The killing smacks of corruption and utter cruelty, exposes the cavalier attitude and moral transgression of ministers and officials, and has also precipitated a minor crisis within the ruling BJP.
The killing of tigress Avni in the reserved forests of Yavatmal in Maharashtra on November 2 puts the Devendra Fadnavis-led state government in a tight spot. The killing not only smacks of corruption and utter cruelty but also exposes the cavalier attitude and moral transgression of ministers and officials who cold-bloodedly murdered the tigress in violation of all norms and guidelines, including that of the National Tiger Conservation Authority. It has also precipitated a minor crisis within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) whose ministers have been at each other's throats ever since.
Union minister Maneka Gandhi, known for her animal conservation efforts, has minced no words in alleging a nexus between Maharashtra minister for forests Sudhir Mungantiwar and the hunter, Nawab Ali, who was hired by the government to neutralise the animal. The unauthorised presence of the hunter's son who is believed to have shot the tigress has also raised doubts about the operation. One of the allegations is that Ali, who has hunted down many animals in the jungles, including leopards and wild elephants, might have treated the entire episode as a sport rather than with the compassion required to capture alive the tigress, a mother of two 10-month old cubs. Even worse is that Gandhi has accused him of gun running and smuggling weapons to anti-socials; and she has accused the government of patronising such unsavoury elements.
That the tigress was killed in violation of the norms was clear from the post-mortem report — the bullet entered one shoulder and exited from the other. This punctures holes in the version given by the authorities that the animal was killed in an act of self-defence after efforts to tranquillise her failed. In such a case the shots would have been fired to the tigress’ head or chest, and not her shoulder. Moreover, it is said that a low calibre gun, against the specifications, was used in the act. There are allegations that efforts are on by officials to replace the fatal bullet with a high-calibre one.
Far from being apologetic, Mungantiwar has been blustering about increasing the count of tigers in Maharashtra to 25 — this is no cause for self-praise because tigers are known to move between the forests adjoining Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. What Mungantiwar will not admit is that at least 10 tigers have vanished from various forest ranges in Maharashtra under his watch — this includes from the Nagpur and Amravati ranges and his home turf of Chandrapur. They have been either crushed by heavy vehicles, including road rollers used by contractors laying new roads through these forests, or, in some cases, could have even been poached.
It is Mungantiwar's justification for the killing of Avni that exposes the real underbelly of the government and conceals its failures. He said, “While it is our moral responsibility to protect the tiger, it is a greater responsibility to protect people and Avni had already killed 13 human beings.”
While this figure has been contested (as some put it at five), Mungantiwar will not admit that most of the people falling prey to tigers go into the jungles to defecate. Such an admission would blow the lid off the government’s claim of an open-defecation-free Maharashtra. It will question the success of the Modi government's flagship programme Swachch Bharat mission.
Following Avni's autopsy, Gandhi’s allegations seem to be proving true as no darts were found on the tigress’ carcass. Fadnavis has been compelled to promise a probe to ascertain whether the darts fired at her were shot before the bullets were fired or were done after the tigress was killed.
Now, there are also allegations that the patch of reserved forest where Avni was gunned down needs to be cleared in a hurry because the government has plans for a cement factory there. If true, Avni's killing was not just a clash between man and animal, but was driven by cold-blooded material interests — and that’s unpardonable.
(Sujata Anandan is a senior journalist and author. Views are personal)For more Opinion pieces, click here.