IN­DIA’S LE­GAL BAT­TLE OVER A ‘MAN-EATER’

An­i­mal rights ac­tivists chal­lenge hunt for tiger linked to the deaths of 13 peo­ple

Vancouver Sun - - WORLD - KYLE SWEN­SON

The hunt looked less like a bush­whack through the wilder­ness than a co-or­di­nated mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion.

For months, park rangers and po­lice of­fi­cers beat through the for­est in cen­tral In­dia’s Ma­ha­rash­tra state. They de­ployed paraglid­ers and in­frared cam­eras, the Guardian re­ported. Sharp­shoot­ers were mounted on the backs of trained ele­phants. Around 150 peo­ple par­tic­i­pated in the full-court press to track down a sin­gle an­i­mal loop­ing through the re­gion — a six-year-old fe­male tiger of­fi­cially known as T1 but af­fec­tion­ately called “Avni” by an­i­mal rights ad­vo­cates.

Ac­cord­ing to In­dian state of­fi­cials, T1 was no Na­tional Geo­graphic cover star or An­i­mal Planet cu­rios­ity, but a dan­ger­ous crea­ture with a vi­o­lent track record of hu­man in­ter­ac­tions. Since 2016, T1 was linked to 13 hu­man killings in Ma­ha­rash­tra, spark­ing ter­ror in lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, set­ting an­i­mal rights ac­tivists against state au­thor­i­ties, and even tee­ing up a le­gal chal­lenge in the coun­try’s high­est court.

It all came to an end Fri­day, when T1 was taken down by a bul­let from a .458 Winch­ester Mag­num ri­fle.

“There was no doubt that hu­man lives were in dan­ger. There was a mar­ket day and the tiger was just on a road that peo­ple use and chil­dren cy­cle on so we had to get there,” As­gar Ali Khan, the hunter who killed the an­i­mal, told the Tele­graph.

“She had tasted hu­man flesh and saw us like mon­keys, or goats, or other prey. So when she charged at us I had to shoot in self-de­fence.”

T1’s killing, how­ever, has only reignited the con­tro­versy over the hunt.

“I am deeply sad­dened by the way ti­gress Avni has been bru­tally mur­dered,” Maneka Gandhi, In­dia’s min­is­ter for women and child devel­op­ment, said in one of a se­ries of tweets lash­ing out at the hunt. “I am def­i­nitely go­ing to take up this case of ut­ter lack of em­pa­thy for an­i­mals as a test case. Legally, crim­i­nally as well as po­lit­i­cally.”

Un­til Fri­day, T1 was one of the es­ti­mated 2,500 tigers cur­rently roam­ing In­dia, ac­cord­ing to the New York Times. The coun­try’s big-cat pop­u­la­tion had risen in re­cent years, thanks to in­creases in gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion, from 1,411 in 2006. But those fig­ures were dwarfed by the 40,000 tigers that prowled In­dia at the start of the 20th cen­tury.

Re­cent ex­pan­sion has also put In­dia’s tiger pop­u­la­tion on a col­li­sion course with hu­mans.

“The de­ple­tion of for­est land through cat­tle graz­ing is the big­gest prob­lem,” con­ser­va­tion­ist Ajay Dubey told CNN in Septem­ber. “Tigers aren’t en­croach­ing on hu­man habi­tats. It’s hu­man be­ings who are con­tin­u­ously com­ing in.”

Thirty per cent of In­dia’s cur­rent tiger pop­u­la­tion roams free, while the rest live on re­serves, ac­cord­ing to the Times. T1 — and her two cubs — were among the an­i­mals drift­ing around nearly 100 kilo­me­tres of jun­gle and farm­land near the town of Pand­harkawada.

The tiger was first linked to an at­tack in Jan­uary 2016, when an el­derly woman was found in a cot­ton field. Claw marks crossed the dead body ’s back, the In­de­pen­dent re­ported. Hu­man deaths con­tin­ued to mount in the re­gion. The In­de­pen­dent re­ported DNA test­ing on the vic­tims re­vealed wounds on five bod­ies were in­flicted by a fe­male tiger. Based on pho­to­graphic ev­i­dence and track marks, au­thor­i­ties linked the an­i­mal to 13 deaths, in­clud­ing three peo­ple last Au­gust, ac­cord­ing to the BBC.

Some sus­pected T1 was specif­i­cally tar­get­ing hu­man vic­tims. The In­de­pen­dent re­ported that the an­i­mal’s al­leged 12th vic­tim was a man stand­ing among his cat­tle. The tiger at­tacked the herder, but left the cows un­touched.

T1 also had proven ca­pa­ble of slip­ping past hunters and wildlife of­fi­cials seek­ing to track her down.

“She has learned from all th­ese botched cap­ture op­er­a­tions,” tiger hunter Nawab Shafath Ali Khan told the Times. “We’ve made her very smart. Bril­liant, ac­tu­ally.”

Tigers are pro­tected un­der In­dian law, un­less the state’s chief wildlife war­den de­ter­mines the an­i­mal is “dan­ger­ous to hu­man life.” The gov­ern­ment branded T1 a “man eater,” green-light­ing a gov­ern­ment op­er­a­tion to hunt down the tiger and kill her if she could not be cap­tured.

But last Septem­ber, an­i­mal rights chal­lenged the de­ci­sion, ar­gu­ing ev­i­dence did not con­clu­sively link T1 to the deaths, CNN re­ported.

“Any an­i­mal can be de­clared a ‘man eater.’ This la­belling is a colo­nial hang­over,” Sarita Subra­ma­niam, founder of the con­ver­sa­tion group Earth Bri­gade, told CNN. “The post-mortem re­ports said the punc­ture wounds were a par­tic­u­lar size, but wild boars can also at­tack hu­mans. There are scav­engers like hye­nas ... If they are re­ly­ing on cam­era trap images, we need to see the date and time stamps. Ev­ery­thing is just based on the pres­ence of the tiger in the area based on pug­marks.”

In­dia’s Supreme Court, how­ever, sided with the gov­ern­ment, al­low­ing the hunt to move for­ward.

On Fri­day night, As­gar Ali Khan and his team picked up re­ports of a T1 spot­ting on a road in Ma­ha­rash­tra.

“Af­ter hear­ing re­ports of the tiger be­ing on the road we moved in to en­sure safe pas­sage of any peo­ple and to get them out, and also in the hope of tran­quil­liz­ing her,” Khan told the Tele­graph. “Our pri­or­ity was al­ways to cap­ture the ti­gress, but my team was in ex­treme dan­ger when she charged us, so I had to shoot. I just picked up my .458 Winch­ester Mag­num ri­fle and fired. I didn’t even have time to aim.”

Twenty-four hours af­ter T1 was slain, of­fi­cials an­nounced they were now look­ing for her two cubs.

“They can­not be left in the wild,” Viren­dra Ti­wari, the chief con­ser­va­tor of for­est with the state for­est depart­ment, told the Hin­dus­tan Times. “But they are not to be shot, only tran­quil­lized and this needs to be done at the ear­li­est to en­sure their good health.”

PHO­TOS: AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The body of a six-year-old fe­male tiger — known of­fi­cially as T1 but called Avni by wildlife lovers — lies in a post­mortem room at Gore­wada Res­cue Cen­tre in Nag­pur last Sat­ur­day, the day af­ter it was killed in a gov­ern­ment-sanc­tioned hunt. Tigers are pro­tected by In­dian law un­less the state’s chief wildlife war­den deems an an­i­mal “dan­ger­ous to hu­man life.”

T1’s body is brought into the post-mortem room.

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