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The Killing of Avni

Gana Shruthy M K (ganashruthy@gmail.com) teaches economics at the Government First Grade College for Women, Mysore.

Another Sorrowful Story of Human–Animal Conflict One year on since tigress Avni was killed, a look at what the forest department should have done differently to resolve the territoriality conflict between humans and animals

Tyger Tyger, burning bright/In the forests of the night;/What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

—William Blake

In Indian mythology, tigers have always been an iconic symbol of royalty, majesty, fearlessness, beauty, and strength. A Yajurvedic hymn compares the fire god Agni to the ferocity of a tiger, while some hymns compare domestic fire to tigers as protectors of their homes. Durga, the goddess of Shakti, sits astride a tiger while fighting evil; Ayyappa, the deity at Sabarimala, too is shown riding a tiger; and Shiva, the god of destruction is shown wearing or sitting on tiger skin.

Several indigenous tribes across the country have worshipped tigers for centuries: the Warlis of Maharashtra; the Garos, Nagas and Lynghams of the North East; the Baiga and Baghanis of Madhya Pradesh; and the Gonds of central and eastern India. Even today, there are temples dedicated to the tiger, worshipped as “Vyaghreshwar.”

However, there is also evidence of hunting tigers for entertainment dating back to as early as the 16th century, when Mughal rulers went on shikar (a royal hunting tradition). These shikars were considered a symbol of valour, courage, power, authority, and machismo—an assertion and display of power. Though primarily hunted for entertainment, the skin, bones, teeth, and claws of tigers have, for centuries, been used for medicinal purposes to soothe ulcers, toothaches, burns, and bites, and to ward off evil spirits. Unfortunately, during the 19th and 20th centuries, even as their numbers were depleting, tigers across the Indian subcontinent became a favourite of the British for trophy hunting. In the early 20th century, India harboured around 40,000 tigers. The number plummeted to a mere 1,800 in the span of a hundred years. Thankfully, the most recent tiger census has revealed that India is home to two-thirds of the tiger population of the world, rising from 1,706 in 2010 to 2,967 in 2018. Tiger conservation efforts have surely paid off, but there still are significant gaps and problems that need to be addressed.

While on the one hand, tigers have been revered for centuries, on the other, they have always had a contentious relationship with humans because of the human–animal territoriality conflict, with these big cats straying into human territory, often on the fringes of forests. With India’s massive population and the high demand for hospitable land, this problem is all too common, with tigers killing cattle and farm animals besides human beings.

For as long as tigers and humans have been in contact, communities have had traditional and modern ways of eliminating “troublesome” tigers, which continue till date. However, they face severe criticism from urban advocacy groups because the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 strongly provides for the protection of wild animals, wherein the capture and killing of wild species is to be authorised by the Chief Wildlife Warden. A recent case that caught the imagination of the nation is the killing of six-year-old tigress Avni exactly a year ago. “Man-eating” tigress Avni allegedly killed a dozen villagers in Yavatmal, Maharashtra. The forest department faced severe criticism and sharp reactions from wildlife protection groups and civil society as it could not conclusively prove that Avni was a habitual man-eater. She did not dare venture far away from her two dependent cubs as she had to breastfeed them. While this might have made her reactive and aggressive, compelling her to view human beings as “prey species,” humans were not customary prey. Furthermore, there were no efforts by forest officials to locate the cubs before eliminating her, leaving them to starve to death without food and care.

Despite the Supreme Court directions that Avni had to be tranquilised and relocated to a rescue centre, Avni had been shot. Senior government officials, well aware of developments in the case over several months, should have put in place alternatives: first, isolation of the area, such that Avni could move freely to enable her to take her natural prey; second, the safe capture of Avni and relocation to a new habitat along with her cubs; third, the trying out of other, non-chemical means of capture, such as with wooden poles, netting, wire meshes, and electrified “human dummies;” fourth, restricting the illegal grazing of cattle in the forest area; and finally, as a more long-term step, upholding the ban on factories in the vicinity of forests and wildlife sanctuaries.

It is an irony that the short-sighted killing of the endangered tiger is all too common in a country where the tiger has been worshipped for centuries and is revered as the national animal. If Avni’s case is justified as the only resolution to the human–animal conflict, then it is the obligation of the powers that be to resolve such conflicts without hurting the interests of either humans or wildlife. Today, if it is tigress Avni, tomorrow it might be another endangered tiger or her helpless young cubs, thus furthering our ongoing, endless conflict with nature. For a fair and sustainable resolution, the authorities need to eliminate the grounds for conflict, rather than the endangered animals themselves.

 

Updated On : 30th Oct, 2019

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