The forest department is under siege in the tiger-terror stricken 20-odd villages of Ralegaon Tehsil in the Pandarkhawa area of Yavatmal district of Maharashtra where the man-animal conflict has claimed 13 lives in the last two years. It is more of a government-created situation as it has failed to address the socio-economic problems of the area.

Pandarkhawa has the typical central Indian jungle landscape with thick lantanas at the ground level and agricultural land patches within forest areas bordering the Tippeshwar Wildlife Sanctuary. Dispersing tigers from there are making these areas their homes even while villagers walk through those forest patches to get to their fields. Grazing is rampart in the forest area, which continues despite being illegal, because the villagers cannot afford fodder for their cattle.

There is little development in the area with poor road connectivity, water and electricity problems, not to mention the high unemployment rate. The villagers are marginal farmers and mainly depend on rains for a single crop — mostly cotton, tur and soya bean. Many landless people have also encroached on forest land for farming. It warrants mention here that the land, which hems the forest, is in possession of the revenue department.

It is common knowledge that 80 per cent of the village houses don’t have toilets and those who have, don’t use them. Open defecation is widespread as the government has not provided the money earmarked for building toilets. Those who have built them in the hope of grants are yet to receive them. But currently, the terror of T1 has been keeping villagers indoors in the evenings, even when it comes to answering nature’s call.

Avni (as T1 is called) and her two cubs occupy 7,000 hectares but there is an overlapping territory of T2 (a male tiger). Out of that almost 6,000 hectares belong to the Forest Development Corporation of Maharashtra and rest to the territorial forest. In the last four years after the presence of T1 was found, no efforts were made by the department to build protection huts to stop trespassing and grazing. They claim to have distributed around 650 LPG connections to the tiger terror-hit villages and also given crop compensation to over 500 people. But such efforts should have been made in a more planned manner when the story of T1 began.

It was on 1 July 2016 that the tiger attacked a woman, who was answering nature’s call in the open. It started from there and till date there have been 12 deaths — the last one being on 11 August this year. All of them have been blamed on T1.

One may not be aware that not only the tigers in reserves and sanctuaries but even those that stray out of protected areas come in the ambit of the National Tiger Conservation Authority. There are guidelines laid down by the NTCA to handle every situation and all state forest departments are bound to adhere to those. But in this case, the Maharashtra forest department failed to adhere to the NTCA guidelines in declaring T1 a maneater. Here’s why:

  • First, the guidelines clearly state that the reasons for a tiger becoming a man-eater need to be ascertained but in the case of T1, that was not done. If availability of prey base was the reason then the jungles of Pandarkhawa has ample Blue bull, deer and wild boars.
  • Second, out of the 12 deaths attributed to T1, DNA sampling was done only on three bodies. Of them, only in one was the DNA of T1 found. Further, no clear reasons have been given as to why DNA sampling was not done on the other bodies.
  • Scat samples were not taken for study.
  • Out of 12 kills, seven bodies were found next to cattle kills in forest land, which proves that they were all “chance killings” rather than “habituated killing”. Such killings should not be used as a basis to declare any tiger a man-eater, say the NTCA guidelines.
  • Last, they also state, “Confirmed habituated tigers, which stalk human beings and feed on the dead bodies, are likely to be a man-eaters.” T1 has not fed on the kills, which have been attributed to her.

During end of 2017, T1 had given birth to cubs and two of them are alive. Since then, they have been also captured in trap cameras along with their mother. As per NTCA guidelines, be it in a protected area or a non-protected one, precautions on movement has to be taken when a tigress is with her cubs, which in this case was not done. Also, it has been more than two months now since the last death was reported and if T1 would have been a man-eater, the killing pattern would not have been so irregular.

On 27 February 2018, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) passed an order to eliminate the tiger by shooting, which was challenged and got quashed by the Nagpur Bench of the Bombay High Court. Even after that, the department didn’t make an effort to capture T1 and her cubs.

A second order was signed on 4 September 2018 by the PCCF, which was challenged in the Supreme Court but the mercy petition was rejected on 11 September 2018. The verdict stated:

  • The cubs of T1 tigress are to be tranquilised and relocated to a rescue centre.
  • The efforts to tranquilise and capture T1 will be continued and if unsuccessful, it shall be eliminated by shooting to avoid any further loss of human life.
  • The Chief Conservator of Forests, Yavatmal, is authorised to carry out the above order and he shouldn’t declare any prize money for eliminating her.

