If Avni had her way, it’s very unlikely that she would have gone rogue. Tigers are known to steer clear of humans. But for the more than 5,000 people in 22 villages of Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district, the tigress — her official name is T1 — was a scourge for nearly two years. Figures of her human killings vary from six to 13. What is certain, however, is that in August, the six-year old tigress and her two nine-month-old cubs mauled three people to death near Pandharkawada town. After a three-month long search involving hand gliders, drones, sniffer dogs and elephants, T1 was gunned down by the forest department. Union Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi termed the killing as a “ghastly murder”. In contrast, the elimination of the tigress was reportedly celebrated in the villages where she stuck terror. The seemingly irreconcilable reactions bear testimony to a problem that has dogged India’s conservation programme and now threatens to assume crisis proportions: Human-wildlife contact.
The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 saved several species from near extinction. The population of tigers, for example, has increased from about 1,400 in 2006 to more than 2,000 in 2016. But the successes have created new challenges, most of which remains unaddressed. Very few studies, for instance, have attempted to evaluate the carrying capacity of protected reserves. The Forest Survey of India slots almost every patch of green, including plantations, as a forest. Paradoxically, however, tiger habitats and human settlements are today in much closer proximity than ever before. As their natural spaces have fragmented and shrunk, many animals like Avni, have become ecological dislocates. Rhinos are a scourge in many parts of Assam. In several parts of Bihar, Northeast India, Odisha and Maharashtra, agriculturists fear elephants. Leopards stalk villages in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Haryana and the outskirts of Delhi.
The National Tiger Conservation Authority does lay down protocols for declaring a tiger a “maneater” and initiating its removal. The jury is out on whether these were followed in Avni’s case. But the fact that a private sniper had to be engaged to eliminate the animal points to another longstanding issue with the forest department: Woefully understaffed at most times, the department is at sea in cases that involve human-animal conflict. The public outcry over Avni’s killing would have done a good turn if her cubs grow up in a milieu in which these problems have been taken care of.