For 53 days, she gave everyone the slip — from top forest officers to over 200 personnel armed with trap cameras, from drones to sniffer dogs, even a hang-glider that trawled the forests of Yavatmal looking for her. On Friday, man-eater Pandharkawda tigress T1 was shot dead by a sharpshooter.
“The end came around 11 pm on Friday, near the road leading from Borati village to the Ralegaon tehsil headquarters,” Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife) A K Mishra told The Sunday Express.
The post-mortem procedure was performed at Nagpur’s Gorewada Rescue Centre, where she was cremated later in the day. Later, a press note issued by the centre’s Regional Manager Nandkishor Kale said, “T1’s death occurred due to excessive internal bleeding and heart attack. A tranquilising dart was found on her left hind leg. A gun bullet injury was found on the left side of the chest.”
Talking about the operation, Mishra said, “Our team was on vigil as it was a market day at Ralegaon. A lot of people called us to say they had seen the tigress. So we stationed a patrolling team with a tranquiliser gun along with Asghar Ali Khan (the sharpshooter) in a vehicle. Finally, around 11 pm, one of our foresters, Mukhbir Sheikh, managed to shoot a tranquiliser dart at her. But she got furious and charged at the team, forcing Asghar to shoot in self-defence from a distance of about 8-10 metres. The tigress lay dead in a single shot.”
When the tigress was shot dead, her cubs were not around. “We will now sit down and prepare a fresh strategy to capture them,” Mishra said. The tigress was six year old and her cubs are about a year old.
On Friday, villages in the area burst firecrackers to celebrate news of the tigress’s killing.
The case of the tigress, nicknamed ‘Avni’, had gone all the way up to the Supreme Court, pitting villagers, who wanted the tigress taken down, against wildlife lovers and activists, who said there was no reason to believe T1 was a habitual human attacker. Besides, she was seen moving around with her cubs and they had to be kept alive.
Jerryl Banait, who has filed many pleas in the HC and SC on T1, said the Forest Department didn’t follow standard operating procedures. “Why did they dart her when it is prohibited to do so after sunset and before sunrise? Was there a veterinary doctor in the team? Who determined the tranquilisation dose and why did it not have the desired effect? Why was the tigress shot first when the Forest Department had sworn on affidavit in the court about capturing the cubs first and then the mother as cubs won’t be able to survive without their mother in the wild?”
Senior veterinarian and forensic expert Prayag Hodigere Siddalingappa said, “The tiger runs away after being darted, doesn’t charge back at you. They have flouted several laws in this process, including the Constitution, which makes it incumbent upon the government to protect flora and fauna, the Wildlife Protection Act, NTCA guidelines and Drugs and Cosmetics Act. I am going to sue them for this and have already spoken to my lawyer in the Supreme Court.”
Tiger conservationist Belinda Wright, however, said it was important for the man-eater tigress to be removed. “A tiger can only be shot if it has been declared a man-eater by the Chief Wildlife Warden, as in the case of T1. If a confirmed man-eater is not removed, retaliation and the poaching of many innocent tigers is often the result. We must mourn the death of every precious tiger, even a man-eater, but the focus now must be a safe future for T1’s cubs,” she said.
Another point of contention is that the permission to shoot was in the name of Shafath Ali Khan, not his son Asghar. PCCF Mishra, however, said Asghar had an order in his name too.
On Saturday, both father and son left for Hyderabad. “We are exhausted due to the intensive operation over the past several days. We need a break and will decide when to re-join the operation (to capture the cubs),” Shafath Ali Khan said.
Congratulating his staff, Forest Minister Mungantiwar said, “For the first time in India’s history, high-ranking officials like the PCCF and Additional PCCF remained for over two months in the field and personally supervised the operation. We are committed to both conservation and people’s safety.”
About the absence of a veterinary doctor during the operation, he said, “No violation has taken place. Everything has been done as per SC directives.”
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Since June 2016, 13 persons have been killed in tiger attacks in the Pandharkawda divisional forest, five of those deaths attributed to T1. Of the 13 deaths, one was in December 2017, one in January 2018 and three in quick succession in August.
The first order to shoot T1 was issued in January but was stayed by the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court after the tigress was found to be moving with her cubs. The second order came after the three successive fatal attacks in August, leading to massive public outrage. Again, the activists went to court. On September 6, the High Court, and on September 11, the Supreme Court disposed of their petition.
The operation to capture or kill T1 and capture her cubs had been going on since then, making it one of the longest such in the country to capture or kill a tiger.