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'Tiger hunt is on' in Maharashtra

Tiger hunt is on in Maharashtra

"I don't want to kill this beautiful animal," said K.M. Abharna, a top wildlife official in Western India. The area of operation of the tigress, who is now called a maneater is around Pandharkawada area, a forest belt that lies on the borders of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh states. K.M.Abharna is a lady officer, the DCF of Pandharkawada, in whose jurisdiction the killings have happened. "There's a hell of a lot of political pressure and a hell of a lot of public pressure," she says.

Poorly trained veterinarians

The tigress is being described as a "crafty man-eating tiger" who has claimed 13 lives in the last two years. She has evaded multiple attempts at capturing her inspite of all the technology that is available the forest authorities. One of the major challenges in India is lack of trained doctors who know how to shoot. Thus, most of the doctors use an assistant to carry out the shooting which is against the law. However, when an operation is done under such spotlight, the doctor carries out the shooting to avoid any backlash and such shootings often fail.

The state of Maharashtra is no different. It has poorly trained veterinarians. The Maharashtra Forest Department prefers to invite the infamous private hunter named Shafath Khan, whenever they want to eliminate a big cat. A columnist for the Asian Age has indicated in an article dated February 2018 that this hunter actually pays huge sums ("upper seven-figure range") to be invited to hunt - no wonder greedy forest officials and politicians rush to call him every time.

NTCA Protocols violated

The NTCA protocols state that "After 'declaring' the man eater, its elimination should be done by a Departmental personnel having the desired proficiency, while providing the fire arm with the appropriate bore size (not below .375 magnum). In case, such expertise is not available within the Department, an expert may be co-opted from the other State Governments or outside with due authorization."

Instead of trying with Departmental Personnel, or experts from other state governments, why has Maharashtra Govt. always jumped to option 3, 'from outside'?What is the shooter 'from outside' offering which the first two options are not? The tigress is a 5-year-old and isn't injured but many say she is quite weak. It is often observed that when the cat becomes weak it becomes even more conscious. There are also rumours of another male tiger in the same territory and it is a possibility that he is also responsible for the killings.

So incase the male tiger has eaten human meat and gotten used to it then both the cats may have to be killed. But at the moment there is clearance to kill only the tigress. The tigress has two cubs, 8-9 months old. She has been rarely sighted, as the terrain is very difficult. The male has been implicated in one attack, but most of the killings and 'man-eating' has been attributed to the female.

The term 'Man-eater' actually belongs to the dark ages of conservation, and is a British raj legacy - it is used whenever it is necessary to scare people, including judges, to destroy a tiger/leopard involved in a man-animal conflict.

Accidental killings

At times, the human beings killed due to the chance of encounters may also be eaten by the animal (especially an encumbered tigress in low prey base area). However, such happenings are not sufficient for classifying a tiger/leopard as a 'man-eater', which can best be established only after confirming the habituation of the aberrant animal for deliberate stalking of human beings, while avoiding its natural prey."

This one is an encumbered tigress (having to support two cubs), chance encounters (all killings taking place in the forest/forest boundary) and bodies consumed in a low prey-base area (the degraded, encroached, a fragmented scrub jungle of Pandharkawada). It is a classic case of why she should not be called a 'man-eater'. The Maharashtra PCCF/ Chief Wildlife Warden issued the order to shoot her dead using an older NTCA guideline of 2007 which defines 'man-eaters' differently, and advocates shooting them even if one human body is consumed.

According to the modern guidelines of NTCA, "An animal can be declared man eater only after careful observation." It seems that the Maharashtra Forest Department is wilfully ignoring the new guidelines.

Local political pressure rules the roost

The region of Pandharkawada, is in panic. Daily life has been disrupted as the scare of the killings hangs amongst the people. The recently discovered mauled body of Vaghuji Kanadhari Raut, a threadbare cattle herder near a rural highway has further exasperated the situation. He was victim No. 12. The first victim of the tigress was an older woman found clawed on her back in a cotton field.

The local politician has been pressurising the politicians to get the tigress executed or captured. In the case of some of the first few alleged victims, decomposed bodies were found in the jungle - no post mortem reports were available, but these were conveniently lumped together as tiger-kills, as they attract a nice compensation of Rs. 8 lacs.

A group of wildlife activists have gone to India's Supreme Court, to protect the tiger but have recently lost the case.

The hunt is on

On many nights one can see young men in the nearby villages carry torches and bamboo sticks and go on patrol. Forest guards have been attacked several times by the locals. The locals are angry that the forest services are not just corrupt but also ineffective in stopping the killings. Forest guards around India have been known to be highly corrupt, stealing and selling trees and sometimes caught for taking money from poachers. After all the pressure the forest guards are gearing up for the hunt. But many of these operations turn into a party of sorts as money pours into these operations with food and booze. Several times, hunters from all over the country pour in to be part of the hunt and take part in an exercise that is otherwise banned.

The real challenge is that land is reducing in the forest and that is why the tiger and other animals continue to roam in areas where humans have now created their lives. The Pandharkawada Division has seen encroachments of forest land going up by nearly 400% in the last four years - we have an RTI reply which states that nearly 1750 hectares (17.5 Sq.km) of land has been encroached as on March-end, 2018.

Locals here are habituated in taking cattle from the rich cattle owners on 'contract' basis into the forest for grazing, citing their rights under Forest Rights Act & PESA. So, most of the rampant intrusions caused by grazing are not for subsistence of poor tribals, but done as a commercial activity.


India's hunger for land

Slowly and slowly the Indian government has been finding ways to turn forest land into agricultural land, meter after meter and acre after acre. The forest department officials get paid off, they let wealthy farmers cut a bit of the forest and take the land into their farmland territory. It is easy to fix this issue by using GPS coordinates to mark and monitor their territory. But it seems that the government is wilfully looking away from such corrupt practices and modern technology that can stop such practices.


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