picture by: Saikat Kumar Basu

Despite the great success concerning tiger conservation, celebrated and respected globally for her initiatives; tiger conservation is taking a serious downturn in India. The recent cold-blooded judicial killing of a helpless Bengal tigress (technically named Avni/T1) in southeastern Maharashtra in Western India has opened the Pandora’s Box showing serious loopholes in the conservation efforts of both Indian federal and state governments hosting premier tiger habitats. The unfortunate tigress was previously declared a ‘man-eater’ with no substantial ground proof or any convincing DNA evidence, connecting her to the death of 13 villagers. The state government and the Indian judiciary seemed to be playing to the gallery and in haste provided a death sentence for this unfortunate tigress with no comprehensive investigation to link the unfortunate and defenseless animal with two 10-month-old cubs accompanying her. The animal was shot point blank by sharpshooters hired by the Maharashtra State Forest Department adjacent to a village forest and later a stage drama was launched that the animal was attempted for tranquilization first and then shot from a comfortable distance due to security threats.

The post-mortem that followed indicated that the defenseless animal was shot point blank and is equivalent to a cold-blooded judicial murder sponsored by the Maharashtra State Government. Although the court ordered that the animal should be attempted for a tentative tranquilization and capture before opting for shooting the animal; ground truths reveal that no such attempts were ever made by the local forest department. A massive tigress hunt was launched including ground troops, helicopters, drones, search dogs, and sharp shooters; and as soon as the poor animal was located it was mercilessly killed to please local villagers who are supposed to be a solid vote bank for the ruling political party in the state of Maharashtra. The entire incident captured serious media attention both in India and abroad and was heavily debated and criticized by all the currently available social media platforms. I have relentlessly written to the Indian government to provide me with credible answers to the following questions with no response to date from any government agencies:

  1. Who and how was it determined that tigress Avni was a man-eater?
  2. Had any wildlife trap camera snap and/or CCTV image/footage identified Avni at any of the 13 crime spots based on her specific marking patterns with a significant statistical difference using high-level tiger identification software?
  3. Was there any direct/indirect coprology analysis of the tigress scat conducted to identify human remains or any credible advanced DNA test was done on the tigress scat to make sure that there was any human DNA in her scat?
  4. Why was Avni not captured and transferred to a secured zoo or any suitable wildlife rehabilitation center where they could spend her last days safely?
  5. Who decided/ordered Avni to be killed and not tranquilized and why?
  6. What kind of wildlife management practices do the Indian state and federal governments have when they could not even protect an endangered species?
  7. Is there any coordination or communication regarding wildlife management between various state and federal agencies?
  8. Has the Indian federal and state governments took any concrete steps for educating the public regarding the need for the conservation of forests, wildlife, and biodiversity?
  9. Are there any status reports and updates available regarding various endangered and critically endangered species of flora and fauna from a mega biodiverse nation like India?
  10. Does the Indian judiciary have the necessary comprehensive knowledge, experience, and education in handling legal cases related to wildlife and biodiversity conservation issues?

This entire shocking incident demonstrated to the entire world the dismal stage of wildlife management practices and tiger conservation efforts in India. The evidence put forward by the Maharashtra State Government in front of various courts was mostly circumstantial and had no conclusive evidence to show that the particular tigress was a ‘man-eater’ beyond any reasonable doubts. No conclusive DNA evidence of the animal scat showing human DNA could be provided either. This particular case has walked along the insensitive power corridors of the Indian administration and a heartless judiciary that provided a death sentence to a helpless animal without any credible investigation based on modern wildlife forensic reports. This also casts light on the shabby judicial system of India which has had different standards of judgment for celebrities and ordinary citizens since India’s independence.

There is no report and/or a response regarding the two 10-month-old cubs accompanying Avni to date. Chances are they were either killed or captured and could have become a victim of the thriving wildlife trade and trafficking operating inside India catering to the international wildlife black markets of China and pockets of South East Asia. Lack of education and awareness are among the primary factors contributing to the rapid degradation of local forests, wildlife, and biodiversity across the nation; and the killing of Avni is just an outcome of that. Unplanned and politically motivated infrastructural developments in densely forested areas, allowing illegal encroachments into forested areas and expansion of agriculture and industries in premier forest habitats have promoted widespread human-animal conflicts in India with major land mammals like tigers, lions, leopards, snow leopards, elephants, one-horned Indian rhinoceros, gaurs, primates, deer, and antelopes in different parts of the country. Archaic survey methods and primitive techniques implemented by the relevant agencies across India provide fictitious and questionable data regarding the population dynamics of several species including tigers. Regional politics have also come into play a major role recently in India concerning the conservation of endangered species. Different states within the country are opposing relocation, reintroduction, and expansion of territories for several vulnerable species like tigers, lions, rhinos, Great Indian Bustard, etc to keep a unique tourism tag for their states; while the unfortunate wildlife needs new habitats for their breeding, nesting and foraging habitats since their existing habitats are grossly overcrowded.

Despite being a mega biodiverse nation and with an economy expanding appreciably, India’s record in maintaining quality zoological gardens and wildlife rehabilitation centers are way below the global standards. There are even not enough animal rehabilitation or reintroduction centers too, and most that are available are overcrowded and mismanaged. The need for funding, training, experience, education and infrastructure for proper forest and wildlife management is an important factor that is bringing considerable challenges to successful conservation practices across the country. Tiger being a flagship species is a clear indicator of the state of forest and wildlife management situation in the country. The rise in poaching and trafficking of wildlife like tiger skin and body parts across the nation is attributed to the poor condition of the forest security guards in India. The poor salary, lack of advanced training, education, and awareness, lack of vehicles, modern tracking gadgets and tools, and even shortage of arms and ammunition are making Indian forests extremely vulnerable to poachers, traffickers, insurgents and illegal encroachers and intruders pushing majestic wildlife species like tigers slowly towards extinction. If the government does not wake up now and take corrective measures, Indian forests, wildlife and biodiversity have a very slim chance of recovery from such anthropogenic factors. India may be slowly turning into a deathbed for the last remaining South Asian tigers!

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