To Kill a Tigress

My latest Commentary in the Journal Economic and Political Weekly looks at the destiny of Avni, the tigress who lived in a human-modified forest in Maharashtra, gunned down for being a man-eater.

I also look at the destiny of other tigers interfacing with people in India- a burly male tiger poached in Satkosia tiger reserve, Odisha, and a female captured for being a man-eater (though she had no previous record of conflict).

What are the management inputs we need for these new scenarios of human interference in tiger lives? Does the tiger have a future in growing India?

Photo: Sundari tigress or T17, who met an untimely end just outside Ranthambhore tiger reserve.

The killing of Avni, a conflict tigress in Yavatmal, Maharashtra, who was thought to have killed several people, led to a huge controversy. The issue raises questions on the drivers of human–wildlife conflict, the destiny of tigers in a human-inhabited and -modified landscape, and whether tiger reintroductions can happen in such a scenario.

The issue raises questions on the drivers of human–wildlife conflict, the destiny of tigers in a human-inhabited and -modified landscape, and whether tiger reintroductions can happen in such a scenario.

 

Even as several activists and citizens attempted to avert the killing of a tigress who had been declared a man-eater in Yavatmal, Maharashtra, the tigress was shot in a night-time operation that flouted operating procedures set by the government. The tigress had been named Avni. The naming in itself indicates an anthropomorphisation, a humani­sation of a hitherto unknown wild animal.

The campaign for saving Avni was centred strongly around frames valorised by human societies—that of motherhood, maternal instincts which guide the search for food, and the privacy of a mother (India Today 2018; Kaushik 2018). In some of the online campaigns and street protests for Avni, the fact that the tigress had two cubs who needed stewardship, rearing and mother’s care was emphasised and app­eared to partly overshadow any transgressions such as man-eating. The protests for Avni, as well as her subsequent shooting, herald a clash between activism centred around animal rights and field realities, and raises questions on how the interface between man and wildlife needs to be managed. The episode needs to be unpacked through its various layers—the urban/rural divide on values, the question of animal rights and wildlife conservation, upholding law and procedure, and the burning issue of human–wildlife conflict.

The episode needs to be unpacked through its various layers—the urban/rural divide on values, the question of animal rights and wildlife conservation, upholding law and procedure, and the burning issue of human–wildlife conflict.

The first layer that emerges is the divide between urban and peri-urban or rural experiences. Similar to the case of Ustad, a tiger that allegedly killed several people in Ranthambore, the activism around keeping Avni was sustained, far from the forest. Environmental consciousness or ecological citizenship is becoming incre­asingly cosmopolitan (Lorimer 2010). There is an increasing number of people who feel they do not need to be local residents to raise an issue, but the question is problematised if local people face serious conflict or casualty. Protests for wildlife can then lead to deepening divides amongst the people.

The second layer is that of the contrasting values of wildlife conservation and animal rights. While both are often thought to be the same, their goals clearly diverge when it comes to man-eating animals. Animal rights stress the welfare of individual animals at any cost; conservation concerns itself with the persistence of species populations and natural ecosystems. Animal rights call for compassion towards tigresses like Avni, stressing she ought to live; in contrast, wildlife conservation does not preclude putting down a man-eater in order to secure consensus for conservation. Com­passion has little significance in conservation, and triage is often considered necessary for conservation goals (Bhargava 2018).

The third conflict is that of lapses in the manner in which Avni was put down. The shooting of Avni, and indeed of many man-eaters in the past, assumes political overtones. While permission to shoot or capture man-eaters is meant to be granted by the chief wildlife warden only after elaborating reasons for the act (the Wildlife [Protection] Act [WPA], 1972), it is often a political figure like a minister who appears to be holding the decision-making powers. The politicisation of killing a large predator can mean putting down an animal without adequate identification, or evidence. In the case of Avni, several procedural lapses have come to the fore.

But what was the legal and normative framework for dealing with Avni? More specifically, what is the legal and normative framework for dealing with a tiger outside the administrative box of a “tiger reserve,” where a tiger is “supposed” to be? The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) has a standard operating procedure (SOP) for man-eating tigers and leopards. Let us examine this administrative procedure.

Outside Tiger Reserves

The very name of the NTCA SOP sheds light on where tigers are supposed to be. The SOP is titled “Standard operating procedure to deal with emergency arising due to straying of tigers in human dominated landscapes.”

The very name of the NTCA SOP sheds light on where tigers are supposed to be. The SOP is titled “Standard operating procedure to deal with emergency arising due to straying of tigers in human dominated landscapes.”

The word stray connotes something that has gone where it does not belong. The basic premise thus is that tigers do not belong in landscapes that are human-dominated. However, this is not the reality of tiger movement or presence. Several tigers are found in places with people, as are other large carnivores such as leopards and hyenas. It has been evidenced that tigers use a swathe of areas to disperse or to colonise new territory. Genetic studies show that tigers in fact require dispersal, not just to establish territory, but also for genetic fitness (Natesh et al 2017).

We talk about habitual man-eating or conflict, but we also need to talk about habitual poaching and conflict towards the wild animal.

 

This first appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly.

Write to me for the full PDF at nehabnhs@gmail.com.

 

 

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