Monday, May 29, 2023

Tiger-Human Conflict In Maharashtra: The Controversial Killings Of Avni And Other Man-eaters

Tiger-Human Conflict In Maharashtra: The Controversial Killings Of Avni And Other Man-eaters

The tiger population in Maharashtra is on the rise. These carnivores are moving out of the reserved forests and roaming in areas close to human settlements. As instances of tiger-human conflicts are on the rise, wildlife conservationists blame the shrinking tiger habitats for the mishaps.

Tigress with cub at Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve
Tigress with cub at Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve Photo: PTI

A bludgeoning tiger population, shrinking habitats of these carnivores, declining population of prey in the reserved forests, villages expanding beyond the buffer zones into the forests, and dispersing of tigers from one place to another have become a multitude of reasons for the increasing tiger-human conflicts in the high tiger density districts of Gadchiroli and Chandrapur in Maharashtra.

The overpopulated tiger reserves are forcing the carnivores into areas close to human settlements where they prey on livestock. Though wildlife conservationists feel that the attacks on humans are accidental, the increasing number of such incidents has become a matter of grave concern, said sources in the forest department. According to them, Maharashtra has seen the maximum number of tigers being declared as man-eaters in the country.  

Though there have been many, it is the story of T1 or Avni, a six-year-old tigress, mother of two cubs, that gripped the nation’s interest and stoked heated debates. While there were 13 human killings in the state’s Yavatmal district that were attributed to Avni, evidence from thermal cameras and tests of the mauled corpses put the number at six. Even the Supreme Court was petitioned by civil society to bring a stay on the shoot-at-sight orders issued for Avni by the state’s forest department.     

The shoot-at-sight orders issued in October 2018 for Avni, led to a heated debate between the government and members of civil society who were of the opinion that Avni may be sent to a zoo at best. However, it was public pressure which made the forest department issue the shoot-at-sight order. 

For the forest department, which had failed to tranquilize her on 12 occasions during the operations to capture her, shooting her was the only solution. Avni roamed around the villages which included Ralegaon, Kelapur, Sakhi, Krishnapur, Sakharkhed, Loni, Bander, Farati, Subhanheti, Ghubadheti, Aathmordi, and Jeeramira. Camera traps revealed that the tigress was very aggressive in her attacks on humans.

The horror ended on November 02, 2018, when Avni was shot dead by Asghar Ali Khan, the son of Nawab Shafath Ali Khan, an independent professional hunter from Hyderabad, who had been hired by the Maharashtra government. Her death too created a controversy that it was not Avni who had killed the villagers but a male tiger whose presence too the thermal cameras had captured.

An uproar by the civil society led to the appointment of two committees, by the state and central governments. In their probes, both the committees had listed violations in Avni’s killing under various Acts including Arms, Narcotic Drugs, and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) and Wildlife Protection.   

In January 2020, wildlife conservationist Jerryl Banait submitted a letter to the then Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray listing inconsistencies in the events leading up to Avni’s shooting. The then Environment Minister Aaditya Thackeray, had reopened the case. However, a fresh probe was pushed to the back burner due to the Covid-19 pandemic and political happenings in Maharashtra, thereafter.  

In October 2020, tiger RT-1, which had reportedly killed eight people and 25 livestock in 21 months in the state’s Chandrapur district is spending the rest of its life in captivity in a zoo in Nagpur. In September 2022, the state forest department was on the lookout for another maneater CT-1 in the Gondhia district of Maharashtra. This tiger had killed 13 persons in three districts of the state’s Vidarbha region in 10 months. It was captured by the forest department in October 2022 and has now been relocated to a zoo.  

As humans have pursued development in the areas that are the traditional habitats of tigers, these carnivores have reclaimed some of these forests. The guidelines of the National Tiger Conservation Authority advise forest officials to rely on the footage of camera traps that hang from the trees in every tiger reserve in India. These camera traps help forest officials – particularly when certifying a carnivore as a maneater – to record the movements of the tiger and identify individual tigers by their unique pattern of stripes.

“The habitats of the tigers have not changed even a square inch since Project Tiger started. However, the population of tigers is increasing. The older tigers move out into areas close to human settlements where they can find easy prey,” says wildlife conservationist Sagnik Sengupta.   

Chandrapur, Bhandara, Wardha, Nagpur, Gondhia, Amravati and Yavatmal districts in the state form one of the most important tiger landscapes in the country due to its vast network of well-protected forests including tiger reserves and sanctuaries, reserved, and territorial forests. Sengupta points out that in Maharashtra, the tiger density in some of the reserved forest areas was much higher than that of some Indian tiger reserves.

“Humans and tigers share the same landscape with its amenities such as water bodies and forests, there could be a conflict between the two in the coming years. The population of the tigers is increasing, and the habitats continue to remain what it was when the tiger conservation programme began,” said Sengupta. 

He pointed out that the increasing instances of cattle kills in the territorial forests of Brahmapuri, in Chandrapur district – which has a high density of tigers – indicates that there is an imminent threat of tiger-human conflict waiting to erupt. “While an adult male tiger needs a 100 square kms area as its territory, an adult female needs about 30-40 sq kms area. Given the increasing population of tigers, the habitats are shrinking for them,” said Sengupta. 

In Chandrapur, the tigers are leaving the core forest area and entering the industrial zone. About eight or nine tigers are intruding into the areas near the Chandrapur Thermal Power Station (CTPS). In February 2022, a 59-year-old man was killed by a tiger inside the CTPS complex. The densely tiger-populated Chandrapur district is witnessing dispersing of tigers to the neighboring Gadchiroli district, particularly in the Wadsa and Armori ranges.

The prey population in the Gadchiroli forests is insufficient to feed the dispersing tigers from Chandrapur. Therefore, the instances of tiger-human conflicts have been higher in these districts, said Sengupta.         

Speaking to Outlook, Kedar Gore, the director of Corbett Foundation, too seconded the discussion that tiger habitats are shrinking. “We need to look at the problem of aplenty because co-existing is not always possible. Several conflicts arise due to the increasing tiger population. Translocation of tigers does not solve the issue,” said Gore. 

According to him, translocation is a double-edged sword and a troublesome problem. “The forest department is planning on relocating tigers from the conflict areas such as Brahmapuri. This could be a failure or a success. These relocated tigers may get into conflict with people in the new area. Two years ago, a tiger was translocated from one forest in Odisha to another one in the same state. It was killed by the people,” said Gore.