


Shafat said they were still very much part of the operation to achieve its second goal - capturing two cubs of the tigress and shift them to a rescue centre.


"There is no threat to them. They are 11-month-old so they are not cubs. Technically we call them sub-adults. They are bigger than leopards and can capture their prey," he said.


The marksman said he was seeking legal opinion to take action against those making personal and baseless allegations against them.


"We will not leave them. We will make sure that they are unseated from positions of power," he said, without naming Maneka Gandhi, who alleged that he had links with anti-nationals and was a suspected murderer.


"No court of law has convicted me. I challenge them to prove their allegations. They are power drunk," said the 60-year-old Khan.


Shafat, assigned the job of capturing or killing the tigress, said he had gone to Patna to attend a Bihar State Wildlife Board meeting when Asghar along with the team reached Ralegaon on receiving information about sighting of the man-eater on the evening of November 2.




Asghar stated that the tigress came before them when they were on the road. She was about 20 meters away from their open-top gypsy. "After two forest guards identified the animal as T1, a forester fired the dart. But in a fraction of second she charged towards us with a roar. If I had not opened fire, it would have killed 2-3 people," said Asghar recalling that the big cat was just 6-8 meter away.


Defending his action, the young hunter said T1 was not behaving like a normal tiger and for her human beings were just like cats and dogs. He explained that this change in her psychology was due to her venturing out of the natural habitat, because of which was not getting her base prey.


"I was not at all happy. The operation had gone out of control and ended in big disappointment," said Asghar, who claimed that during first encounter with the tigress on September 14 they had escaped narrowly.


He had not shot at her as she had stopped at a distance after charging toward them.


Stating that they had exhausted all options of capturing the tigress alive, he said the killing of 13 people by the man-eater during last two-and-half years had created a terror in 26 villages.


"We had to avoid a situation where people would have turned against tiger because if this happens no matter what policy or conservation plan you make, it will be threat to all tigers," he said.


As the public seemed largely reluctant to buy Khan’s claims, the matter sparked off a bitter nationwide row, involving animal lovers and politicians, farmers and activists, the Centre and state announced two separate expert committees to probe the incident on November 9.




While the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) set up its own committee, the Maharashtra Minister of Forests ordered an inquiry through an independent committee to find out the facts on whether guidelines/ procedures given in SOP were followed.


The committee included Principal Chief Conservator of Forests S.H. Patil as Chairman besides Bilal Habib representing the Wildlife Institute of India and Anish Andheria, the President, Wildlife Conservation Trust, as members. Another senior official, Nitin Kakodkar, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (APCCF), was made the Convenor.


The Centre's panel included Hemant Kandi of NTCA, Nagpur as Convenor and O.P. Kaler, senior retired wildlife expert and Jose Louies deputy director, of Wildlife Trust of India as Members.


The matter was even brought to the notice of the PMO seeking a NIA probe while other activists plan to move the Supreme Court soon in the matter.


On November 10, Shiv Sena further embarrassed BJP by terming as a 'farce' the inquiry committees set up to probe the killing of Avni and demanded a judicial probe into the incident.


Speaking to mediapersons, Uddhav Thackeray said the very same people who supported the killing of Avni and, even hired a hunter to kill her, will now sit as 'judges' to probe her death.


"This is sheer drama. Those people who gave the contract (supari) to kill the tigress will now investigate her death. The committees must be dissolved and the probe must be conducted by a retired or sitting judge," Thackeray said.


Under fire from various quarters, the Forest Minister offered an olive branch and said he was ready to set up a probe committee headed by Thackeray if he felt there's anything suspicious about the tigress' killing.


"But, if this is not acceptable to him, I have recommended to Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to appoint a five-member committee of retired Supreme Court judges. This will end the baseless political controversy in the matter," Mungantiwar responded.


In response to Fadnavis’s defence of Mungantiwar, in which the Maharashtra CM said "he (Mungantiwar) did not take a gun to go and personally kill Avni," Thackeray shot back, saying:  "By this logic, during the 'surgical strike' (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi did not go to shoot at the borders, but took full credit for the action. Similarly, Mungantiwar should also own up the killing of Avni.”


Yuva Sena chief Aditya Thackeray wondered "who took the call to kill Avni" and whether all the forest officers and others involved were present at that time. And if the tigress was apparently a man-eater, Aditya pointed out, how come its searchers were travelling in an open vehicle.


"There should be a free and fair judicial inquiry, if there's nothing to hide. This committee is a sham. It is an arrogant way to give each other a clean chit and call the hunt legal," demanded Aditya Thackeray.


Besides a judicial probe, he also sought a narco-test/lie detector for all the officials from the ministry to unravel the truth.


Sena spokesperson Neelam Gorhe said it was strange how a minister (Mungantiwar) who is facing direct allegations is having the powers to decide on committees or suggesting a probe panel headed by Thackeray.


"The CM must come forward and take up this matter, set up the committee headed by Thackeray so that the air can be cleared over Avni's killing," she said in a statement.


Meanwhile, Mumbai Congress upped its aggressive stance as it accused Mungantiwar of links with the international poaching mafia and sought his arrest and dismissal from the cabinet.


The minister strongly refuted the charge, saying he would file a defamation suit against city Congress chief Sanjay Nirupam.




Nirupam claimed that in 2014, 14 tigers died, 16 in 2016 and 21 in 2017, proving that the national animal is "unsafe" with Mungantiwar heading the ministry in the state.


"The number of tiger deaths in 2017 was the second highest in the state after Madhya Pradesh. It is highly possible that Mungantiwar could be in nexus with the international poaching mafia," alleged Nirupam.


Immediately hitting back, Mungantiwar said that by linking his name with global poachers, the Congress leader was intentionally "ruining" the country's image before the world community.


"In my tenure, only one tigress (Avni) has been killed, that too, as per the Supreme Court orders. Nirupam is wrongly dragging all other natural deaths of tigers as if the creature is immortal. I shall file a defamation case against him in the Chandrapur court," the minister warned.


Addressing mediapersons, Nirupam said that despite the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA)'s directives to intall an e-surveillance system in every tiger reserve in the country, Mungantiwar has conveniently refrained from doing so repeatedly in Maharashtra.


"The state floated its tender in August 2016 and even after bids were received, the tender was scrapped," Nirupam said, producing the tender invitation documents.


"In March 2017, another tender was issued and it met the same fate after two months. However, all other states where tiger reserves are located have installed e-surveillance, barring Maharashtra," Nirupam said.


The Congress leader pointed out that when the e-surveillance system was installed as a pilot in Chandrapur's Chanda Tiger Reserve, Mungantiwar himself praised it saying it could easily track a tiger's movement as well as poaching activities.


Speaking about the two probe panels which have kicked up a fresh controversy, animal activist and actress Rupali Ganguly said they comprise people from the government who could be "biased".


"We demand a committee comprising forest officers, forensic and cyber experts, veterinarians and shooters to be part of the committee to ensure a fair probe and check the inconsistencies in the information provided so far," Ganguly said.


As India First went to press, animal activists Priyanka Timmins, Anupama Mukherjee and Bharat Sharma announced a 'Global March' to be held in Mumbai on the afternoon of November 11 from Worli to Shivaji Park for highlighting Avni's killing.


If Avni’s death at least manages to create an environment in this country where more of her species are not killed in the manner that she allegedly was, the current round of protests in her support will have been well worth it.  

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