SHE HAS been lying low, somewhere in the 170 sq km area of Pandharkwada and Kalamb tehsils in Yavatmal district, amidst a patchwork of shallow forests, open undulating lands, vast stretches of farmlands and crisscrossing nullahs, crouched in the lantana grass.
They have been chasing her for 45 days now in a 24X7 operation, including over 200 personnel, a sharpshooter, 90 trap cameras, thermal drones, elephants, and lately, sniffer dogs and a powered hang-glider — in what is one of the biggest search operations for a big cat in the country.
The villagers have been waiting in dread, having lost 13 people to tiger attacks since June 2016, five to her alone. In the 18 villages on the fringes of the area she inhabits, 12 have at least one tiger victim each. Her fate has been debated in legal corridors going up to the Supreme Court, which finally gave the all-clear on September 11 to the six-year-old being declared a maneater and hence allowed to be killed. A tiger usually lives up to 15 years.
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But T1 alias the Pandharkwada tigress — or, as she has been dubbed in the wake of her fame, ‘Avni’ — remains elusive. Due to retire in four months, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) A K Mishra says, “We know it’s going to be a long haul and may take a whole year. But we have no option but to remain at it.”
Plus there is an added complication. In February, T1 was seen moving around with two cubs. Never before have forest officials in India faced such an operation where, even if they kill or capture a maneater, they must get her cubs, now 10 months old and expected to be with her, alive.
Tigers in Pandharkwada are a new phenomenon. Some believe they may have come from Tipeshwar Wildlife Sanctuary, about 40 km away, which has nine known tigers, including sub-adults. But Mishra says this can’t be said for sure. There is only a fragmented corridor between Tipeshwar and T1’s area.
Still, the area where she is moving around with her cubs is now known to have another tigress and a tiger, apart from unconfirmed reports of another tigress and two cubs moving on the forest’s fringes. Situated 15 km from sub-district headquarters Ralegaon and 50 km from nearest town Yavatmal, Sarati village of 1,500-odd people is not used to the flurry of activity that is now centred around a base camp that has sprung up in its midst, and near the forest that is suspected to hide T1.
A nondescript forest guest-house nearby, called Umari, has been given a thorough scrubbing to house the top forest officials of the state, while lodges nearby and another guest-house at Parwa are also occupied. Mishra and Assistant PCCF Sunil Limaye have been here for the past fortnight. Also on call again, after leaving for a short while following protests by activists, is well-known sharpshooter from Hyderabad Shafath Ali Khan.
One team from Madhya Pradesh, known to be an expert in such searches, has been sent away after one of the five elephants it brought ran amok on October 4, escaped the base camp and killed a woman, 20 km away.
In tents at the base camp, officials discuss daily updates on T1 sightings and debate strategies. Personnel, most of them dressed in fatigues, make food, while others are in charge of the vehicles and cages that could be needed at any time, and the wood to build machaans. Also present are veterinary doctors, in case T1 is captured alive.
A thermal drone team led by Imran Pathan of Pune-based Lightning Drones India camped here 10 days till Friday, and has now left for a few days. The team flew the drones between 2 am and 4 am, when the difference between the body temperature of animals and their surroundings is maximum and hence they are most likely to be captured by the drones’ sensors.
In a corner lies the powered hang-glider, owned by Delhi’s Rudra Bhanu Solanki, brought in to provide a bird’s eye view. “We have reduced foot patrolling to allow her to breathe a little more freely and come out of hiding again,” sources said. “As part of the new strategy, small pigs have been kept in camouflaged cages to attract the cubs, which can kill them on their own,” adds Mishra.
The latest additions to the chase are a pair of Italian Corso-breed dogs, Carlos and Buster, owned by Delhi-based ace golfer Jyoti Randhawa. The dogs have been brought to pick the tigress’s scent even from her pug-marks, but haven’t had success either. And Randhawa left Saturday as he has some tournaments coming up.
How has T1, her movement likely to be encumbered with her cubs, managed to keep herself and them hidden for so long? Mishra, who is among the only officers willing to talk after the long-drawn battle with activists over T1’s fate, says, “A mother has a natural instinct to keep her cubs safe. Moreover, unlike a typical tiger habitat, this landscape is covered by thick lantana bushes, making hiding easy. Undulating land is also making spotting difficult.”
At night, but for the drones that till Thursday scanned the forest, even the base camp falls silent. Only seven-eight guard-level foresters remain, in a fenced enclosure.
For Narayan Shendre of Loni village in Ralegaon tehsil, this fear of the night has come at a heavy cost. Farmers like him keep “jaagli (night vigil)” in these parts to ensure wild animals don’t destroy their crops, of mainly cotton, arhar, soyabean, wheat and gram. They stopped this in August.
