Avni killing: Central India’s tiger landscape stressed

Avni killing: Central India’s tiger landscape stressed

Post-mortem of the mortal remains of T1, aka Avni, a five-year-old tigress who was shot dead in the forests of Pandharkawda, being performed at the Gorewada Rescue Centre in Nagpur, on Nov 3, 2018. PTI

Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’ brings alive what Central India would have been like a century ago. Characters such as Shere Khan, the tiger, Baloo, the bear, Bagheera, the black panther, the wolves, the elephants, the python reflect the wildlife of Seonee (now Seoni) in Madhya Pradesh back in 1894, when the Mumbai-born Nobel laureate writer penned the fictional novel. In a nutshell, the story was about the conflict between a boy who grows up in the wild, and a tiger. 

Cut to 2018, some 124 years later, the Central Indian tiger landscape has become a matter of national discussion. On November 2, when the Maharashtra Forest Department’s hired sharp-shooters shot dead Avni, aka T1, a tigress who was dubbed a ‘man-eater’, in the dead of night, the killing became a matter of debate, bringing to the fore again the issue of increasing human-animal conflict.  

The five-year-old tigress is said to have killed 13 people in Pandharkawada in the Vidharbha region’s Yavatmal district. Avni is dead, her two 11-month-old cubs are missing. Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis came under sharp criticism and two senior BJP leaders — union minister Maneka Gandhi, who is also an animal rights activist, and Maharashtra forest minister Sudhir Mungantiwar engaged in a public spat. 

In fact, half a dozen issues came to light — the prime one being the hiring of services of hunter and sharp-shooter Nawab Shafath Ali Khan, a Hyderabadi aristocrat, and his marksman son Asghar Ali, who shot the tigress. The second big question is, why was she killed instead of being darted and sedated to be captured alive.  

The Maharashtra government maintains that all the guidelines laid down by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) were followed and points out that although the Forest department’s orders were challenged in the Bombay high court and the Supreme Court, both courts upheld the orders.  

The shooting of Avni raises the larger issue of human-animal conflict in Central India. As per a 2014 estimate of the union forest ministry, India’s tiger population was 2,226 — roughly 70% of the total number of tigers in the world. The Central Indian tiger landscape covers 35% of the forest areas of the states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and part of Andhra Pradesh, and supports major tiger source populations, according to the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI).

The landscape also serves as the headwaters to several rivers, including the Narmada, which is one of seven major rivers in India, flowing from East to West. The forests in this landscape also support local livelihoods: 60% of the income of local people in non-protected areas is based on these forests. Important forest products include fodder for cattle, tendu, mahua, awla, and other ingredients essential for the herbal medicine industry.

The people of this region live and support themselves through a range of activities, including agriculture, forest produce collection, tourism and urban activities. This landscape has been the focus of ‘development’ recently, including the introduction of new crops, new roads, rail, mines, tourism and other infrastructure. Simultaneously, studies on larger processes such as global warming suggest that this region is highly vulnerable to climate change and higher temperatures and altered precipitation may disrupt the existing environmental and economic system.

“The Central Indian Satpuda landscape is spread over a vast area in two states, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. There are nine tiger reserves in the Satpuda landscape that are not more than 250 km apart from each other. The core, buffer and the forest corridors connecting them form a compact tiger habitat hosting more than 500 tigers,” says veteran conservationist Kishor Rithe, founder of the Satpuda Foundation.

Since 2004, the tiger and the prey population have continuously increased. However, the entire landscape is under threat from a number of infrastructure and development projects. Hence, it is necessary to always keep track of ongoing and proposed infrastructure projects and use the existing legal-administrative frameworks to keep the destruction away from the contiguous tiger landscape.

The Satpuda landscape is spread over 15 districts of Central India, a geographical area of over 1,25,000 sq km, of which 34,141 sq km is forest, supporting an estimated 26 million people.

The landscape has rich biodiversity, supporting some of the last remaining dry deciduous forests in the country. The landscape is a priority-I tiger conservation area with tiger reserves such as Tadoba-Andhari, Satpuda, Pench (Madhya Pradesh), Pench (Maharashtra), Kanha, Nagzira-Nawegaon and Melghat tiger reserves covering about 7,000 sq km. It hosts the second largest tiger population in India -- some 500 tigers, about 230 of them in Maharashtra.

The ‘wildlife corridors’ between the tiger reserves are important for genetic exchange among the tiger meta-populations and, thereby, for the long-term survival of tigers and other carnivores. However, this continuity is threatened due to existing and proposed linear projects like railways, highways, roads, irrigation canals and power transmission lines. It is also evident that the large number of existing underground and open cast mines and thermal power projects fall within the Satpura-Pench Corridor and Tadoba-Bor-Tadoba-Indravati corridor. This is one of the reasons behind increasing human-carnivore conflict in the landscape.

“The Central Indian landscape is possibly the most vulnerable of all parts of India, given the galloping pace of climate change. Its only source of water is rain and the only way to harvest the short, sharp monsoon is for forests, wetlands, grasslands and scrublands to sponge the rain and then feed our aquifers.

In a mistaken attempt to harvest water, civil engineers have been called in and the voice of those who understand the ecological-hydrological role of natural ecosystems has been cut off from the decision-making process,” points out veteran naturalist Bittu Sahgal, the editor of Sanctuary Asia.