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Are Lion Tailed Macaque More Fortunate than Panna Tigers: A Tale of Two Projects

Almost a  year after the Karnataka high court stayed the project that had further threatened the already endangered lion tailed macaque (LTM) ((Macaca silenus), endemic to the Sharavathi river valley nestled in the Western Ghats; the sword of Damocles continues to hang over the primates. The Karnataka Power Corporation Limited (KPCL) had launched a geothermal survey  with heavy machines to ascertain if the 2000 MW underground pump storage hydro-electric project was feasible. Besides LTM, the Sharavathi river valley is also home to a diverse array of species and sustains very rich biodiversity. Though the  court stay continues, the south Indian state has not yet withdrawn the project. For the time being, the power project may not have been in the priority list of the government after the change in the political guard, it continues to stare at LTM menacingly. Sharavathi Valley, a Jewel in the Western Ghats The project was proposed within the core area of 902 sq km in the Sharavathi Valle

Avni's killing: Core Issue of Tiger Corridors Lost in Oblivion


More than two and half years after a  bullet was fired from a .458 Winchester Magnum rifle by a professional hunter  shooting down  T1 of Avni, the man eater tigress in Yavatmal district of  Maharashtra , controversies continued to surround the shoot out. The case is also being heard in the Supreme Court and  government inquiries are also ordered to probe it. But the core issue of  fragmented  forests of the country and the poor connectivity of tiger corridors has taken a back seat. T1 - and her two cubs - were among the large number of tigers living outside the reserve forests when she became a man eater. The ferocious tigress was drifting around jungles and farmland near the town of Pandharkawada  town where a professional hunter shot her dead on November 2 ,2018.

Tigress on the Prowl

Avni, perhaps had migrated to Ralegaon area and Pandharkawada from Tipeshwer wildlife sanctuary 50-60km west of Loni village in Yavatmal district. Her first kill was  believed to be a woman named Sonabai Ghosale in  village Borati, in 2016. The conflict escalated in August 2018, when in a single month, three victims were linked to Avni’s fury . By then, an order was issued to kill the tigress, which was immediately challenged in the High Court and later in the Supreme Court.  Based on photographic evidence and track marks, authorities linked the animal to 13 deaths. There were protests in the region as villagers wanted the tigress to be killed. But people also alleged the involvement of  politicians in  instigating the  villagers.

Also read : Another tiger loses life in eco-sensitive rail zone connecting India

On the other hand  conservationists  in Maharashtra also protested against the government's order to kill the tigress. Those who follow the wildlife stories in India know that Avni’s case generated a huge controversy.  In January 2020, nearly 13 months after her killing, the case was reopened again by the new Uddhav Thackeray government in Maharashtra following a letter by animal conservationist Jerryl Banait, a  young dermatologist based in Nagpur. He said that much before the tiger was eliminated, he had named her after  his father’s name who is also a practicing doctor in Nagpur. After Avni’s death, he filed a criminal PIL. He said that he would continue to   pursue the case till Avni gets justice. Several pleas were filed in the SC. And as he pursues the cases, his life is at risk. There is another activist ,Sangeeta Dogra who made two claims. The first was that Avani was not a man-eater since human remains were not found to be part of the contents of her stomach post-mortem. The second claim is that following the killing, the shooter Ali was gifted a silver tigress for the act by the villagers, essentially making it an act of trophy killing.

The Hunt for Avni


Drones with thermal imaging capabilities were used for locating Avni. When she was being hunted .It looked less like a bushwhack through the wilderness than a coordinated military operation, reported The Washington Post after the incident, generating the interest of the international wildlife community in the case. For months, park rangers and police officers beat through the forest in central India's Maharashtra state. They deployed paragliders and infrared cameras, another international newspaper ,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, the report said, showing the interest of the international media in the killing of the tigress. The foreign media reports also internationalized the issue.

Also read: Protect This Wildlife Corridor To Save The Ganges

The tigress was shot by Asghar Ali Khan, a shooter from Hyderabad hired by the forest department to eliminate the tigress . One night, Asgar Ali Khan and his team were informed about the sighting of T1."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," The Telegraph  quoted Khan ."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,"he said. "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."

The real Issue

The Avni saga yet again puts the focus on the fragmented forests of the country in general and those of eastern Maharashtra's in particular. And no one in India seems to be willing   to address the issue. But the mandarin of the Ministry of Environment and Forest continue to be in denial mode as they refuse to address the issue. They also need to be addressed with a strong political will. Imagine 35 % of India’s tiger population or about 1000 in number roam about outside the reserve forest areas. The latest tiger census said there were 2967 found in India. For years, India’s conservation approach has singularly focused on protected areas, which constitute a mere 5% of India’s landmass ignoring the forest corridors . There are villages, roads and farms disconnecting them with the reserved forests.

Also read:Tiger's Epic Walk Raises Serious Environmental Issues

Like other parts of India, Maharashtra’s large carnivores also share space with dense human populations in many pockets, highlighting the need to shift  the focus from a protected-area centric approach to a landscape-level conservation policy . Two processes are at play, explains a senior IFS officer of Maharashtra. “The tigers are growing and forests are fragmenting. Conflict is a natural corollary, ”he said  .The tiger habitats, he said , have shrunk and their corridors of movement have been broken. There are more tigers outside protected areas today than there were a few years ago, he points out. In Yavatmal, the problem, however, did not start with T1, nor will it end with her demise, say wildlife activists. “This is the right time to sit down and redraft our conservation strategy," Nitin Desai, the central India director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) has been quoted in the media. “We have to deal with a tiger population that has not seen or won’t see a contiguous forest belt. We are essentially looking at wild cats hovering around us", he observed.

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