The news on T1 started to circulate on social media and all wildlife lovers across India started to raise their voice to save T1 and her cubs. The reasons, which provoked people to support T1, were again the wrong approach taken by the Maharashtra forest department in handling the operation to capture the tigress and her cubs.

The ill-famed shikari/shooter Nawab Shafat Ali Khan was summoned for the operation. He doesn’t have a good reputation in wildlife circles as he gunned down more than 250 Nilgai in Bihar with government permission and also killed wild boars in Maharashtra. Before Khan, veterinarians from the neighbouring Madhya Pradesh forest department, along with their elephants, were brought in to Pandarkhawa and the operation started around 12 September 2018.

During that period, Khan was trying to dominate the operation and he was not adhering to the orders of those who were in charge. In fact, on 18 September, the MP team had cornered the tigress with her cubs on a kill of Nilgai. They were not taking shots as the cubs were playing and a clear shot was not even possible because of the undergrowth and distance. They had planned a capture by evening.

The news reached Khan, who was putting up almost 50 km away in Umri Guest House. He reached the spot by evening, took his Gypsy right up to the kill and that made T1 and her cubs vanish into the jungles. Undeterred, Khan continued the search with glaring search lights switched on throughout the night, which made T1 and her cubs move further away from the kill. Khan’s high handedness made the MP team look like puppets and they went back on 20 September.

Meanwhile, the agitation continued — rallies were taken out in Nagpur and representations made to the PCCF. Due to Muharram on 21 September, Khan had gone back to his native Hyderabad. In the same period, thanks to the intervention of Union minister for women and child development, Maneka Gandhi, who spoke to Sudhir Mungantiwar, Maharashtra forest minister, Khan was taken off the operation and the MP team was asked to come back.

The second phase continued along with the MP vet team but by then, T1 had adapted to the human presence in her territory. She became elusive and was not even spotted — only pug marks used to be found but no visual contact, even trap camera images proved futile.

Meanwhile, with instructions from Mungantiwar, both the PCCF and APCCF were asked to camp at Yavatmal till T1 was captured or shot. The operation went on but without any success. Again in the wee hours of 2 October, another tragedy happened. A tusker named Gajraj, brought in from Tadoba, went inside the jungles at night, crushed one woman to death and injured another. It made the situation tense and the operation was called off for a couple of days.

During this period, due to bureaucratic policies, the vet team was again called back by the Chief Wildlife Warden of MP stating that the Maharashtra forest department had not requested further extension of its services. That paved the way for Khan to make a reentry; this time armed with a team of sniffer dogs, thermal drones and motorised paragliders.

It’s like a jamboree now at Pandarkhawa with Khan alongside 150 plus combing staff, trackers, police commandos, wildlife vets, graziers and other forest staff. All the new and improvised strategies of bringing in thermal drones, paragliders, sniffer dogs, increased number of trap cameras (112 from 90), and pug impression pads haven’t helped much in getting any breakthrough in locating T1, forget about capturing her and the cubs.

Also, according to information available, Khan will take the final call on everything and all reports about sightings, pug marks and kills have to be intimated to him first. As mentioned earlier, Khan, who has put up his base at Umri Guest House, is almost 50 kms away from T1’s territory. By the time he reaches the spot after receiving information and plans strategies, T1 has already moved away. This is the same story every day.

Moreover, trap cameras are checked every morning and even if any movement is captured, it is too late to react on the same. From sources, it is known that as per NTCA guidelines, only a certified vet can tranquilise an animal. It has been learnt from a letter issued by the PCCF that Dr M Navin Kumar, retired deputy director of Nehru Zoological Park, is a member of Khan’s team but he allegedly hasn’t been part of the operations yet, having been holed up in the guest house. Khan has stated to the media that already three failed attempts to tranquilise T1 have been made but many in the know are claiming them as false.

Now, as the clock ticks, prayers are pouring in from all quarters hoping that T1 survives and she be captured along with her cubs to spend the rest of their lives in a rescue centre or zoo.