On January 27, Narayan’s father Ramaji, 70, had been killed by a tiger. It was only 5 pm, and Ramaji had lit a campfire to keep wild pigs and nilgai away from his standing rabi wheat crop, on their two-acre farm near the forest, while wife Kalabai plucked cotton at the other end. Narayan says T1 struck without warning from behind the bushes on the farm bund, going straight for his father’s jugular. Ramaji was dead before Kalabai even realised what was happening.
The tigress then dragged Ramaji’s body through the farm even as Kalabai ran to an upper area to save herself.
Babarao Wathode, 56, who was with his cattle nearby, was a witness. When he saw T1 holding Ramaji by the neck, he shouted and threw a stick at her, he says. “The animal put Ramaji’s body down and looked menacingly at me, growling. Then it picked the body up again and walked away.”
Wathode says he gave T1 chase, but the tigress left the body and vanished into the forest only when a truck came suddenly. Now, even in the daytime, farmers struggle to find labourers for work. Showing his stunted cotton crop, Narayan says, “I can’t see from one eye or at a distance. So, I must get help. But nobody is ready to work. A lot of grass has grown on my field, and my cotton crop is virtually ruined.” His son Sagar, who was in the first year of graduation, has quit college to work in the fields.
The authorities have also instructed the shepherds and cowherds to be back home with their animals before 4 pm.
In an area heavily dependent on agriculture as well as farming loans —Yavatmal is known as the cotton district, with over 4.5 lakh hectares under the crop, but also the suicide capital of Vidarbha due to the number of farmers known to kill themselves — the tiger fear has come as an additional burden.
The Forest Department has offered sons of those killed by the big cats Rs 9,000 a month to keep an eye out for tigers and to oversee the grazing operations. The compensation for next of kin of a tiger victim has moreover been raised to Rs 10 lakh — among the highest in the country. But, the anger is growing.
The first person to fall victim to a tiger here was Sonabai Bhosle, 60, killed on June 1, 2016, in Borati village, Ralegaon. This came as a surprise in the region with a known tiger presence but no history of such attacks. The rumour that the tiger had been released by the Forest Department after capture at some other place quicky gained ground. Repeated denials by forest officials have done little to dispel those claims.
After that first attack, the second and third tiger kills came after a gap of three months but on successive days, September 3 and September 4. A fourth person fell victim on October 30, while tigers claimed their fifth victim a good nine months later, in July 2017. The sixth death was in August, seventh in September, eighth in October, ninth in December and 10th in January 2018. The last three were in August 2018, after a gap of six months, and in quick succession — 4th, 10th and 28th. Of the 13 deaths, five have been attributed to T1.
But discontent has been growing, creating both public and political backlash against the Forest Department. In January, after Ramaji was killed, villagers put up road blocks, and targeted forest vehicles and officials. Soon after, PCCF Mishra issued the first order to shoot T1.
In the August attacks, T1 and her cubs also devoured the bodies. This led to the second shoot order. Since T1’s cubs were growing up watching their mother killing humans, they too were ordered captured. Former state Congress chief Manikrao Thakre, who is from Yavatmal, has called for the Army to be summoned to capture the tigress. Former Ralegaon MLA Vasant Purke of the Congress organised a protest march demanding death to her. Current BJP MLA Ashok Uike petitioned Forest Minister Sudhir Mungantiwar to take urgent steps.
It was following this that Mungantiwar took the unprecedented step of sending Mishra and his deputy Limaye to Pandharkwada “till the operation against the tigress is over”.
The court battle
As calls grew to kill T1, so did outrage on the other side of the divide. Of the 13 victims, 11 were cowherds and shepherds, who had ventured deep into the forest. Two attacks were reported from farms. Only two of the victims have been women — unlike in most previous series of attacks — attacked while collecting firewood.
Wildlife lovers and activists say there is no reason to believe T1 is a habitual human attacker, and point out that all the human deaths happened inside the jungle, indicating she was not straying out to attack. They also point out that the kills officially attributed to T1 are only the last five of the 13 in the area, between December and August. Barring the three in August, she appears to have not struck in quick succession, unlike other big cats declared maneaters before.
In January, after the first order to shoot T1 was issued, activist Jerryl Banait from Nagpur and Sarita Subramaniam from Mumbai moved the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court, the latter after reports that the tigress could be pregnant.
On January 31, the high court set aside the shoot order but let the operation to capture continue. But T1 proved adept at escaping capture, along with her cubs. In February, T1 was found moving around with two cubs. Additional PCCF Ram Babu had told The Indian Express at the time, “It has become a difficult situation for us. It’s not easy to take any call so soon.”
