Avni - An Obituary
Opinion

Avni – An Obituary

Asgar Ali Khan shot dead a 6-year-old tigress who was a mother to two 10-month old cubs. Who is Asgar Ali Khan you ask? No one really, just a cold-blooded poacher who had no permission, no right, no business being in the forest.

Avni as she was popularly called, or T1 as she was officially called, was a tigress who inhabited Pandharkawada forest in Ralegaon, Yavatmal district in the state of Maharashtra.

It is a small forest that is being rapidly encroached by locals as well as capitalists. Rich in lime, coal, and dolomite, Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group set up a cement plant there. Ambani acquired small pockets of private land and then appealed to the then Congress Government to award him forest land. The Congress Government spiritedly went about the task of handing over the forest to him,  but their term ran out, so the next BJP Government eagerly secured the deal. 467.5 hectares of forest land was given to Anil Ambani’s Reliance Cementation Private Limited for a mere 40 crores. And then Anil Ambani sold all his cement businesses to Harsh Vardhan Lodha’s Birla Group for 4800 crores.

What’s that got to do with Avni? Everything. Avni was not alone you see, she had migrated to that forest with a  mate and they would inevitably begin breeding. Which meant there would be an increased population of tigers in the coming decades. That would not work so well for the Cement Factory, or for the other projects in that neighborhood like the 4000 crore Jinbhuvish thermal power project or the upcoming ACC Cement plant.  All these businesses have set their heart on getting larger slices of the natural reserves from this forest, and while getting governments to divest forest lands is a piece of cake for them, tiger habitats pose irksome obstacles. So “Minster for  Crony Capitalists” also known as Minister for Forests, Shri Sudhir Mungantiwar decided to help nip the Avni menace in the bud. Every un-natural, and perhaps even natural, death in that region was blamed on Avni. Of her alleged 13 kills, DNA tests were only done on 3 bodies and only 2 of them showed tiger DNA. The results did not conclude that the humans were killed by Avni.  SCAT analysis, which can confirm the feeding habits of a tiger through ingested food was not done. So there was no way to know whether she killed to eat, or killed in self-defense to protect her family, or if she killed at all.

The poor villagers and tribals of this region are victims of the anti-farmer policies and practices of successive governments – Yavatmal is the farmer suicide capital of India. Drought, lack of irrigation, failed crops, mounting loans, all make for a grim story of poverty and deprivation. The poor villagers take desperate risks, venture deeper into the forest for farming and gazing, as they have no other means of livelihood. There is the unspeakable whisper that the 10 lakh compensation for death by wildlife is three times what a farmer would get if he committed suicide, that too if the government accepted it as a suicide. Under this specter, the man-human conflict is perilous and fraught with tragedies. 11 deaths happened deep in the forest where the tigress was fiercely protecting her cubs. The best way to resolve this tenuous and tragic circumstance would be to tranquilize the tigress and her family, capture them and relocate them to a tiger reserve. This was not to be.

Also Read: Maharashtra’s man-eater tigress shot dead

A K Misra, “Principal Chief Conservator of Capitalists (also known as Forests)”  prevaricated the entire summer which would have been the best season for capturing any tiger. The monsoon was upon them and the poor farmers continued to live in fear, afraid to go about their business. Sadly there were three deaths in August 2018 and their blame was laid at Avni’s feet. This is when Mungantiwar and Misra took the questionable decision to hire a lone private hunter to kill Avni, failing to explain why this one hunter,  a supari killer Nawab Shafath Ali Khan, was better than the whole state machinery of experts, veterinarians, forest officials, armed forces, etc. They ignored pleas by activists and experts that the government had sufficient resources to tranquilize and capture tigers. They ignored NGOs who offered tons of fodder to the villagers to stop them from grazing in the forest and offered to solar fence the forest zone. Enraged activists went to court against this absurd plan and the Honourable Courts advised the government to exercise restraint, to tranquilize and capture and kill only as last resort.

In early October 2018, MP and Minister  Maneka Gandhi intervened and we were told that the bloodthirsty hunter Shafath Ali Khan had been called off. We were told he was only on standby. He would accompany the veterinary teams which had been given strict instructions that the tigress and her cubs were to be trapped alive. But it couldn’t be further from the truth. It was a hunting party for Shafath, who got along his friend, golfer Jyoti Randhawa and his son Asgar to join this inhumane mission.

And Asgar was the one who murdered Avni. He had no right being there, he had no authority. Asgar Ali Khan is a poacher who hunted and killed a tigress as a trophy. All the laws that apply to poachers who kill wildlife must apply here.

National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) stipulates that the hunt for man-eaters must be carried out between sunrise to sunset, but the poacher Asgar was in the forest at midnight. How did he even know, in the dead of the night, that this was indeed the female Avni? We will never know the truth because shockingly the NTCA stipulated veterinary team was not present during this kill.

And thus Avni was killed. It is unlikely her cubs will survive, and highly likely that her mate too will be hunted and killed. And the Pandharkawada forest will be freely available for exploitation. There is naught left to do or say, except that we are sorry Avni, we failed you.

But wait, this obituary would be incomplete if we do not reiterate the roles of the activists and government in this sordid murder saga.

Avni - An Obituary

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Think – if a human is fighting to keep an animal alive, how deeply concerned must that human be about the lives of his/her fellow humans. The activists have only fought for tranquilizing, capturing and relocating Avni and her family, instead of killing her. They have never once said that a potential man-eater should be left free.

Think –  a government that doesn’t flinch at thousands of farmer suicides, how unlikely is it that the same government suddenly developed a conscientious duty towards the villagers and chose to not only take the initiative but also to spend money on hiring a private hunter to safeguard the villagers.

In a nutshell, activists are fighting to separate the territories of both villagers and animals so both can live safely, the government is working at giving the territories of both villagers and animals to the capitalists. And Avni paid the price for this with her life.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NEWSD and NEWSD does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

Preeti Sharma Menon is National Executive Member, Aam Aadmi Party. She tweets at @PreetiSMenon

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