The hunt looked less like a bushwhack through the wilderness than a coordinated military operation.
For months, park rangers and police officers beat through the forest in central India’s Maharashtra state. They deployed paragliders and infrared cameras, the Guardian reported. Sharpshooters were mounted on the backs of trained elephants. Around 150 people participated in the full-court press to track down a single animal looping through the region — a 6-year-old female tiger officially known as T1 but affectionately called “Avni” by animal rights advocates.
According to Indian state officials, T1 was no National Geographic cover star or Animal Planet curiosity but a dangerous creature with a violent track record of human interactions. Since 2016, T1 had been linked to 13 human killings in Maharashtra, sparking terror in local communities, setting animal rights activists against state authorities, and even teeing up a legal challenge in the country’s highest court.
It all came to an end Friday, when T1 was taken down by a bullet from a .458 Winchester Magnum rifle.
“There was no doubt that human lives were in danger. There was a market day and the tiger was just on a road that people use and children cycle on so we had to get there,” Asgar Ali Khan, the hunter who killed the animal, told the Telegraph. “She had tasted human flesh and saw us like monkeys, or goats, or other prey. So when she charged at us I had to shoot in self-defence.”
T1′s killing, however, has only reignited the controversy over the hunt.
“I am deeply saddened by the way tigress Avni has been brutally murdered,” Maneka Gandhi, India’s minister for women and child development, said in one of a series of tweets lashing out at the hunt. “I am definitely going to take up this case of utter lack of empathy for animals as a test case. Legally, criminally as well as politically.”
Until Friday, T1 was one of the estimated 2,500 tigers currently roaming India, according to the New York Times. The country’s big cat population had risen in recent years, thanks to increases in government regulation, from 1,411 in 2006. But those figures were dwarfed by the 40,000 tigers that once prowled India at the start of the 20th century.
Recent expansion has also put India’s tiger population on a collision course with humans.
“The depletion of forest land through cattle grazing is the biggest problem,” conservationist Ajay Dubey told CNN in September. “Tigers aren’t encroaching on human habitats. It’s human beings who are continuously coming in.”
Thirty percent of India’s current tiger population roams free, while the rest live on reserves, according to the Times. T1 — and her two cubs — were among the animals drifting around 60 miles of jungle and farmland near the town of Pandharkawada.
The tiger was first linked to an attack in January 2016, when an elderly woman was found in a cotton field. Claw marks crossed the dead body’s back, the Independent reported. Human deaths continued to mount in the region. The Independent reported DNA testing on the victims revealed wounds on five bodies were inflicted by a female tiger. Based on photographic evidence and track marks, authorities linked the animal to 13 deaths, including three people last August, according to the BBC.
Some suspected T1 was specifically targeting human victims. The Independent reported that the animal’s alleged 12th victim was a man standing among his cattle. The tiger attacked the herder but left the cows untouched.
T1 also had proven capable of slipping past hunters and wildlife officials seeking to track her down.
“She has learned from all these botched capture operations,’’ tiger hunter Nawab Shafath Ali Khan told the Times. “We’ve made her very smart. Brilliant, actually.”
Tigers are protected under Indian law, unless the state’s chief wildlife warden determines the animal is “dangerous to human life.” The government branded T1 a “man-eater,” greenlighting a government operation to hunt down the tiger and kill her if she could not be captured.
But last September, animal rights challenged the decision, arguing evidence did not conclusively link T1 to the deaths, CNN reported.
“Any animal can be declared a ‘man eater.’ This labeling is a colonial hangover,” Sarita Subramaniam, the founder of the conversation group Earth Brigade, told CNN. “The post-mortem reports said the puncture wounds were a particular size, but wild boars can also attack humans. There are scavengers like hyenas ... If they are relying on camera trap images, we need to see the date and time stamps. Everything is just based on the presence of the tiger in the area based on pugmarks [footprints].”
India’s supreme court, however, sided with the government, allowing the hunt to move forward.
On Friday night, Asgar Ali Khan and his team picked up reports of a T1 spotting on a road in Maharashtra.
“After hearing reports of the tiger being on the road we moved in to ensure safe passage of any people and to get them out, and also in the hope of tranquilising her,” Khan told the Telegraph. “Our priority was always to capture the tigress, but my team was in extreme danger when she charged us, so I had to shoot. I just picked up my .458 Winchester Magnum rifle and fired. I didn’t even have time to aim.”
Twenty-four hours after T1 was slain, officials announced they were now looking for her two cubs.
“They cannot be left in the wild,” Virendra Tiwari, the chief conservator of forest with the state forest department, told the Hindustan Times. “But they are not to be shot, only tranquilized and this needs to be done at the earliest to ensure their good health.”
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