The killing of Avni has outraged people across the nation because, in a sense, it represents the same senseless violence that appears to have gripped us in recent years. And the politics behind this tragic killing appears to have the same sense of déjà vu. How people in power use a conflict situation as an opportunity to grab land (hundreds of hectares of precious forest land in this case) and sell it at a throwaway price to their business cronies. And, once again, the same names reappear as beneficiaries.
But let’s start at the beginning. Who was Avni? Avni was a six-year-old tigress, the mother of two ten-month-old cubs. She was officially known as T1.
Avni’s home was Pandharkawada in Yavatmal district. Pandharkawada is a small forest being rapidly encroached upon by the locals as well as those who come in search of lime, coal and dolomite. For a mere Rs 40 crore, almost 500 hectares of the forest was given away (you could say almost gifted) by the government to Anil Ambani, currently much in the news for the Dassault offsets. Ambani was to set up a cement plant there. The plant, of course, got promptly sold off—lock, stock and barrel—to another business house for Rs 4,800 crore, thus benchmarking the land’s actual value.
While Avni and her mate were planning a family, which would have in turn grown the tiger population in the forest, several industrial groups were also eyeing the land. There was another cement plant coming up there—as well as a power plant. Others were also lining up, eager to grab a part of the forest and, as we all know, there were ministers in the Congress (and in the current BJP) always ready to sign away forest land. It is a big business today. But Avni didn’t know that. She saw it as her home.
Luckily, tiger habitats are not easy to give away—for the tiger is a protected species. So Avni became a headache. There was only one way to get rid of her—to spread the lie that she was a man-eater. That is very easy to do in a place like Yavatmal, often referred to as India’s suicide capital. Years of neglect of local farmers, successive droughts, lack of irrigation, missed monsoons, mounting debts and frequent crop failures have brought the region to its knees. Promised loan reliefs never came. Things are so bad there that people are even ready to kill themselves for a paltry compensation so that their families may live. In this tragic (and unfortunate) situation, claiming compensation from wildlife deaths could fetch someone’s family three times more money than death from drinking pesticide or hanging from a tree.
That is why it was convenient to pin the moniker of a man-eater on Avni. Every death that took place out there, natural or unnatural, began to be attributed to her.
This campaign was started by the state’s minister of forests himself, Sudhir Mungantiwar, who has been accused by his own party leader Maneka Gandhi (a former Union minister of environment and forests and renowned for her work among animals) of being on a killing spree since he became minister. “I am shocked”, she said, “that such a man is allowed to hold this portfolio.” She also pointed out that the murder of Avni— stealthily and in the dead of night, violating every wildlife law of the country— was “nothing but a straight case of crime. Despite requests from his own forest department and people all over India, Mungantiwar gave the order to kill.”
And whom did he hire for the kill? A shooter called Nawab Shafat Ali Khan from Hyderabad, with a history of many run-ins with the law. In 2005, the Karnataka CID (forests) caught him for illegal shooting expeditions—punishable under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. KSN Chikkerur, former inspector general of CID (forests), described him as “a very trigger-happy man”. But the charges against him are not just limited to poaching. In 1991-92, the Karnataka police had arrested him for allegedly supplying weapons to Maoists operating along the Andhra-Odisha boundary.
To justify the killing, recent deaths in the region were blamed on Avni—all 13 of them. DNA tests, however, were only done on three, and two of them showed signs of a tiger kill. But none of those tests conclusively proved it was Avni who was responsible.
Yet, the campaign continued. Stories were spread about how Avni had become athreat. By law, a man-eater is a tiger that kills humans for food and, till the very end, there was no evidence that Avni had ever killed humans for food. In fact, conservationists will tell you that tigers see humans as predators, not prey. The notion of a man-eater is ridiculously old-fashioned, created by the British to justify hunting. But Mungantiwar kept shouting from the rooftops. And as the rumours grew, secret plans were laid out on how to kill Avni. The Nawab was brought in. His CV declared that he had killed 250 nilgai in Bihar in public interest.
Aam Aadmi Party spokesperson Preeti S Menon has, in an article, described how many NGOs were ready to offer tonnes of fodder to the villagers to stop them from grazing in the forest and there was even a proposal to solar-fence the forest zone. But the minister was adamant. Avni had to go. Even the courts urged restraint. Maneka Gandhi promised to bring in an expert team from Madhya Pradesh to tranquilise and relocate Avni. But the minister kept assuring everyone that the Nawab would only be an observer while the veterinary teams would trap the tigress and her cubs, as per the law.
What finally happened was a coldblooded murder. The Nawab’s son—Asghar Ali, who (some claim) was not even authorised—slunk into the forest in the night, violating all regulations, and shot Avni dead. Like in all fake encounters, the excuse was lame: The tigress attacked us. What did you expect it to do when you sneaked up on her and her cubs at night? Those who have examined the body say a tranquiliser gun was fired at her after she had been killed, to prove that attempts were made to capture her alive. And all this while the law says you cannot tranquilise at night.
Avni is dead. Her cubs lie orphaned and will probably die. They are too young to hunt for food on their own. The minister is strutting around, boasting his decision. And the forests, as usual, are up for sale, while the locals barely manage to eke out their indigent existence.
The people want a probe. They want the forests minister to go. But will he have the dignity to step down? Or will the chief minister take a call on this?
Wildlife activists and protestors, slamming the state government for sanctioning a shoo at sight order for T1 tigress, have asked for an independent SIT probe against the forest department. They suspect that the shooting order was an attempt to free up the land for developers, as a massive forest area has being diverted in the Yavatmal forest.
“The issue is not over with Avni’s death. We have demanded an SIT probe in the matter and have been stressing on bringing an independent wildlife organisation to conduct search operations for the 11 months old cubs, which are no-where related to the forest department or state wildlife board. An enq-uiry should also be set up against the forest de-partment over procedural lapses in the whole operation,” said Dr. Jerryl Banait, wildlife activist who filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the shoot at sight order for the tigress by the state chief wildlife warden.
Meanwhile, the city saw a huge protest on Sunday against the sho-oting of T1 tigress, whe-re a large number of citizens gathered at Carter Road. They asserted that such kind of killing of wild animals should be prevented, especially when their habitats are being encroached upon.
Mumbai-based activists have also stated that more than 400 hectares of forestland in Yavatmal district is being diverted for development project, which could hamper the wildlife there.
“The shooting of Avni is highly suspicious as the forest lands near the same area is being div-erted for mining and de-velopment projects. The tiger will not stay at one place, hence it seems th-at it was decided to rem-ove it,” said Stalin Day-anand, project director of NGO Vanashakti.