Hours after a Maharashtra forest department team gunned down the tigress Avni on the night of November 2, a political slugfest ensued on whether the alleged man-eater was sacrificed in accordance with procedures laid down by the Supreme Court. A distressed Union women and child development minister Maneka Gandhi blamed Maharashtra forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar for the “ghastly murder”. While the latter retaliated by accusing Gandhi of “cooking up stories based on half-baked information”, the killing provoked all sorts of protests from wildlife activists and others.
Remarkably, the state forest department had failed to track down Avni (tagged T1), despite deploying some 200 guards, paragliders, 104 trap cameras, four elephants and two Italian sniffer dogs over the past two years. It had also requisitioned the services of two sharpshooters—Shafat Ali Khan and his son Asgar.
In view of reports that Avni had killed and partially eaten 13 people between June 2016 and August 2018, the state’s principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF) (wildlife) A. K. Mishra, on September 4, had ordered that the tigress could be killed if it wasn’t possible to safely tranquilise her. This was challenged by tiger conservationist Jerryl Banait, but the Supreme Court later upheld the PCCF’s order.
Mungantiwar claimed that Asgar fired a single shot to fell the tigress when she charged the forest department team after a dart failed to tranquilise her. However, an autopsy revealed that the dart had not even punctured the animal’s skin. This instantly drew allegations that the dart was fired as a cover up after the tiger had been killed.
The autopsy report also revealed that Avni had not eaten for at least four to five days. The 119 kg tigress died due to excessive internal haemorrhage and cardio-respiratory failure. The gunshot, fired from below the left side of the animal’s torso, pierced the shoulder and punctured her lungs.
While wildlife lovers protested Avni’s killing in Mumbai on November 11, residents in villages fringing the forests in Yavatmal celebrated the beast’s death. Farm activist Kishor Tiwari, who heads the state-
run-corporation, Vasantrao Naik Sheti Swavlamban Mission, accused Gandhi of being against the tribals of the area. “It has nothing to do with the tiger,” he said, insisting that the Union minister was raising the issue only to help her spiritual guru, Prema Sai, who is aspiring for a BJP ticket from Yavatmal.
Mungantiwar has, meanwhile, constituted an expert panel to determine whether or not established protocols and standard operating procedures were followed. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis also rose to his minister’s defence, rejecting calls for Mungantiwar’s resignation. After all, he said, the minister did not go down in person to kill the tigress.
But political observers say this could also be an opportunity for Fadnavis to corner Mungantiwar, a known protégé of Union transport minister Nitin Gadkari. The forest minister has stayed clear of any controversy till now, and is said to be keen to build an image as a future leader of Maharashtra.
CLAWS OUT Avni’s body with the dart stuck in it