When the three deaths happened in August, the department reissued shoot order. Again, activists went to court. On September 6, the high court, and on September 11, the Supreme Court disposed of their petition. Mishra too admits that grazing in forest by locals is the main reason for the attacks. “There are about 30,000 cattle in the landscape and 100-odd people taking them out for grazing. What can we do?” he says.
Poonam Dhanwate of the Tiger Tracking and Conservation Trust that has been working to mitigate man-animal conflict in Chandrapur since over a decade says, “We have to prevent them from entering the forest for firewood or grazing.”
The family of Gulabrao Mokashe, 60, killed on August 4, asks what are their options. He would take out over 40 cattle to graze, earning Rs 200 per cattle per month, and had to go into the forest as the fodder on the fringes had been consumed by sheep belonging to nomadic shepherds, they say. His brother Natthu, 70, who used to accompany Gulabrao, has since stopped working.
To activists, T1’s story has echoes of what happened with the tigress that killed two people in Chandrapur district last year and was subsequently tranquillised. A committee was constituted to decide her fate. It called for her release back in the wild. Consequently, she was released in Bor sanctuary in Wardha district, 175 km away. There, she killed two persons after straying out, sparking a controversy. Even as the debate over whether she should have been shot continued, she came in touch with an electrified farm fence and died.
The incident had brought to fore the need to have more cogent thinking on how to deal with such situations. But there has been little progress on that. Says Mishra, “Thirty per cent of our over 200 tigers live outside protected areas, like in Pandharkwada and Brahmapuri (Chandrapur), and their numbers are growing. It’s a cause for concern more than for celebration. Unless we have a dedicated man-animal conflict regimen, the situation is likely to worsen.”
Vidya Athreya, who has been a part of many man-leopard conflict mitigation efforts, in association with the Forest Department, both differs and agrees with Mishra. “To have so many tigers in non-protected areas is a matter of pride, but we need to have a definitive plan, good for both animals and people. Instead, we rush for political solution in exigencies like these. Calling the hunter, for example, is like going back to the British era… We also need to rationally look at animal behaviour. They are not killing machines but do this only after a bad experience with humans.”
Adds well-known wildlife expert Valmik Thapar, “T1’s story had been going back and forth through court cases and frequent changes in operations on the ground and nobody can make head or tail of it. I feel the state wildlife board should have convened a special meeting solely for this purpose. Was it done? (It wasn’t.) It should also develop a complete animal-specific protocol, like in Rajasthan, where a maneater animal is quickly removed from the conflict scene.”
Limaye, meanwhile, says they won’t think twice in case T1 is captured, or the other Pandharkwada tigers. “If and when we manage that, we will send them straight to Nagpur’s Gorewada rescue centre.”
On the ground
As of now, that seems easier said than done. In May, in the forest area in Vedshi, the Forest Department’s only successful effort to tranquillise T1 had failed, with her jumping over the Vedshi dam’s embankment and fleeing. Over the past month and a half, despite controlling grazing, keeping a watch from 25 machaans, camera-trapping and on-foot tracking by over 12 teams, T1 has managed to remain out of sight.
Last week on Thursday, a murmur went around the base camp of her presence in a closeby area . Officials were tipped off about a “growling sound”. But the team that went to ambush returned empty-handed. There was fresh buzz on Saturday, with reports of a tigress being captured in a camera trap image. The last time the image was received was about a month ago. “The tigress had gone into hiding as she didn’t want to confront the elephants. Now that the elephants have been removed from the field, her movement has started showing,” sources said
Says Khan, “A long window of summer, when visibility is better at the ground, has been lost. Things have become difficult now as the tigress has become a post-graduate in dodging trackers.” The sharpshooter whose presence has been objected to by, among others, Maneka Gandhi, adds the window to tranquillise T1 is closing. “Shooting is more effective option. It can be done from a distance.”
On T1’s trail
5 deaths since December 2017
December 2017: First death by T1 reported
Jan 27, 2018: Another death reported in Ralegaon tehsil; first order to shoot T1 issued. Activists move Nagpur bench of the Bombay HC after reports that the tigress could be pregnant.
Jan 31: HC sets aside shoot order, capture operation continues
Feb 16-17: T1 seen moving around with two newborn cubs
May: Forest Department’s only successful effort to dart T1 fails with her jumping over the Vedshi dam’s embankment and fleeing
Aug 4, 10 and 28: T1 kills three people in quick succession; second shoot order issued, cubs to be captured too
Sept 11: T1 declared maneater by SC, allowed to be killed